The United Nations is accusing Sudan of carrying out fresh attacks against rebels in Darfur, even as a UN-brokered agreement requiring Khartoum to create safe havens for the displaced comes into effect. Both the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its refugee agency, the UNHCR, say Sudanese authorities are pressuring refugees to return to unsafe villages, where they face violence by pro-government militias. The UN also says the Sudanese government is hampering humanitarian access to the region. Those are also the views of two prominent international human-rights groups, who just issued separate reports harshly critical of Sudan over its handling of the crisis.
Prague, 11 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Leslie Lefkow is a researcher with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Lefkow just returned from a fact-finding trip to Chad, where it is estimated some 200,000 refugees are seeking shelter from the violence in western Sudan.
"One of the most poignant interviews I did was with an old man, 60-years old, 70-years old -- you know, he doesn't know his age, but somebody old for Darfur -- and he just asked, 'Why is the government doing this to us?' And that question, I think, is still not answered," she said.
In a new report, HRW attacks the Sudanese government for failing to address the humanitarian and human-rights conditions of more than 1 million displaced persons in Darfur. The report says pledges by the Sudanese government -- to end impunity for the abuses, and to disarm the pro-government Arab janjawid militias blamed for much of the violence -- remain suspect: "I think the key issue is that violence is continuing, that civilians in Darfur do not have protection. They continue to be raped. They continue to be attacked. They continue to be looted. They continue to have their livestock stolen from them -- and that's a very, very key issue in a place like Darfur, where livestock represent not only your wealth, but sometimes the margin between survival or not."
Yesterday, the United Nations and Sudan signed an action plan for Darfur. The plan requires Khartoum to create safe havens for the people displaced by the crisis. The UN estimates that some 50,000 people have already died in the conflict.
But on the same day the accord was signed, the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, accused the Sudanese government of not doing enough to rein in the janjawid and to create the safe havens.
Peter Kessler is a spokesman in Geneva for the UNHCR. "We have staff in the Darfur region, together with other agencies, and we've had worrisome information that displaced people are being told it's safe to go back, and they opt to do so because they do want to go back and return to their farms and land," Kessler said. "But they get there, and they find themselves under attack. And our staff just yesterday interviewed a couple who were in hospital, and they had gone back to their village north of El Geneina and on 6 August -- overnight Friday night, Saturday -- they were attacked by gunmen, who they described as janjawid militia. And they were shot and their only son was killed and they were severely injured."
Late yesterday, Amnesty International said Sudan's government has arrested some 50 people in the past few weeks simply for speaking out about rights abuses in the settlement camps in Darfur.
Earlier that day, the UN accused Sudan of carrying out fresh helicopter gunship attacks against antigovernment rebels in Darfur despite a cease-fire agreement. Nonetheless, Kessler of the UNHCR says the action plan for Darfur is crucial.
"Every step forward, every commitment made by the authorities, is important," Kessler said. "And the Sudanese authorities have been working with the UN for decades helping refugees, such as hundreds of thousands of people from Eritrea. So they can cooperate. They know what kinds of safety and protection refugees need. Now the issue comes down to the safety and security of their own people, and it's extremely important that that security is respected."
A military and civilian team from the European Union just returned from Darfur, where it found that widespread atrocities are continuing. But Pieter Feith, who led the EU mission, says it is up to the United Nations to determine whether what is happening in Darfur should be classified as genocide.
The UN has so far been reluctant to label it genocide, a designation that could trigger sanctions and even military intervention.
Bill Frist, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate and a medical doctor himself, just returned from a visit to southern Sudan and Chad. Frist was direct in his comments to journalists about the crisis in Darfur:
"From my standpoint as a physician and as someone who has been on the ground, talking to the people doing the interviews, talking to the refugees, there has been a clear-cut goal at extermination of a group of people with the intent that is consistent with the international interpretation of genocide. I had the opportunity to talk to leaders in Chad, as well as in southern Sudan, and I would argue that, if the government of Sudan does not act, that there should be a joint protective force."
Frist suggests an African force of 30,000 troops be sent to Darfur to protect civilians.
On 30 July, the UN Security Council passed a resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to control the crisis or face possible punitive actions.
But Lefkow of Human Rights Watch, speaking from London, says the Sudanese government has absolutely no credibility when it comes to the protection of its civilians. HRW recommends that the African Union, the United Nations, and the international community become much more involved in solving the crisis: "The key issue is that there needs to be more international presence on the ground. There's simply no way around it. If you accept the fact that the Sudanese government has no credibility when it comes to protecting its own people, then basically there has to be somebody else on the ground helping to do that. Now, of course, the problem is that the Sudanese government wants it both ways. They're saying, on the one hand, that they can't control these militias. On the other hand, they're saying they don't need any international assistance. Which one is it going to be?"
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has questioned the sincerity of efforts by the United States and Europe to help the people of Darfur. He says Khartoum is the victim of a media campaign aimed at diverting attention from violence in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. He also accuses the West of coveting the region's gold and oil wealth.