- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor will appeal to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday to conduct a "thorough, independent and public inquiry" into allegations — first disclosed in a Foreign Policy investigation — that the U.N. systematically covered up crimes against civilians and U.N. peacekeepers in the U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur, also known as UNAMID.
The request by Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s Gambian prosecutor, for a U.N. investigation into wrongdoing within its own ranks is unprecedented. It comes more than two months after Foreign Policy published a three-part series detailing the mission’s failure to protect civilians under their watch or to seriously investigate evidence indicating that the Sudanese government and its proxies may have targeted U.N. blue helmets.
The FP report — which was based on thousands of pages of highly confidential internal U.N. documents from the mission’s former spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri — prompted calls in April for a U.N. investigation by a coalition of Darfuri rebel groups, including some that are themselves accused of wrongdoing in the documents. On April 17, the leaders of three Darfuri rebel groups — Abdel Wahid Nur, Minni Minnawi, and Jibril Ibrahim — appealed to the U.N. Security Council, calling for an "immediate launch of investigation into the serious allegations raised by Dr. Elbasri against UN officials and the deliberate misinformation that has characterized reports on Darfur since 2008."
But the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. secretariat have yet to act on the reports. U.N. officials say they already recognized serious flaws in UNAMID’s performance, and that they had conducted a major "strategic review" of U.N. operations in Darfur that recommend a series of reforms that would require better reporting from the field and urge the blue helmets to more actively protect civilians in distress.
But officials say the prosecutor’s call for an independent investigation suggests she is not satisfied an in-house "strategic review" by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations will be adequate in addressing the mission’s shortcomings.
In a report to be presented to the U.N. Security Council Tuesday morning, the prosecutor’s office is set to say that it "is concerned about recent allegations of manipulations of UNAMID reporting and of intentional cover-up of crimes committed against civilians and peacekeepers, in particular those committed by the Government of the Sudan forces…. These allegations are supported by documentation from the former UNAMID spokesperson."
The report — a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy — calls on U.N. Security Council governments that are members of the Hague-based international court — Australia, Britain, Jordan, France, Luxembourg, and Nigeria — to support the call for an investigation.
Australia, Britain, France, and Luxembourg are expected to raise concerns about the allegations in Tuesday’s Security Council briefing, but it is not clear whether they will support the prosecutor’s request. A British spokeswoman, Iona Thomas, said, "We are concerned about the allegations that the prosecutor references [in her report] and some of the findings and recommendations of the strategic review of UNAMID should help tackle some of the mission’s failings."
The debate over holding Sudanese war criminals accountable for their crimes comes as Sudan is facing an escalation of violence, including a surge in the aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force of villages in the rebel stronghold of East Jebel Marra. The emergence in February of a pro-government militia known as the Rapid Support Forces, comprised of roughly 6,000 fighters, has been followed by a series of ground offensives through south and north Darfur, where pro-government militia have torched villages and killed civilians suspected of links to the rebels.
"Reportedly, the movements and military operations of the Rapid Support Forces are arranged in coordination with the General Command of the Sudanese Army," the report states. Their operations "show a similar pattern of the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks" attributed to the pro-government janjaweed that carried out some of the worst atrocities during the height of the region’s violence between 2003 and 2005.
The report also accuses a coalition of rebel groups, operating under the banner of the "Darfur joint resistance forces," of mounting attacks on civilians in north Darfur in March. The rebels displaced about 81,000 people, set homes on fire, plundered local property, and killed as many as 31 civilians.
Bensouda and her predecessor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, have struggled for years to secure U.N. cooperation for the court’s efforts to hold Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and two other Sudanese officials accountable for mass atrocities in Darfur between 2003 and 2005, where as many as 300,000 civilians died. The former ICC prosecutor issued arrest warrants for the Sudanese leader in July 2008. Bashir has since been charged with genocide and other war crimes.
In Tuesday’s report, Bensouda accuses Sudan of failing to abide by a slew of U.N. Security Council demands over the past decade, and expresses concern over the U.N.’s high-level contacts with senior Sudanese officials wanted by the court, citing a "lengthy" January 2014 meeting at an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and the Sudanese president. She calls on the U.N. to publicly explain its justification for such contacts. The prosecutor’s "office notes with great concern that despite the fifty-five UN Security Council resolutions adopted on the Sudan since 2004, hardly any of them have been implemented," according to the report. "Repeated demands from the Security Council to the government of Sudan, ranging from disarming the Janjaweed to ending aerial bombardment, to ending impunity and brining justice and accountability to victims, have gone deliberately unfulfilled."
The prosecutor also cites concern about reports that UNAMID reporting may have been "manipulated" by a small group of officials within the mission, saying there "are clear warnings that the international community may not be adequately informed about the situation in Darfur," according to the report. "UN reports are an important and increasingly unique source of public information about the situation in Darfur, and must be held to the highest standard for the sake of the victims in Darfur."