As the international community fails to bring Sudanese leaders to justice for alleged past atrocities in Darfur, serious crimes against Darfuris continue. Although the conflict in the region has faded from news headlines (and thus the international community’s agenda), reports indicate that the first half of 2014 brought death and destruction comparable to that at the height of the genocide in the region. Ongoing fighting, tensions, and insecurity surrounding the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the Sudanese government-affiliated militia, have driven hostilities and violence throughout North and South Darfur, with spillover effects to neighboring regions. This violence continues to force many Darfuri citizens to leave their villages in search of greater security. Since the beginning of 2014, nearly 300,000 Darfuris have been displaced, UN reports estimate. Moreover, over 4.7 million Sudanese citizens rely on humanitarian aid, while over 2.7 million Darfuris remain in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Other reports put the number of internally displaced persons even higher. Under normal conditions these statistics would be staggering, but they are especially jarring in light of the specific circumstances that Darfuris continue to endure.
Developed largely as a response to the genocide that overtook the region in 2003, internally displaced persons camps throughout Darfur have long faced challenges. Throughout the mid-2000s, HIV/AIDS ran rampant throughout the camps, due to an overall lack of health education and the prevalence of gender-based violence. Today, IDP camps continue to face dismal humanitarian conditions. In addition to widespread diseases and a lack of appropriate medication, the camps suffer from food and water shortages, withheld food rations, and overcrowding. These horrific humanitarian challenges are separate from the dire security threats posed by the Sudanese government-sponsored Rapid Support Forces, a military faction that International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently labeled “the newest iteration of the Janjaweed.” The Janjaweed are the infamous militias that terrorized the region while carrying out the Sudanese government’s genocide between 2003 and 2005.
Despite the atrocious humanitarian conditions in the IDP camps and Darfuris’ considerable, and very public, reliance on humanitarian aid, the Sudanese government continues to suspend international aid organizations from the country. In February 2014, Khartoum suspended the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from working in Sudan after the ICRC refused to comply with a number of newly-imposed government conditions. Most notably, Khartoum requested that the ICRC both place its funds at the disposal of the Sudanese government and refrain from any activity on the ground before informing Sudanese authorities about its nature and timing. Prior to its suspension, the ICRC served over 1.5 million Sudanese. Earlier this year, Khartoum expelled the French Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), as well as Merlin, a British humanitarian organization. The recently diminished humanitarian presence within Sudan exacerbates the consequences of the government’s March 2009 wave of humanitarian aid expulsions that immediately followed the ICC’s issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir. Khartoum also confiscated all assets of the closed or expelled humanitarian organizations.
In addition to deliberately foreclosing the delivery of adequate and effective humanitarian aid, the Sudanese government, through the Rapid Support Forces, is violently targeting IDP camps. As previously noted, and comprehensively discussed in a recent Enough Project report, Khartoum recently reincarnated the Janjaweed into the RSF. Better funded, equipped, and organized than its predecessor, this official, uniformed force enjoys complete immunity under Sudanese domestic law, eliminating any possible doubt about the government’s criminal liability for the RSF’s atrocities. In March 2014, the RSF attacked an IDP camp in Khor Abeche, destroying over 400 huts, tents, and shelters. UNAMID, the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission, was stationed just minutes away.
This terror coincides with an overarching governmental goal of pressuring the Darfuri people to leave the IDP camps and “return” to their villages. First articulated in a 2010 government policy paper, Khartoum sees “return” as an avenue to “restore normalcy and accelerate development in the region.” And indeed, the government has reason to seek development. The country’s inflation is soaring above 50 percent; the Sudanese Pound is continuously plummeting in value; there is a lack of Forex to buy critical imports; unemployment is mushrooming; poverty and food insecurity are affecting approximately 5 million Sudanese; and the country currently faces an external debt equivalent to $45 billion USD. Nevertheless, while the Sudanese people continue to bear the brunt of these economic woes, Khartoum’s flagrant mismanagement, corruption, and greed largely underlies the country’s enfeebled economy.
Moreover, as a recent International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) report on the issue underscores, the notion that Darfuri citizens can simply “return” to their villages is, quite simply, “a joke.” While Khartoum seeks to use “return” as a signal to the international community that the government is rehabilitating the country, the reality of the situation is quite different. The violence and poor humanitarian conditions that plague life in IDP camps are also present in Darfuri villages, where citizens face very real threats of food shortages, disease, and RSF attacks. A series of media reports have depicted a new surge in government-sponsored aerial bombardments and attacks on civilian villages, dating back to February 2014, when the RSF first arrived in Darfur. Moreover, many of the displaced have had their land taken by Janjaweed or other pro-government forces, further complicating the prospect of a return. As an interviewee in the IRRI report explained, “It is unsafe to go back because all the land is occupied by government militias…our village has become a military operation area.”
Though certainly jarring, these dynamics are merely a continuation of the longstanding pattern of impunity that has grown to characterize the situation in Darfur. As ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asserted in her June 2014 report to the Security Council, “it is indeed an understatement to say that we have failed Darfur’s victims who continue to bear the brunt of these crimes.” Acknowledging reports of UNAMID’s systematic concealment of ongoing and widespread Sudanese-government sponsored violence throughout Darfur, Bensouda noted the time has come for “thorough, independent, and public inquiry.” A recent Human Rights Watch statement notes that the UN has not reported on human rights violations in Darfur since January 2009.
Little progress has been made in ensuring accountability and bringing justice to the region since 2005, when the UN referred the situation to the ICC in Security Council Resolution 1593. Despite the ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, he continues to move freely throughout much of Africa, even traveling to several ICC member nations. Three other suspects, one of whom is Sudan’s current Defense Minister, Abdel Rahim Muhammad Hussein, remain at large for alleged crimes committed in Darfur. As Bensouda urged, the situation indicates that a “dramatic shift in the Council’s approach to arresting Darfur’s suspects” is more than necessary; “time is long overdue for the government of the Sudan’s consistent defiance of UN Security Council resolutions to be matched by this council’s decisive action.”
Bensouda’s report marked the first time the ICC directly confronted the UN regarding the alleged cover-up of crimes in Darfur. Nevertheless, subsequent UN (in)actions reveal that even this dramatic gesture was not enough to catalyze change in the official approach to the region. Responding to Bensouda’s presentation, the UN noted it would internally review the allegations of UNAMID misconduct. Falling short of Bensouda’s request for an independent investigation, the UN’s response further highlights the dire need for international cooperation and accountability in ensuring justice for the victims of the Darfur atrocities.
Laura Livingston is an intern with the Open Society Justice Initiative and a rising third-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center