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Top UN Human Rights Official Heads to Darfur  - 2004-09-17

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, departs Saturday for a visit to Khartoum and to Darfur in western Sudan, where pro-government Arab militias are accused of genocide against black African villagers. She will be accompanied on her week-long visit by the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

The two human rights officials are going to Darfur at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The decision to go comes one-day after Mr. Annan urged members of the Security Council to take immediate action on a U.S. draft resolution that threatens sanctions against Sudan's oil industry for the government's failure to stop attacks by Arab militias in Darfur. The draft also calls for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to probe charges that militia forces are committing genocide.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jose Diaz, says the government in Khartoum has agreed to the upcoming visit. But he says the aim of the mission is not to determine whether or not genocide is taking place in Darfur. Rather, he says the aim is to see what further measures can be taken by the United Nations to protect civilians from violence.

"We have been warning for a long time and, of course, reporting on what has been happening," Mr. Diaz said. "But abuses are continuing in the reports that come out of Darfur every day. I think the situation as it is defined now, however, it is eventually qualified or defined by a possible commission of inquiry in this draft Security Council resolution, however, that is qualified, the situation now warrants immediate attention and action."

The United Nations describes Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis the world is now facing. Since February, it estimates more than a million people have fled their homes and now are living under miserable conditions in squalid camps. Another 200,000 Sudanese have sought refuge in neighboring Chad. The World Health Organization says up to 10,000 people a month are dying.

Mr. Diaz says the high commissioner, Louise Arbour, and the U.N.'s genocide expert, Juan Mendez, will meet with local officials in Darfur as well as U.N. and private aid agencies and victims of abuse.

The spokesman says Ms. Arbour, along with the secretary-general's special adviser, will be looking at what can be done to prevent further violations so the people of Darfur no longer have to fear massacres, rape, forced displacement and other abuses.

The United Nations currently has eight human rights monitors in Darfur and in Khartoum. Mr. Diaz says it is likely that Ms. Arbour will recommend the number of monitors present in the region be increased. He says having people on the ground to witness events often can help in reducing some of the worst abuses of human rights.