by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS – In recent years there’s been a dearth of media coverage of Darfur’s humanitarian crisis. What had once been a focus for both diplomatic and high profile celebrity efforts to detail human rights abuses during more than a decade of inter-ethnic conflict in Sudan’s troubled western region, has subsequently been bypassed by both crisis fatigue and a host of other larger African regional conflicts.
Even in 2014, the situation was grim. Over 3,000 villages were burned.
Now there may be some long overdue refocus with a chilling new report of mass rapes and systematic abuses of Darfur villagers in a series of sordid incidents carried out by the Sudanese army.
In late October 2014, according to a detailed report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sudanese military units launched a series of attacks on civilians in the town of Tabit. “The attacks included mass rape of women and girls and the arbitrary detention, beating and ill-treatment of scores of people,” according to HRW.
During a 36-hour period the report documents 27 first-hand account cases of rape and offers “credible information” regarding an additional 194 incidents of rape. Not surprisingly the Sudan government is blocking access to the area despite its relative proximity to a major UN base in El Fasher. In the words of HRW’s Jonathan Loeb, “the attacks were organized and systematic” and possibly constitute crimes against humanity.
Since the Darfur crisis started in 2003, both the Sudan regime in Khartoum and varied rebel groups have battled for supremacy over a vast and arid region. According to UN relief agencies, in 2014 alone, 450,000 people were displaced by the fighting. Over 300,000 people have died from the clashes, disease and starvation over the past twelve years.
Interestingly as both sides are Islamic, religion is not a factor in the clashes. The root cause remains the Arab dominated regime in Khartoum fighting black African nomadic farmers and herders in Darfur.
In 2007, after years of watching the crisis unfold, the UN deployed the African Union/UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) whose 16,000 troops and police are sparsely deployed across the region the size of France. The force has had mixed success in stopping the fighting.
According to HRW’s Philip Bolopion, the African Union force is “missing in action” when it comes to pressing for a credible investigation to rape allegations in Tabit.
Both diplomatic and human rights campaigners share frustration with the UNAMID military mission.
While the UN Security Council has yet again tightened economic sanctions on the Sudan regime, in the wider political picture, both Russia and Mainland China have traditionally provided diplomatic cover fire for the Khartoum rulers.
Human Rights Watch calls upon the Prosecutor of International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate “the allegations of rape and other crimes within the ICC’s mandate.”
Significantly, the International Criminal Court has indicted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Equally, HRW calls on the African Union to urgently dispatch a heads of state mission to Khartoum to discuss UNAMID access with Sudan’s government.
While some diplomats and human rights officials are calling for wider involvement of the African Union (AU), the fact remains that Sudan’s authoritarian regime is not likely to come under pressure from an organization whose current Chairman is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, one of the continent’s longest serving dictators.
Sudan’s abysmal human rights situation, though well known, has been overlooked in recent years due to a number of factors. There’s the usual crisis overload of competing tragedies, frustration with not being able to change the hard political logic, and the support both Moscow and Beijing offer to Khartoum’s rulers. The fact that Sudan is a major petroleum producer with close links to China plays no small role either.
While the horrors of Tabit may be politely overlooked or denied by some states who support Sudan, this contemporary crime evokes so many other “forgotten villages” in Bosnia and Croatia where less than a generation ago, the same horrors befell the inhabitants. Their ghosts still linger for justice. The villagers of Tabit deserve no less recognition.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).