An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Silence in Sudan

Why did the United Nations stop reporting atrocities in Darfur?


Darfur once captured the world's attention as a contemporary symbol of the international failure to confront mass atrocities. In recent years, however, it has fallen off the radar screen, as the level of government-sponsored violence has subsided and as other pressing Sudanese crises, including the threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan, have captured the headlines.

Darfur once captured the world’s attention as a contemporary symbol of the international failure to confront mass atrocities. In recent years, however, it has fallen off the radar screen, as the level of government-sponsored violence has subsided and as other pressing Sudanese crises, including the threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan, have captured the headlines.

But there is another reason you don’t hear much about the troubles in Darfur these days: The United Nations human rights agencies essentially stopped issuing public reports on abuses there three and a half years ago, according to U.N. officials, human rights advocates, and a leaked U.N. report. The sunnier accounts of events in Darfur in some ways reflects the tendency of the U.N. and African Union leadership to trumpet the successes of a peace process that they have helped brokered, and downplay its failures. But the long silence owes much to the Sudanese government practice of intimidating U.N. officials and independent aid workers into remaining quiet or minimizing government violations — by threatening possible expulsion or harassment on the ground.

Indeed, the U.N.’s reticence to report publicly on rights abuses intensified after the Sudanese government expelled 13 relief organizations in March 2009, heightening fears that open criticism of the regime could trigger a swift crackdown on outsiders. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has not issued a single report on abuses in Darfur, Sudan, since January 2009, when it documented government killings of displaced Darfurians back in the Kalma camp for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in August 2008.

The U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which includes staff from the high commissioner’s office, has also been largely silent. A group of three former U.N. experts, meanwhile, recently wrote a confidential report claiming that the U.N. mission in Darfur has minimized critical reporting of government abuses, downplaying a series of attacks against the Zaghawa tribe last year that displaced 70,000 people, and which amounted to ethnic cleansing."There has indeed been a drop-off in the number of public human rights reports produced by UNAMID over the past couple of years, and it is something we have been concerned about and have been raising with the team on the ground," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner, told me. Colville declined to elaborate on why the U.N. had stopped issuing the human rights reports it had periodically published on Darfur until the beginning of 2009.

U.S. officials and human rights advocates acknowledge that the nature of violence in Darfur has changed since the bloodiest phase from 2003 to 2005 of a government counterinsurgency campaign that has never entirely ended and that has led to the death of more than 300,000 people and the displacement of nearly three million. A peace treaty between Chad and Sudan has undercut the military position of one of Darfur’s main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement. There is at least a peace agreement in place now, that while not exactly delivering peace, has created a political process to channel some of the region’s more violent impulses. But that doesn’t meant that the problems have gone away: The region continues to be plagued by intertribal warfare, banditry, and crime.

Meanwhile, Khartoum continues to kill civilians through a campaign of aerial bombardment, as it has recently attacked the central Darfurian region of Jebel Marra. It also imports weapons in violation of U.N. sanctions, and it provides military support to favored militias in an effort to root out possible bases of support for rebel forces now bent on toppling the government. Indeed, the three former U.N. experts documented evidence that Khartoum — which traditionally supported Arab militia in Darfur — trained, armed, and organized local non-Arab tribes for the first time to fight anti-government Zaghawa rebels.

Early last month, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, privately raised concerns about the lack of reporting on rights abuses in Darfur in a private meeting with Ibrahim Gambari, UNAMID’s representative. More recently, the United States, Britain, and other European powers also pressed the U.N. chief peacekeeper, Hervé Ladsous, in a closed-door Security Council session to step up reporting on rights abuses, arguing that developments on the ground still require public reporting on abuses by government or rebel forces in Darfur.

"From a U.S. point of view, we’re hardly sanguine about the security situation" in Darfur, Rice told reporters on April 26. "We see that the violence is escalating in four or five regions of Darfur, and we’re particularly concerned about North Darfur and Jebel Marra."

