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Focus on Sudan President yields Mixed Results for Human Rights Situation in Darfur

Human rights activists are appealing to the international community not to ease pressure on the Sudan government from instituting reforms in Darfur. According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have so far died and more than two million displaced in the region. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court – the ICC – recently accused Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir of orchestrating the killings of members of black ethnic groups in Darfur. The activists say the international attention on the controversy surrounding the ICC action against Mr. al-Bashir is detracting from the dire human rights situation in the area. But others say it’s not surprising that the president continues to be the focus of the crisis in Darfur. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports in another of our series of background reports examining the recent ICC charges against Mr. al-Bashir.

Three ICC judges, from Ghana, Brazil and Latvia, are presently considering whether or not to issue an arrest warrant for Mr. al-Bashir. In the meantime, international activist groups are concerned that insufficient attention is being paid to the suffering people of Darfur, with the world spotlight firmly trained on the president himself. Thousands of people are languishing in poor conditions in displacement camps, and militia groups continue to launch fatal attacks on Darfuris and peacekeepers. A joint United Nations and African Union force is still vastly under-funded, understaffed and under-resourced, with extremely limited capabilities for civilians.

Says Darfurian human rights activist, Omer Ismail: “It’s true that now that we’ve had this big news about the possible indictment of al-Bashir, all the world media and governments are talking about is al-Bashir this, al-Bashir that. No one is talking about the abuses still being perpetrated against our people. They have been forgotten…. That is ironic, because the ICC action against the president is based upon what the people themselves have suffered.”

But Colin Thomas-Jensen, a former member of the United States Agency for International Development’s response team for Darfur and currently a policy advisor at the Enough Project, says there are plenty of good reasons for the sustained focus on the president. He points to the following paragraph contained in ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s draft of charges against Mr. al-Bashir.

“The evidence establishes reasonable grounds to believe that al-Bashir intends to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups…. Forces and agents controlled by al-Bashir attacked civilians and towns and villages inhabited by the targeted groups, committed killings, rapes, torture and destroying means of livelihood.”

Activists say it’s extremely unusual for such direct allegations to be made against a sitting president, by a high-profile institution like the ICC -- a situation contributing to the unwavering attention on Mr. al-Bashir himself.

President’s alleged creation of janjaweed militia

Ismail says the Sudan president’s alleged creation of one of the “most brutal militias in modern times” – namely the janjaweed – is also “fuel enough” to ensure that Mr. al-Bashir will remain at the center of the Darfur debate, even if the requests from the AU and Arab League for the UN Security Council to suspend the action against the Sudanese leader succeed.

John Norris, the executive director of the Enough Project and a former chief political affairs officer at the UN, says Ocampo’s move highlights what’s been obvious to diplomats, activists and the people of Darfur themselves for a long time, “And that’s that the Sudanese government of president Bashir is directly implicated in the crimes that are occurring on the ground, that they’ve [backed] the janjaweed as a proxy military force, that the Sudanese military and intelligence services have aided and abetted the janjaweed at every step, and that there’s been a very calculated effort to go after civilians to depopulate parts of western Sudan.”

Legal experts say the charge that Mr. al-Bashir effectively created the janjaweed will form a large part of his trial for war crimes, if he eventually does appear in the dock in The Hague.

That’s why, says Ismail, the president’s supporters are “doing all they can” at the moment to establish distance between Mr. al-Bashir and the janjaweed.

Dr. Bakri Osman Saeed, a senior member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, denies that the president armed an Arabic militia to “exterminate” the black people of Darfur. Rather, he maintains, the janajweed are an “independent” group that’s always had a “warrior culture” that’s resulted in them joining militias to protect their interests against their perceived enemies.

“Many of these groups didn’t have land, they didn’t come from settled communities, so it suited them to get involved in these formations and get paid…. You can call them mercenaries, or whatever,” Saeed says. He denies, though, that the janjaweed are on the Sudan government’s payroll.

Jensen says there seem to be many people ready and willing to defend Mr. al-Bashir, but that it’s “interesting” that – apart from a visit to Darfur itself where he railed against his so-called “Western” enemies – the president himself has “stayed largely silent.

And I think that’s in large part due to real negotiations and deliberations within the regime about how best to deal with this.”

‘Stark moment of truth’

Darfur advocates say ongoing suggestions by president al-Bashir’s supporters that the ICC’s actions will lead to a surge of violence in the region, are attempts to deflect attention from him.

Norris says the same rumblings of outbreaks of violence because of the ICC were heard in 1999 and 2003 when the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, and Liberian leader Charles Taylor were indicted for war crimes.

But, he continues, both men eventually ended up in The Hague: “The situation on the ground in both countries steadily improved, opposition figures in both Liberia and Serbia were ultimately empowered by these decisions, and saw themselves as having more latitude given that the international community had staked out a strong position.”

Ismail says the ICC proceedings against Milosevic and Taylor entrenched democracy.

“This is why the ruling party in Sudan is so afraid of the ICC action,” he says. “They’re scared that it will ultimately entrench real democracy in Sudan, and erode the Sudanese elites’ current monopoly of political power and economic power.”

Norris says the ICC action, far from taking Darfur further away from peace, will compel the government of Sudan to enter “meaningful” peace negotiations in the region.

“The chief prosecutor has unleashed a very powerful change in dynamic…. It sends a very useful message to president Bashir’s cronies, his bagmen, the people who’ve kept him in power all of the years, that they may be lashed to a sinking ship over time, and that president Bashir may not have the best interests of their country at heart, and may not be the best representative for their nation on the international stage.”

Norris describes the ICC action as a “moment of truth” for all concerned – especially the government of Sudan.

“They face a very stark choice. They can be more confrontational, they can cut off humanitarian access, they can go after peacekeepers, and simply ensure that they push themselves further and further into a corner, and encourage a more robust response from the international community, and essentially turn Sudan increasingly into a pariah state.”

Or, he says, the authorities in Khartoum can take a “more constructive approach. They could change their leadership; they could continue on with their existing leadership and seriously engage in credible peace talks, allow the peacekeeping force to be fully deployed and not try to haggle it to death – truck by truck and person by person…. And they could institute the provisions of the north- south peace deal.”

Norris says pressure from UN Security Council permanent member states Russia and China, as well as the AU and Arab League, to suspend the probe against Mr. al-Bashir is “regrettable,” but ultimately will not stop the “wheels of justice” from turning.

“At the end of the day, I think there are very few politicians, there are very few (UN) member states, there are very few diplomats who want to stand on a stage and vigorously defend the interests and activities of someone who is self-evidently a war criminal and belongs in the dock.”