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Fleeing the Janjaweed: a people brutalised and betrayed

Jody Williams

The Independent

24 March 2007

Flying over the vast expanse of Chadian desert to get to the refugee camps housing tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur, you get a very clear picture of what normal villages look like on both sides of the border. Small clusters of perhaps 10 to 20 thatched huts are ringed by fences made out of branches of the thorn tree. Sometimes a few kilometres away there will be another cluster of huts, but sometimes a village is isolated.

I had no trouble imaging an attack by Sudanese forces and their Janjaweed militias. This was my second trip to the camps and the day before, a group of despairing women I met with in the Gaga Camp - the only one of twelve camps in Chad that is still accepting refugees from Darfur - had talked about the attacks they had lived through. They all described the chaos and terror in their villages as men attacked on camel and horseback, accompanied by Sudanese government troops in vehicles, in the early hours of the morning, while most were still sleeping.

()And these are only a handful of the stories I heard this February as I headed a six-member "High Level Mission" for the UN's Human Rights Council. We were to make an assessment of the situation in Darfur and what was needed to deal with the acute crisis there, and report back to the 47-member Council in March. Despite the complete lack of cooperation by the government in Khartoum, we were able to complete our work and I presented our report to the council on 15 March.

Khartoum made every attempt to derail our Mission. Even though Sudan's President Bashir had personally assured the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, that we would be given full cooperation and assistance, predictably Bashir's words were hollow. From the moment our mission came together on 5 February, Khartoum began manoeuvres to block our entry into Darfur. We tried a dozen times over 20 days to get visas to go to Sudan, but they were never issued.

Sudan tried every trick to try to stop us from leaving Geneva, but we left as scheduled for meetings with the African Union - which has a protection force in Darfur - in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where we still hoped Sudan would relent and give us visas. The visas never came, and we went on to Chad, where we heard the horrific stories of some of the 230,000 refugees from Darfur.

()As I kept hearing that over and over, I kept thinking about the lofty principle of "the responsibility to protect". If the people of Darfur need protection, whose responsibility is it to provide it? Who is failing in that responsibility?

At the UN World Summit in September 2005, the 191 states in the UN formally adopted the principle of the responsibility to protect. That UN resolution stated that every government has the responsibility to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It also said that when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people, it becomes the responsibility of the international community. There is no question that the government of the Sudan has completely failed to protect the people of Darfur. Obviously, in fact, it has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in its counter-insurgency war there; and the situation is worse, not better, since the singing of the "Darfur peace agreement".

But, the international community has not done much better. It has let Khartoum obstruct efforts to stop the slaughter in Darfur. Attempts to respond to the crisis with humanitarian, human rights and development assistance through the African Union and the UN have fallen far short of the protection Darfurians continue to cry out for.

Part of the problem is the fact that, internationally, governments are not united about how to deal with Khartoum - and some think that there should be no "interference" in the affairs of a "sovereign state" anyway.

With no consistent international pressure on Khartoum to stop the killing and finally negotiate a meaningful peace for the region - a peace that includes power and resource-sharing as well as compensation for the victims of the war, especially for the women who have suffered rape as a weapon of war - the war rages on. As long as Khartoum knows that the threats of the international community are hollow, it can continue to respond with equally hollow promises to deal with the situation.

It does not take a lot of analysis to recognise the needs for Darfur. Unfortunately, unless consistent pressure is put upon Khartoum, it is likely that little will come from renewed efforts by the UN and AU envoys working to re-open Darfur peace negotiations, despite their commitment and best efforts to help the people of Darfur. And if the actions of the UN's Human Rights Council during our mission and before we presented our report are any measure, it is quite clear that many in the "international community" feel that their responsibility is to protect the small group of men clinging to power in Khartoum, rather than the people of Darfur from the abuses of that power.

The hardest part of our work on Darfur was not the briefings, the travel, the difficult stories we had to bear witness to or the report that we wrote. It was dealing with the political infighting in Geneva and particularly within the Human Rights Council. It was witnessing governments accepting the lies and distortions of Khartoum about their crimes in Darfur, and about our mission as well. It was witnessing the manoeuvring among the states on the Council to completely block presentation of our report and put it on a shelf somewhere to gather dust. And since we did manage to present it on 16 March, it has been watching the infighting continue as the council tries to find a way to "respond" to the report without really doing anything to protect the people of Darfur.

The UN's Human Rights Council cannot be blamed in isolation; it is a window into the world of the "international community" that seems to see "responsibility to protect" meaning protecting the sovereign state and not the people that state is supposed to serve. And while they play politics in Geneva, it is the people of Darfur who continue to suffer and to die.

The responsibility to protect came about in part as a response to the genocide in Rwanda. The world hung its head in shame and said, "Never again". We all should be hanging our heads in shame now.

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