Turtle Bay

In Sudan, even the peacekeepers need protection

With human rights groups now reporting that more than 150,000 people have been displaced in Sudan’s South Kordofan as a result of government incursions, Thursday’s Security Council briefing  on the situation by Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights, will be expected to address questions about how best to protect civilians there, ...

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8 May 2010 - Nyala: Egypcian Peacekeepers carry the coffins with the two bodies of the peacekeepers killed yesterday Friday (7th May 2010) at Nyala airport (South Darfur), ready for the repatriation. Two Egypcian peacekeepers were killed in action and three seriously wounded in an ambush near Katila village, 85km south of Edd al Fursan, South Darfur, by a group of unidentified armed men. The injured soldiers were air-lifted to UNAMID’s hospital in Nyala and are reported in stable condition. Picture: UNAMID - Albert Gonzalez Farran

With human rights groups now reporting that more than 150,000 people have been displaced in Sudan’s South Kordofan as a result of government incursions, Thursday’s Security Council briefing  on the situation by Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights, will be expected to address questions about how best to protect civilians there, and whether the international presence needs to be bolstered.

“Tens of thousands of civilians in Southern Kordofan are in grave danger, and no one is on the ground to report on what is happening, much less do anything about it,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

But, in making his briefing, it’s not yet clear to what extent Simonovic will rely on the detailed reports about the attacks that have been drafted, though not yet officially endorsed, by U.N agencies — reports that partly cast the peacekeeping presence in South Kordofan in an unflattering light. According to the reports, which have been obtained by Turtle Bay, Sudanese forces not only targeted U.N. peacekeepers — those peacekeepers, in some cases, also enabled the attacks against the very civilians they were charged with protecting.

It was in June, as the world’s attention was riveted to the birth of the independent nation of South Sudan, that Khartoum opened its new military front in northern Sudan, in the country’s Nuba Mountains region.

On June 5, the Sudanese armed forces, and pro-government militias surrounded Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, triggering a resumption of fighting between government troops and Nuban members of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. The Sudanese action was intended to force the thousands of local Nuban troops who once fought alongside Khartoum’s domestic rivals to disarm or to depart for the south.

The chief obstacle to Sudan’s military push was a force of nearly two-thousand Egyptian and Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers with a mandate to protect civilians. But internal U.N. documents illustrate how the Sudanese military quickly neutralized the U.N. blue helmets, seizing control of the U.N.-operated airport, cutting off humanitarian supplies and preventing U.N. staff from carrying out their work. Armed and uniformed Sudanese security personnel entered a U.N. safe area at will, checking the identities of frightened civilians who sought refuge there and intimidated them into leaving the area, despite the ostensible U.N. protection.

Even more alarmingly, Sudanese army troops and allied militias targeted Sudanese nationals working for the United Nations, summarily executing one and detaining others in the presence of peacekeepers, according to the internal U.N. accounts. In one incident, two days after the fighting began, government-backed militia members shot a national U.N. staff member in the legs as he sought sanctuary in a U.N. compound in Kadugli.

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.”

The report cited a June 16 episode in which U.N. military observers, seeking to verify the existence of alleged mass graves, “were arrested, stripped of their clothes, and believed that they were about to be executed when a senior SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] officer intervened.” According to the account, a Sudanese army captain instructed four U.N. military observers “to line up and be killed. He removed the safety of his AK-47, and just as he was about to point the weapon towards the U.N. [military observers], a SAF Major entered the room and ordered him not to shoot.” The captain obeyed his superior but warned the U.N. officials to leave Southern Kordofan. “If not we will kill you,” he said. 

The leaked report, which was made available to Turtle Bay through the Washington Post, has already received extensive coverage in the press in recent weeks because it claimed that Sudan and pro-government militias may have committed war crimes and cited witness testimony suggesting the possibility of mass graves.

But there has been little focus on Sudan’sviolent crackdown on U.N. peacekeepers. So far, the mistreatment of U.N. blue helmets has provoked a relatively restrained response from top U.N. officials,who downplayed the report’s finding as preliminary, or by the U.N. Security Council, which adopted a mild statement calling for a U.N. investigation, according to human rights advocates.

“For the Security Council to remain timid in the face of credible allegations of war crimes, mass graves, and torture of U.N. personnel is simply inexcusable,” Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch told Turtle Bay.

Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, meanwhile, told Turtle Bay that the United Nations takes the allegations of abuses seriously, and has called for further investigation to determine what crimes have been committed. But he stopped short of endorsing key recommendations in the draft human rights report, including a call for referring the crimes to the International Criminal Court prosecutor.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday that the United States is “deeply concerned about alarming and credible allegations of violence committed by Sudan Armed Forces and aligned groups in Southern Kordofan,” including “acts of extreme cruelty and abuse against civilians” that “may” constitute crimes against humanity.

Rice condemned what she described as the deliberate targeting of civilians, including U.N. humanitarian personnel, and expressed support for an investigation into the allegations by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The United States will not tolerate impunity for such acts of violence,” she said in a statement.

The situation in South Kordofan bears some similarities with Darfur, where Sudanese forces, backed by Arab militias, have mounted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, including large-scale killings and massive displacement of civilians, against the region’s restive tribes. In one ominous twist, South Kordofan’s new governor, Ahmed Haroun, a member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes against Darfurians.

However, the local forces in South Kordofan are far more heavily armed than their Darfurian counterparts and have exercised control over large swath of the territory. Sudanese officials charge the Nubans with precipitating the latest round of violence by reinforcing their military presence in recent months and refusing to meet their obligation under previous agreements to disarm and attacking local security outposts.

