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What’s the point of U.N. sanctions in Darfur when even the U.N. flouts them?

What’s the point of U.N. sanctions in Darfur when even the U.N. flouts them?

Every several months, a U.N. Panel of Experts issues a report documenting Sudan’s extensive violations of U.N. Security Council sanctions in Darfur, and pleads with the council’s big powers to use their influence to persuade Khartoum and anti-government rebel groups to comply.

And every time, their appeals for backup are largely ignored, especially by China and Russia, which supply Khartoum with some of the arms and firepower that fuel Darfur’s fighting, and which have routinely refused to fully cooperate with the panel’s experts as they seek to trace the origins of prohibited weapons from factories in China and Russia.

Three former panel members, Claudio Gramizzi of Italy, Michael Lewis of Britain, and Jerome Tubiana of France, recently produced an unofficial report arguing that the international commitment to sanctions had eroded so much that even the United Nations itself was flouting the sanctions, facilitating the travel of a rebel field commander, Jibril Abdul Kareem, nicknamed "Tek," who was subject to a Security Council travel ban, to peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

The Tek episode is simply one nugget buried away in a confidential 80-plus page report, first reported by Africa Confidential, that documents systematic violations of a six-year-old U.N. arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze, imposed on Khartoum and rebel leaders in an effort to contain the violence in Sudanese province.

But the episode provides a depressing illustration of how an initiative that once enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the council’s major Western powers — the United States, Britain, and France — has become such a low priority that few key players in the region take it seriously anymore.

The Security Council first imposed an arms embargo on armed groups in Darfur in 2004, and expanded it the following year to include the government. The council also slapped a travel ban and an asset freeze on the leaders of both pro-government and anti-government armed groups in Darfur, including the government backed militia known as the Janjaweed, which gained international notoriety for its scorched earth raids, conducted on camels and backed by Sudanese air power, against countless Darfurian villages.

The measures were designed to curtail a massive wave of violence — that ultimately led to the death of at least 300,000 people and the displacement of many times that number — and to constrain the Sudanese government from carrying out mass murder in Darfur.

The report’s three authors resigned late last summer over a dispute with the panel’s Indian coordinator, who produced a competing official report. The panel, they wrote, "suffered from a major dissension" within the ranks. The coordinator, they complained, had insisted that each of the panel’s five members conduct their work independently without coordinating or sharing information, a policy they believed undermined the panel’s effectiveness.  But officials familiar with the dispute said the difference ran much deeper, reflecting a lack of faith in the integrity and competence of the panel’s leadership.  Eric Reeves, a Smith College literature professor and Sudan activist, has written his own take on the report, highlighting the dissidents’ far more critical account of the human rights situation in Darfur than the authors of the official U.N. report.

The Security Council’s enthusiasm for the U.N. panel’s work waned years ago, according to experts. In 2009, Enrico Carisch, a former head of the sanctions panel, testified before Congress that the Security Council had failed to act on more than 100 panel recommendations aimed at strengthening the sanctions. He also faulted the United States, France, and Britain for doing little to force a more public debate.

Carisch, currently an independent consultant who trains U.N. panel experts, told Turtle Bay that the dissidents’ decision to produce a "shadow" report highlighted some of the institutional weakness of the U.N. sanctions system. At the same time, he said their breadth of the findings highlight the value of their work. "The powerful evidence reported by these experts demonstrates how skillful and sustained sanctions monitoring is important to shine a light into the darkest corners of conflict areas," Carisch said.  

The dissidents’ expert report assails Khartoum for systematically violating the arms embargo, thwarting efforts of U.N. experts to enforce sanctions, and conducting ethnic cleansing against the Zaghawa tribe. It documents Sudan’s use of use of Chinese small-caliber ammunition, Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, Ukrainian tanks, and Belarussian Sukhoi-25 fighter jets

But it also provides a devastating account of the U.N. panels’ own efforts to monitor and enforce the U.N. sanctions. Indeed, the report challenges much of the underlying evidence used to justify sanctions against "Tek" and two other rebel leaders, Adam Yaqub and Musa Hilal, the latter a notorious Janjaweed leader. The reports, produced by a previous team of U.N. panel experts, were riddled with inaccuracies, including misspelled names and unsupportable claims. For instance, the report notes that there may have been ample evidence that Hilal commanded militia engaged in widespread atrocities in his stronghold in north Darfur. But it also expressed serious doubts that he was responsible for the crime the U.N. panel attributed to him to justify sanctions. 

In April 2006, the U.N. panel accused Hilal of leading a Sept. 28, 2005, militia raid on the West Darfur villages of Acho, Aro Sharrow, and Gozmena, to seek revenge for the death of one of his sons who was purportedly killed by a rebel movement linked to the towns. The dissidents’ report, however, said Hilal did not lead West Darfur’s militias and that "it is unproved and unlikely that Musa Hilal was responsible and/or present"  at the scene of the raids. The report also said it found no evidence that Hilal’s son had been killed.

While the dissidents questioned the justification for Jibril’s designation on the sanctions list they also argued that the U.N. still has an obligation to enforce those measures.  But on July 20, 2010, Jibril traveled to Qatar with a travel document — known as a laissez passer — issued by the deputy chief of staff of the United Nations-African Union Joint Mediation Support Team(JMST). The visit, which lasted a year, was part of a Qatari-led mediation effort to broker a peace settlement between Khartoum and several Darfuri rebel groups.

The dissident panel members said the U.N. violation of sanctions in this instance was unnecessary. A provision in the six-year-old sanctions resolution — Resolution 1591 — includes an exemption allowing travel for sanctioned individuals participating in peace initiatives. However, the exemption can only be approved by the Security Council committee that oversees sanctions.

"The members of the panel are unaware of any request by the JSMT or from UNAMID [The U.N. African Union Mission in Darfur] to the sanctions committee for permission to issue this document or to authorize the travel of Tek by air to Qatar," the report states. "Jibril ‘Tek’s’ presence in Doha represents a case of violation of the sanctions regime." 

But the larger issue, according to the dissidents, is what the episode says about the U.N.’s ability and commitment to apply its own sanctions fairly and with conviction. "Should access to Darfur, and more generally cooperation from member states, United Nations and African Union bodies working in or on Darfur, as well as the general ability of the panel to provide accurate justifications for individual sanctions and monitor them, not increase in the future, the very existence of both the panel and the sanctions mechanism should be seriously reconsidered."

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