Turtle Bay

Why is the U.N. soft-pedaling its criticism of Sudan?

Why is the U.N. soft-pedaling its criticism of Sudan?

In a confidential Security Council briefing last week, the U.N.’s top human rights agency downplayed evidence of Sudanese attacks on civilians and U.N. personnel in Southern Kordofan, saying it could not accuse Khartoum of committing such serious crimes without further investigation.

The restrained briefing contrasted sharply with the U.N.’s own grim reporting on the ground in Southern Kordofan. Last month, the U.N.’s human rights office in Sudan drafted a series of assessments and situation reports bluntly accusing Sudan and government-backed militias of committing crimes against humanity, and recommending that an International Criminal Court prosecutor investigate.

But in a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council on July 28, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a highly cautious account of the report’s findings, according to a confidential copy of Pillay’s briefing notes.

The briefing cites evidence "that attacks are either indiscriminate or deliberately targeted against civilians," but declines to lay blame for such crimes, saying a "thorough investigation" into such crimes is required to establish responsibility.

"While there is much disturbing information coming from the region, we are regrettably not in a position to verify it," Pillay said in her statement, which was read out by her deputy, Ivan Simonovic.

Last week, Turtle Bay reported on the spree of attacks by Sudanese security forces on U.N. personnel, including the killing of a U.N. contractor, and other acts of abuse and torture of the U.N.’s Sudanese employees.

In one case, a Sudanese captain pulled out an AK-47 and threatened to execute U.N. personnel. At the last second, he was stopped by his superior. Sudanese security agents, meanwhile, disguised as Red Crescent workers, infiltrated the U.N. safe haven in the capital of Kadugli, pressuring displaced Sudanese to leave the site.

One internal report by the U.N.’s human rights office in Sudan "revealed that the SAF [Sudan Armed Forces], paramilitary forces and government security apparatus have engaged in violent and unlawful acts against UNMIS." They included "verified incidents of shelling in close proximity to UN property … summary execution of a U.N. national staff member; assaults on physical integrity of U.N. staff; arbitrary arrest and detention of U.N. Staff and associated human rights violations, including ill-treatment amounting to torture."

Pillay made only passing reference to attacks on U.N. personnel, citing the killing of an independent U.N. contractor, but omitting a series of firsthand accounts of abuses of U.N. personnel by Sudanese forces that could constitute violations of international law.

"We count on the High Commissioner’s office to sound the alarm loudly and urgently in a case like Southern Kordofan, and it fell well short of that mark in this case," said Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch. "The crisis in Southern Kordofan demands the Security Council’s immediate attention, and we hope that message will now be made clear."

The remarks follow a pattern by the United Nations of minimizing Sudanese excesses. Last month, U.N. officials in New York watered down an internal draft that accused Sudan of engaging in practices that were "tantamount to ethnic cleansing" in another Sudanese hot spot, the border region of Abyei. But U.N. officials in New York dropped the claim that ethnic cleansing had occurred, according to U.N. sources.

U.N. officials say they intend to provide a more detailed account of crimes in Southern Kordofan in a final human rights report soon to be made public. They say it will detail alleged rights violations, demand greater U.N. access to the area, and reiterate the call for an investigation into the crimes.

It remained unclear, however, whether the U.N. leadership’s softened criticism toward Sudan reflected its doubts about the integrity of its own field investigators, or whether it was seeking to ease tension with Khartoum in order to negotiate the return of civilians to Abyei and the entry of human rights monitors and aid workers into Southern Kordofan.

The U.N. chief peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, who will be stepping down from his job next week, dismissed allegations that Sudan attacked U.N. blue helmets. U.N. peacekeepers, he said, were "not directly targeted by anyone." He also suggested that Sudanese aerial bombing raids near U.N. compounds were not directed at the United Nations.

Another U.N. official said that the U.N. has chosen in recent weeks to take a softer line with Khartoum in order to pursue quiet diplomatic efforts to negotiate better terms for U.N. peacekeepers, rights investigators, and distressed civilians. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the strategy is not working and the U.N.’s patience is beginning to wear thin.

In recent weeks, the Sudanese government has blocked the United Nations from establishing a logistics base in the Southern Kordofan town of El Obeid to supply an ongoing U.N. peacekeeping mission in Abyei. Le Roy confirmed Thursday that Sudan refused for three hours to allow a U.N. helicopter to evacuate three Ethiopian peacekeepers wounded in a land-mine accident. By the time the U.N. was granted permission to fly, the peacekeepers had died.

"The Sudanese play a game where they’re hot and cold," said one official. "They’ll cooperate and then they’ll stop."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon protested Sudan’s delaying of the medical evacuation in a meeting with Sudan’s U.N. envoy. "The Secretary-General made it abundantly clear that this was a question of saving lives and that delay of any kind was unacceptable," Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Thursday.

Pillay’s statement also raised concerns about other hurdles to ensuring the protection of human rights in Sudan. It expressed concern that though a new U.N. peacekeeping mission in Abyei calls for the monitoring of human rights violations in the area, it did not authorize staff to conduct the monitoring.

"I am concerned that the resolution does not provide for a civilian component, which would have allowed for effective human rights monitoring," Pillay wrote. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights "has tasked a team of experts to conduct preliminary assessment on how to carry out such monitoring. However, the team hqs not yet set out, as its members are still awaiting visas from the Sudanese authorities."

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