(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general should investigate alleged cover-ups and manipulation of human rights reporting by the African Union/UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID). On June 17, 2014, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in her report to the UN Security Council, called for a “thorough, independent and public inquiry” into the alleged reporting problems.
In April, Foreign Policy published allegations based on internal reports leaked by the peacekeeping operation’s former spokeswoman, Aicha al Basri, that the mission’s leadership – reluctant to cast blame on the Sudanese government – had failed to accurately report on crimes committed by government forces. These included indiscriminate aerial bombing that killed civilians, and attacks on peacekeepers, such as the attack at Muhajeriya in South Darfur in April 2013 that killed a peacekeeper and injured two others.
“Civilians in Darfur are being killed, and the allegations that peacekeepers looked the other way are devastating,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The peacekeepers are under a lot of pressure and in a dangerous situation in Darfur, but the Security Council should conduct an independent inquiry into whether rights reports about Darfur have been suppressed or manipulated, and take appropriate action.”
The Security Council, when it renews the operation’s mandate for a seventh year in August 2014, should require the peacekeeping mission to regularly and publicly release its human rights reports, Human Rights Watch said.
The Darfur conflict, now in its 11th year, has intensified over the last year-and-a-half for various reasons, including widening conflict between government and rebel groups across the country, and economic drivers. There have been repeated government attacks on villages resulting in civilian deaths and injuries, large-scale destruction of civilian property, looting of livestock, and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
The government has been bombing populated areas, as recently as June 9 based on media reports, and has deployed the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a pro-government paramilitary force, to attack dozens of villages since February this year. Government authorities have also failed to stop large-scale inter-communal conflict in which government forces clearly participated to support one side.
Among the allegations by al Basri are that the peacekeeping unit failed to report a government bombing campaign in North Darfur in March 2013 to the UN security council, or make clear the government’s role in inter-communal conflicts, including the 2012-2013 conflict at a gold mine at Jebel Amer in which hundreds were killed and more than one hundred thousand people were forced to flee their home.
Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the ICC, which in 2005 opened an investigation into crimes committed in Darfur, supported an independent investigation into the former spokeswomen’s allegations. Several Security Council members have endorsed the call.
These allegations followed an African Union and UN review of the peacekeeping operation that noted the need to increase the mission’s effectiveness in the context of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. The review established new priorities for the mission focusing on mediation between the government and rebels, protection of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid, and resolving inter-communal disputes. The review did not, however, call for any improvements in human rights reporting, or make recommendations to improve accountability for attacks on civilians and peacekeepers, Human Rights Watch said.
The peacekeeping force has long been criticized for failing to protect civilians or report publicly on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Darfur by parties to the conflict, including the government of Sudan. Human Rights Watch and others have documented numerous instances in which peacekeepers did not reach locations where attacks occurred, either because of government restrictions or failing to press hard enough, undermining not just the mission’s ability to protect civilians, but also to report accurately on abuses.
The Sudanese government’s restrictions and chronic security threats to the peacekeepers have hampered the mission’s effectiveness. Attacks on UNAMID forces have killed 58 peacekeepers since 2008, one of the highest fatality rates in UN history, while government restrictions on travel have blocked many planned missions. Despite these restrictions, the peacekeepers have unparalleled access to current, accurate information on developments in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said.
However, public reporting about human rights abuses against civilians, a central aspect of UN work in Darfur since 2004, has all but ceased. The last public human rights division report on Darfur, by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was issued in January 2009. The periodic reports by the peacekeeping force to the UN secretary-general provide an overview of the situation. However, they usually contain only a few paragraphs on human rights cases, even though the peacekeepers have more than 50 human rights officers on the ground.
“The UN secretary-general has pledged to place ‘Rights up Front,’ and the Darfur mission is now a test case for that approach,” Bekele said. “The conflict and abuses are intensifying in Darfur, making accurate, timely public reporting on human rights abuses more important than ever.”