The fate of the Sudan’s Nubans has become a growing source of concern among human rights observers. 

A landmark 2005 peace deal ending Sudan’s bloody civil war between the North and South Sudan paved the way for the south’s independence last month, but it never resolved the fate of their Nuban allies, who will remain subject to northern rule. A provision in the 2005 called for the troops from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States to serve alongside Sudanese armed forces as part of a Joint Integrated Unit.

The local forces were supposes to disarm following a “popular consultation” that was intended to determine the regions relationship with Khartoum. But the rival forces were never integrated, and the popular consultation never took place. A recent election consolidated Khartoum’s political dominance over Southern Kordofan. In May, Khartoum moved to dissolve the joint unit and ordered the Nuban forces to either turn over their weapons and submit to northern rule or move to the south.

As fighting erupted between the two sides in Kadugli, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS), established a safe area, known as the “protective perimeter,” around the U.N. base, providing a refuge for thousands of displaced civilians, relief workers and U.N. personnel.

The Egyptian contingent that headed the effort has come under criticism for allowing armed Sudanese forces to breach the perimeter in an attempt to identify and arrest suspected sympathizers with the south.

The most serious incident documented by U.N. human rights monitors occurred on June 8, when Sudanese army troops dragged a UN contractor, reportedly an active SPLM member, from a vehicle in front of a U.N. compound in Kadugli, “while U.N. peacekeepers could not intervene. He was taken around the corner of the compound and gunshots were heard. Later he was discovered dead by UNMIS personnel and [displaced civilians].”

The U.N.’s top peacekeeping official, Alain Le Roy, challenged the veracity of those accounts. “I have read that some people were extracted from this area were killed in front of the peacekeepers,” Le Roy told reporters on July 13. “That is completely wrong; that is completely wrong.”

“It is clear that some civilians have been killed but not of course in our site and not in the vicinity, not in the safe area close to our camp. Our peacekeepers, our Egyptian peacekeepers, our Bangladeshi peacekeepers have been protecting them from the beginning until today.”

Le Roy confirmed that Nuban civilians were being targeted in the region but that the U.N. mission was powerless to respond.  “It is clear that civilians are being killed,” he said. But “we don’t have freedom of movement because there is heavy fighting in South Kordofan.” The situation has only worsened since July 9, South Sudan’s independence day, when the U.N.’s mandate in the north expired.

But the internal U.N. reporting paints a different picture.

On June 8, U.N. human rights observers witnessed four armed men, including two from the Central Reserve police, entering the U.N. safe area “without any intervention from the [UN] peacekeepers guarding the premises,” according to the U.N. rights report. “Eyewitnesses interviewed reported that the armed men abducted three IDPs [internally displaced persons] from the vicinity of UNMIS Protective Perimeter on suspicion that they were supporters of the SPLM [Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement].”

A second internal situation report, obtained by Turtle Bay, also cited concerns about “the uncontrolled movement of armed civilians and uniformed personnel” within the U.N. safe area.”There is concern about the entering of SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] and [pro-government militia] into the UNMIS Protective Perimeter asking for what appeared to have been ‘identity checks.”

U.N. human rights monitors “interviewed a boy who had narrowly escaped abduction himself and learned of the abduction of a 17-year-old girl from just outside [Protective Perimeter] on the morning 19 June by two Arab militia members, who came upon them while washing clothes and fetching water,” according to one incident in the report.

In another incident, Sudanese military personnel stopped a U.N. truck near a U.N. compound in Kadugli and pulled off three displaced civilians who had helped load supplies on to the truck. The three men were beaten in front of U.N. staff and then abducted . One U.N. staff member who sought to stop them was threatened by gunpoint to back down. The three individuals were never seen again.

Sudanese security forces, disguised as Sudanese Red Crescent workers, also breached the safe area.  “On 20 June UNMIS Human Rights in Kadugli verified that National Security Service (NSS) donning Sudan Red Crescent (SRC) aprons were posing as Sudanese Red Crescent workers ordering [internally displaced people] to evacuate the U.N. Protective Permiter (PP).” The security agents insisted that “they congregate at Kadugli Stadium with promises of an address from the governor and humanitarian aid and threats of forceful removal if they failed to comply.”

The strategy appeared to work. By late that afternoon, “approximately 75 percent of the more than 11,000 IDPS had vacated the [Protective Perimeter], mostly women, children and the elderly…. [U.N. human rights monitors are] concerned that coercing IDPs to leave UNMIS PP and have them sent to the stadium or school compounds may pose [a] security danger to them.” 

Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, defended the Egyptian troops’ conduct, saying they had faithfully fulfilled their obligation to protect civilians in Kadugli. Abdelaziz said that while it was impossible for the peacekeepers to interrogate civilians entering the safe area to determine whether it had been infiltrated by Sudanese agents or anti-government partisans he insisted that armed personnel were barred from entry.”We checked with our forces on the ground and they said this never happened,” he told Turtle Bay.

“The Egyptian forces have been implementing all commitments with regard to the protection of civilians. Any civilian that went to the Egyptian forces and asked for shelter received it,” Abdelaziz said. “We drew some criticism from NGOs [non-governmental-organizations] who discovered people being protected were part of the military forces. But how do you distinguish between [unarmed] combatants and non-combatants. It’s a peacekeeping mission not an interrogation mission.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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