- 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.
Late last month, a senior U.N. investigator scolded officials with the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, for repeatedly withholding evidence of alleged Sudanese government crimes against civilians and peacekeepers.
Clearly, UNAMID didn’t get the memo.
Earlier this month, the mission issued a press release indicating that a probe into local media reports alleging the mass rape of some 200 local girls by Sudanese forces in the village of Tabit, in northern Darfur, turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.
"None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit on the day of that media report," the UNAMID press release stated. "The team neither found any evidence nor received any information regarding the media allegations during the period in question."
The press release also noted that village community leaders had told the peacekeepers that the town’s residents "coexist peacefully with local military authorities in the area."
The problem is that UNAMID’s sunny account of the mission’s findings omitted extensive evidence of Sudanese government attempts to keep the peacekeepers from actually mounting a serious investigation into the rape allegations.
To be sure, the UNAMID fact-finding mission — composed of international police, soldiers, and civilians — stated in a report that most of Tabit’s residents "denied the allegation of mass rape" and that the locals considered the Sudanese army the "lesser evil" compared with the region’s rebel Sudan Liberation Army.
But the report left out damning evidence pointing to a concerted effort by Khartoum to undermine the UNAMID probe.
For instance, the confidential report found that the Sudanese government and military prevented the U.N. investigators from reaching the site of the alleged mass rape for more than 10 days, severely constraining their ability to collect physical evidence of sexual assault. Sudanese troops fanned out across the town in a show of strength and intimidation. Uniformed Sudanese officials also followed the UNAMID investigators as they broke up into several teams and spread out about the town to interview potential eyewitnesses, interfering with their ability to elicit honest answers.
"Some of the sub-teams reported the interviews being captured on recording devices (mobile phone) by the [Sudanese armed forces]," according to the report, first obtained by Agence France-Presse. "The behavior and responses of interviewees indicated an environment of fear and intimidation. Some of the sub-teams had to ask the military personnel to stop following them and also asked them to allow the conduction of interviews in some privacy."
A local teacher cited in the report said that Sudanese officials had warned locals not to cooperate with the investigation. The end result, according to the report, was that "the public was shy to openly discuss the allegation of mass rape."
The first reports of the alleged Oct. 30 and 31 mass rapes were broadcast by Radio Dabanga, an internationally funded radio station headquartered in the Netherlands that has a team of Sudanese reporters on the ground.
The allegations have never been proved, and Sudan has repeatedly denied that Sudanese forces raped local women. The chief prosecutor for northern Darfur said that no one has filed a rape case from Tabit. UNAMID, meanwhile, paid a visit on Nov. 5 to a nearby camp for displaced people, where the rape victims had reportedly fled. UNAMID found no evidence to support a report that victims from Tabit had fled to the camp for safety.
Still, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office on Monday, Nov. 17, issued a statement that he is "deeply troubled about persistent allegations of mass rape in Thabit, North Darfur" and that he thinks "[o]nly a full investigation by UNAMID will help shed light over these serious allegations." Ban urged Sudan "to grant UNAMID unfettered access, without further delay, to Thabit and its population so that these reports can be verified."
The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday also issued a statement calling on Sudan to provide "full and unrestricted freedom of movement without delay throughout Darfur to UNAMID, so as to enable them to conduct a full and transparent investigation, without interference, and verify whether these incidents have occurred."
Khartoum has flatly rejected those demands. On Friday, a top Sudanese official told reporters that the United Nations would not be allowed to return to Tabit to investigate the allegations. Abdallah al-Azraq, a senior Foreign Ministry official, said Khartoum had refused a recent U.N. request to revisit Tabit because it was "an attempt to create an atmosphere for further escalation and decisions against Sudan," Reuters reported. He also raised the prospect that UNAMID may be ejected from Darfur altogether, saying he had "formally requested" that UNAMID devise "an exit strategy."