The Sudan government’s campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the Darfur region has gained widespread international attention since it began four years ago. Today, the situation is transforming from a highly destructive armed conflict between rebels and the government into a violent scramble for power and resources involving government forces, pro-government militias known as “Janjaweed,” various rebel and former rebel factions, and bandits. Despite its complexities, this chaotic situation must not deflect attention from the Sudan government’s primary responsibility for massive civilian deaths and for the displacement of some 2.4 million people since 2003, including 200,000 refugees.1

While the Darfur conflict is often characterized as a clash between “Arab” and “non-Arab” African people, this radically oversimplifies and mischaracterizes the conflict. Rather, the ways in which both the rebel movements and primarily the Sudanese government have manipulated ethnic tensions have served to polarize much of the Darfur population along ethnic lines. These tensions create shifting alliances among the government, Arab and non-Arab tribes, and rebel groups as well as internecine conflicts among competing Arab groups and among rebel factions. Rebels and former rebels have directly targeted civilians from other non-Arab groups and attacked African Union (AU) peacekeepers and humanitarian workers trying to provide assistance to Darfurians. These subsidiary conflicts themselves contribute to the mass displacement and deaths of people. The government continues to stoke the chaos and, in some areas, exploit intercommunal tensions that escalate into open hostilities, apparently in an effort to “divide and rule” and maintain military and political dominance over the region.

On July 31, 2007, the United Nations (UN) Security Council, with the consent of Sudan, agreed to deploy a peacekeeping force of up to 26,000 military and police personnel in Darfur. This combined African Union and UN “hybrid” force (UNAMID) is mandated to take over from the beleaguered AU peacekeeping mission, AMIS, which has been operating in Darfur since 2004. The new mission will be equipped with greater resources to protect civilians and humanitarian workers, and to oversee implementation of a tenuous peace agreement.

Expectations are high for what UNAMID could accomplish, but it will face many challenges. It is therefore imperative that alongside the peacekeeping operation, the international community maintains continual pressure on the Government of Sudan, as well as other parties to the conflict, to reverse abusive policies and practices that contribute to civilian insecurity. These policies include deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, continuing support for abusive militia/Janjaweed and the failure to disarm them, obstructing the deployment and work of AMIS peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, failing to address the culture of impunity (including by failing to abolish laws providing immunity or otherwise strengthen the justice system) and refusing to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, and allowing the consolidation of ethnic cleansing through land use and occupation.

The most important task for the international peacekeepers will be to improve security for the civilian population and make freedom of movement possible for the 2.2 million displaced persons inside Darfur and the millions of others who remain in their towns and villages. It is unlikely that the mere presence of international peacekeepers will be enough to deter attacks on the civilian population from government forces, Janjaweed, rebels, and others. In order to contribute to the protection of civilians, Darfur will require a proactive and mobile peacekeeping operation.

The peacekeeping force will also have to create a secure enough environment so that humanitarian groups can reach the estimated 4.2 million people in desperate need. Finally, the force must support the government’s law enforcement and justice systems through monitoring, constructive criticism, and capacity building initiatives to enable state institutions to provide protection to Darfur’s beleaguered populations rather than serving as an element of their oppression.

Moreover, Darfur’s civilians need protection now, and cannot wait for UNAMID to become fully operational. Currently, AMIS is not an effective protection force. Recent efforts to strengthen it with additional resources (such as additional police and logistical capabilities and two additional battalions) have the potential to improve security, as well as ease the transition from AMIS to UNAMID. In this interim period, AMIS protection initiatives that have ceased in certain areas, including daytime, nighttime and firewood patrols, should resume immediately.

The situation in Darfur remains grave. The violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that Darfurians suffered in recent years have continued into 2007. Government air and ground forces have repeatedly conducted indiscriminate attacks in areas of rebel activity, causing numerous civilian deaths and injuries. Looting, beatings, murder, and rape perpetrated primarily (but not exclusively) by government forces, Janjaweed, and former rebels have created a climate of fear that impinges on everyday life for millions of people in towns, villages, and displaced persons camps.

People forced to flee their homes who make it into the camps invariably find themselves trapped there. If they venture outside to collect firewood, farm, or attempt to return to their villages they risk being harassed, robbed, beaten, or murdered by Janjaweed or other armed men. Women and girls attempting to carry out the routine activities of daily life are often sexually harassed and raped by these armed men, who include government forces or even former rebels who once claimed to be fighting on behalf of their victims. Insufficient security in the camps has exacerbated problems of domestic violence and sexual exploitation.

Humanitarian assistance for populations at risk remains precarious. Rebels, former rebels, government forces, and the Janjaweed have hijacked, robbed, harassed, or physically abused humanitarian workers, hindering the delivery of aid. The government also continues to threaten and place unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles in the way of humanitarian organizations.

The Government of Sudan’s systematic failure to address these abuses is reflected in its reluctance to take genuine steps to protect civilians, end the impunity of perpetrators, or undertake other meaningful measures to ensure accountability for the crimes committed in Darfur. The government has failed to invest in its own police force, which is far too weak to disarm the Janjaweed, let alone protect people from rape and robbery and other crimes. Some police themselves commit such abuses with impunity. Thus, the militia forces that rain violence on Darfur remain strong, active, and unchallenged. Some former militiamen have been incorporated into civil defense forces, such as the Central Reserve Police, whose duty is to protect displaced persons and other civilians.

Although the intense government military operations that caused massive death and displacement in 2003 and 2004 have declined, the government’s abusive policies continue through many of the same mechanisms as before, both in overt and more subtle ways. The current conflict with its many actors and agendas may be more complex and opaque than the crisis of 2003-2004, but it is no less threatening to the lives, security, and livelihoods of millions of Darfurian civilians who remain vulnerable to violence.

This ongoing violence prevents hundreds of thousands of displaced people from returning home. Meanwhile, the land on which displaced persons and refugees once lived has become free for the taking, open to use and occupation by the ethnic groups comprising the Janjaweed, by new arrivals fleeing a linked conflict in neighboring Chad, and by others. Land occupation serves to consolidate the ethnic cleansing campaign, and greatly threatens the prospects for long-term peace in the region.

Much depends on the success of the transition from AMIS to the new peacekeeping mission. However, an enhanced peacekeeping presence alone will not end the abuses described in this report. The government and other parties to the conflict are ultimately responsible for bringing an end to widespread rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. Structural changes leading to disarmament, accountability, and improved law enforcement are all needed, along with long-term economic and social development programs. Unless these issues are addressed together the future of the people of Darfur will remain in peril.

1 As of July 2007 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) estimates that there are 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur. There are also approximately 200,000 Darfurian refugees in Chad. UN OCHA, “Sudan Humanitarian Overview, Issue 3. Vol 5,” July 31, 2007, (accessed August 28, 2007).