The partial reporting moratorium comes at a time when media interest in Sudan has waned, or at least shifted from Darfur to other parts of Sudan, including South Sudan, which declared its independence last July 2011, culminating a landmark agreement that ended a 28-year civil war between Khartoum and the southerners. The nascent country has since been plagued by violent flare-ups in places like Abyei, South Kordofan, and elsewhere along the border, raising fears that Khartoum and South Sudan might again be on the brink of war, this time a battle between two well-armed independent nations.

The U.N. has recently sought to portray Darfur as a relative success story, highlighting a dip in violence from the worst stages of the civil war. The U.N. estimates that 109,000 internally displaced Darfuris have recently returned to their homes, and 31,000 refugees have returned from Chad. "What we have witnessed is a decline in direct confrontations between Sudanese forces and armed movements in 2011 compared with 2010," Gambari recently told reporters. The overall numbers of internally displaced, he said, has fallen from 2.8 million to as low as 1.5 million.

In a lengthy telephone interview, Gambari defended the U.N. mission’s reporting on human rights, saying that its human rights section provides daily, weekly, and monthly reports to peacekeeping officials at U.N. headquarters in New York and to rights experts at the U.N. high commissioner’s office in Geneva. He also denied suggestions by rights groups that the U.N. had bowed to Sudanese government pressure in withholding reporting on human rights.

"We report everything that happens in Darfur in daily situation reports," including human rights violations, he said. "We send reports to headquarters every day, every week, every month. Headquarters does not seem to have developed a mechanism for sharing these with member states."

But he said in an effort to address Rice’s concern the U.N. will begin sharing monthly reports on human rights abuses with member states. "We can put that together," he said. "There is no real inhibition on the part of ourselves [to provide additional reporting on rights abuses] and no pressure on the part of the [Sudanese] government."

Gambari said the human rights situation in Darfur should be viewed from the perspective of a trouble spot where "the war is winding down" and life is "beginning to emerge from conflict." The United Nations, he said, is shifting its focus to capacity building, helping to create institutions that promote the rule of law. "We feel UNAMID can be more effective in addressing human rights through capacity building. But that doesn’t mean we’re not amenable to more reporting."

U.S. officials, human rights advocates, European diplomats, and independent U.N. researchers say the effort to assess conditions in Darfur has been complicated by the U.N.’s failure to provide a more authoritative, or reliable, account of the human rights situation in Darfur. But they say that they regularly pick up reports from the field that government-sponsored violence continues.

"Still we do receive reports from sources inside Darfur indicating the war architecture and tools of repression are very much intact," said Jehanne Henry, the Darfur researcher for Human Rights Watch. "This week, for example, people from Jebel Marra reported to us that the government bombing in Jebel Marra killed civilians and caused many to flee their homes."

Henry said the Sudanese government has applied pressure on the United Nations and others to limit rights reporting on rights abuses, and that its efforts "have effectively muzzled the AU/UN mission into silence." She added, "Humanitarian aid agencies, traditionally a reliable source of informally reporting on rights abuses, also do not speak out [for] fear of being kicked out of Darfur altogether."

Three former members of a U.N. expert panel investigating sanctions violations in Darfur claimed a report, first divulged by Africa Confidential, that the U.N. mission has downplayed or ignored evidence of abuses by government-backed militia. The team, which resigned late last year over a dispute with the panel’s chairman, produced an unofficial report that claims UNAMID officials failed to adequately detail a large massacre by Sudanese forces and government backed militia in eastern Darfur, even though the Sudanese government itself cited the killings in one of its own reports, according to the experts’ report.

The researchers, Jerome Tubiana of France, Michael Kelly of Britain, and Claudio Gramizzi of Italy, examined events in the area of Shangal Tobay, where Sudanese forces and government-backed militias drove tens of thousands of Zaghawa tribespeople from their homes, killing large number of civilians, during 2010 and 2011.

The plight of the Zaghawa, who have played the role of victim and victimizer, underscores the complexity of violence in Darfur. The Zaghawa first began settling in the Shangal Tobay area during the late 1940s, arriving in far greater numbers in the 1970s following a severe drought in their northern homeland, according to a history of the region presented in the U.N. experts’ report.

