The United Nations special human rights investigator for Sudan says there has been little improvement in conduct either by the government or rebel forces since its civil war began more than 20 years ago.

Addressing the annual U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting, the U.N. official, Gerhard Baum, said although there have been some improvements, Sudan's overall human rights picture has not changed significantly. Mr. Baum says peacemaking efforts between the government and the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement [SPLM] have resulted in some improvements, but many problems continue.

"The country remains under the iron tight grip of the omnipresent security apparatus which continues to enjoy virtual impunity," he said. "In the SPLM-controlled areas, military structures are still prevalent." Mr. Baum charges that government-backed militias continue to attack civilians, forcibly displacing them from the oil-rich Western Upper Nile region. He says the government-backed forces attack such places as relief centers, schools, and churches.

The government denies the charges that its allies attack civilians, and says it tries to build hospitals and schools for civilians in the Western Upper Nile.

But Mr. Baum, the U.N. special human rights investigator for Sudan, says both the government and the rebels impede the people's rights to free assembly and free speech.

He says in the cities of the north, far from any armed conflict, a state of emergency has remained in place for three years. He points to arbitrary detentions of human rights advocates, including students, who he says are held without trial and sometimes tortured.

Still, Mr. Baum says peacemaking efforts over the past year provide the chance to improve Sudan's human rights record. He pointed to some positive developments resulting from the peace process.

"Some improvements indeed took place in the field of war-related human rights violations, a reduction of bombings, abductions and broader access for the humanitarian relief [and] decreased number of political prisoners," Mr. Baum noted. For the past 20 years, Sudan has been torn by a civil war that pits forces of the Islamic government in Khartoum against non-Muslim rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement based in the south. Two-million civilians have died and two-million more have been displaced.

Mr. Baum recommends that any development aid for Sudan should be linked to real progress on human rights issues. He urged an end to the state of emergency and indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and a repeal of laws giving extensive powers to security forces.