I. Summary

The Sudanese government’s large-scale attack on towns in rebel-held areas of West Darfur in February 2008 was a vicious reprise of “scorched earth” counterinsurgency tactics from 2003 to 2005. The Sudanese armed forces and government-backed Janjaweed militia killed and wounded hundreds of civilians and caused widespread property damage and looting in violation of international humanitarian law. 

The February attacks highlight the severe inadequacy of international protection efforts, namely the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). The failure of the United Nations (UN) Security Council to strongly condemn these attacks and impose sanctions on those responsible points to a larger failure by concerned governments to effectively confront the Sudanese government to ensure the protection of civilians at risk.

On February 8, 2008, Sudanese government forces attacked the towns of Abu Suruj, Sirba and Silea, all located close to the Chadian border in the plains north of the West Darfur capital Al-Geneina in an area known as the “northern corridor.” Ten days later, government forces attacked Jebel Mun, a mountainous rebel stronghold some 80 kilometers north of Al-Geneina. Each attack involved Sudanese air and ground forces and hundreds of Janjaweed militia. The attackers killed more than 120 civilians, injured hundreds more and destroyed and pillaged civilian property, including homes, schools, medical facilities, and food and water supplies.

In Abu Suruj, soldiers and Janjaweed burned down three-quarters of the town and killed at least 30 civilians, most while attempting to flee. In a simultaneous attack on nearby Sirba, more than 40 civilians were killed, many by attack helicopters or by soldiers using heavy machineguns mounted on four-by-four vehicles. Later the same day, soldiers and Janjaweed attacked Silea to the north, killing at least 20 civilians and looting homes, shops and the premises of four nongovernmental organizations. Following the attacks, government military and police forces were stationed in each town, and in the days and weeks that followed, soldiers in Silea were reportedly responsible for further killings and incidents of rape.

On February 18, 19, and 22, 2008, government forces assaulted Jebel Mun, targeting rebel positions located within or near civilian settlements. Starting on February 18, aircraft bombed a displaced persons’ settlement near Jebel Mun and several villages around the mountain, using Russian-built Antonov transport planes and other fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters. On February 19 and 22, aerial bombing was accompanied by ground attacks in which soldiers and Janjaweed entered villages around Jebel Mun and shot at fleeing civilians. Those who could not flee, including disabled and elderly people, burned to death in their homes as militia deliberately set their huts on fire. 

Following the February 8 attacks, many civilians fled to Jebel Mun for safety, and fled a second time after government forces assaulted Jebel Mun. At least 13,000 sought refuge in Chad, where many settled close to the border in the hope of returning to their villages ahead of the rainy season in June. More than 5,000 people have moved to refugee camps run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) further inside Chad. Others fled south to Al-Geneina. During their flight, families were separated and some reported missing children to humanitarian agencies.

While many civilians returned to the towns of Abu Suruj and Sirba in the weeks following the attacks, few have returned to Silea and Jebel Mun. Continuing insecurity caused by clashes between Sudanese forces and rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) near Jebel Mun has made Silea and Jebel Mun largely inaccessible to humanitarian agencies. 

The February 2008 clashes and ongoing insecurity in the northern corridor underscore the urgent need for wider, quicker and more effective UNAMID deployment. UNAMID is mandated under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence and prevent attacks against civilians, within its capability and areas of deployment.” However, in February, UNAMID was without the necessary troops and logistical support to effectively protect civilians in the areas under attack.

The failure of UN member states to contribute sufficient appropriate personnel and equipment to the UNAMID forces, combined with continuing political weakness in confronting Sudan’s obstruction of UNAMID’s deployment, undermines the effectiveness of UNAMID and threatens the credibility of the UN’s operational peacekeeping and protection role.

Human Rights Watch’s field research found that during the February 2008 attacks the Sudanese government committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. There is no evidence that rebel forces were even present in Abu Suruj, Sirba and Silea when they were attacked by government forces and militia, indicating that the attacks on civilians and civilian property were deliberate. In the attack on rebels in Jebel Mun, armed forces and militia deliberately targeted civilians and conducted attacks that were indiscriminate or caused civilian loss disproportionate to any expected military gain. Individuals who committed, ordered or held command responsibility for these attacks are responsible for war crimes. The government should prosecute those implicated, regardless of rank, according to international fair trial standards.

The rebels bear some responsibility for failing to take all feasible precautions in the Jebel Mun area to safeguard civilians and property in areas under their control from the effects of attacks, and may have deployed forces within or near densely populated areas.

The international response to the February attacks was appallingly muted. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNAMID officials, and UN member states issued statements condemning the attacks, but, critically, the UN Security Council took no steps to hold Sudan responsible. In March 2008, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a detailed report on the attacks committed by government forces in January and February, urging Khartoum to prosecute those responsible. To date, Sudan has taken no steps to ensure accountability for war crimes committed in February 2008.

Instead, the Sudanese government continues to disregard its international humanitarian law obligations and flout UN Security Council resolutions, including the ban on offensive military over-flights, the disarming of the Janjaweed militia, and cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. An entrenched pattern of impunity persists in Darfur, exacerbated by Sudan’s failure to use national justice mechanisms to punish perpetrators of crimes in violation of international law and its failure to hand over indicted war crime suspects Ahmed Haroun and Ali Kosheib to the ICC. 

Human Rights Watch calls upon the UN Sanctions Committee to impose targeted sanctions on Sudan, including travel bans and asset freezes on senior civilian and military officials involved in these attacks. The UN Security Council should also establish and monitor a clear set of benchmarks, drawn from UN Security Council resolutions, for all parties to the conflict that includes compliance with their international law obligations, and imposes sanctions for non-compliance. The benchmarks should include ending attacks on civilians and offensive military over-flights, ending support to Janjaweed militia, facilitating UNAMID deployment and freedom of movement and promoting accountability in meaningful ways. Crucially, UN member states should ensure that UNAMID has adequate personnel, equipment, technical expertise and other resources to respond rapidly and effectively to threats to civilian protection.