Many of the group’s men filled the ranks of a key faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) — headed by Zaghawa rebel leader Minni Minawi — which took up arms against the government in 2003. Soon, they emerged as the dominant power in Shangal Tobay, a community with as many as 30 ethnic groups. A 2006 peace accord with the government solidified their control over the area. Under their rule, the Zaghwawa thrived while other tribes "suffered abuses (including taxations, arrests, and murders) at the hands of the rebels," according to the report.

But the peace accord collapsed in 2010, driving the SLA fighters into hiding, abandoning Shangal Tobay, and exposing the region’s Zaghawa community to reprisals. Sudanese government forces, meanwhile, recruited a group of non-Arab militias that had bridled under the Zaghawa’s rule and used them to carry out a series of systematic attacks against the Zaghawa between December 2010 and June 2011. The U.N. mission, which was stationed in Shangal Tobay, was unable to provide protection for thousands of Zaghawa civilians that had sought protection, forcing them to flee the town.

"This cycle of violence provoked one of the most significant displacements that Darfur has experienced since the height of the conflict between 2003 and 2005, with the reported registration of around 70,000 IDPs," according to the report. "Members of the panel believe that the cycle of violence in eastern Darfur in the first half of 2011 was characterized by ethnic cleansing targeting one particular group."

"Members of the panel also found that violent incidents against Zaghawa civilians were on occasion not passed up the UNAMID reporting chain in the same way as violence committed by Zaghawa rebels and militia," the report said. "Members of the panel also found that events they themselves witnessed alongside UNAMID personnel were not fully reported in UNAMID Patrol Reports or Situation reports."

The panel accompanied a UNAMID patrol on May 22, 2011, as they came upon the small Zaghawa village of Nyortik in flames. The panel members believed the village was burnt to the ground by a pro-government militia in retaliation for the killing of a truck driver that was linked to the militia. But they said the UNAMID officials simply took the militia leaders’ word that the Zaghawa had burnt their own town to the ground — and then failed to even report the incident in a "team site patrol report" shared with a wider circle of mission staff.

The panel’s experts argue that UNAMID’s handling of the event was consistent with a pattern of bias in its reporting, which tended to ignore government abuses while highlighting those carried out by the rebels. It also undercut the ability of U.N. and African Union policymakers to gain a clear picture of what was happening on the ground. In the end, the truck driver’s killing ultimately sparked one of the worst outbreaks of violence in Darfur in years.

In a possible reprisal attack, pro-government militias attacked the Zaghawa stronghold of Abu Zerega on May 31, 2011, looting the tribe’s livestock, before calling in Sudanese government reinforcements. By the end, the government and pro-government militia had executed some 18 Zaghawa civilians. On June 17, Zaghawa rebels carried out a reprisal raid on Shangal Tobay, advancing by car and camel, killing 19 people, including 6 Sudanese soldiers and militia members.

But the United Nations responded slowly, waiting 12 days to conducting an investigation into the massacre at Abu Zerega, which was only a few kilometers from a U.N. outpost. The delay allowed the perpetrators an opportunity to hide or bury the bodies. In the end, UNAMID concluded simply that the 18 victims had been "allegedly killed/disappeared" while the government’s own investigation concluded that a "total of 18 Zaghawa cviliians had been summarily executed."

"Members of the panel believe that in under-reporting or deliberately omitting to report some incidents in the area of Shangal Tobay, UNAMID prevents itself [from having a] clear understanding of the chain of violence."

Whatever the reason, the ramifications are severe. The U.N. mission gave the Security Council little reason to suspect a government role in the massacre of the Zaghawa last May. Indeed, in July 2011, the U.N. secretary general’s report to the Security Council — the main vehicle for reporting on developments in Darfur — said nothing about the role of Sudanese soldiers or pro-government militias in the massacre of the Zaghawa in Abu Zerega.

But it did link the Zaghawa rebels to the reprisal attack.

The U.N. stance, according to the panel members, "risks exacerbating existing perceptions of UNAMID as insufficiently neutral: perceptions which may post a threat both to UNAMID’s own security and to the eastern Darfur area’s peace and security." Even worse, it has served to erase Darfur from the map of global trouble spots competing for the world’s attention.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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