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On the radar: The Fragility of Darfur

The Fragility of Darfur

Dr. Sima Simar
Dr. Sima Simar
Photo: Jamie Chomas

Dr. Sima Samar earned legendary status in Afghanistan for running hospitals and schools in her homeland—even when it was under the iron fist of the Taliban. When that regime was overthrown, she became one of the country’s most visible champions of women’s and human rights. Now, she has expanded her portfolio of human rights work outside of Afghanistan and into the Sudan.

In 2005, Samar was appointed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to be Special Rapporteur for Human Rights for that African country. “There were a few other nominees for this position, but maybe because it’s an Islamic country and somehow similar to Afghanistan is why I was put in the position,” she says.

Obviously, the U.N. realized that her sensitivity to the rights of all people would make her a perfect observer in another area of great conflict. In Afghanistan, she heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and previously served as minister for women’s affairs in President Hamid Karzai’s first Cabinet.

This past fall, Dr. Samar sat down for a Ms. conversation with executive editor Katherine Spillar (see LINK to round-up page), and part of their talk focused on Sudan, which she has now visited three times for the U.N. As she told Ms., “The human rights situation in Sudan is, unfortunately, very bad It’s … worse than Afghanistan. People do not have much access to justice. And the law … there’s impunity [for most perpetrators], actually.” War has been waged in the Darfur region in western Sudan by various rebel and government-backed militias since 2003, killing an estimated half-million citizens and displacing 2 million people. Despite ceasefires and treaties, violence continues to erupt. Many observers have reported that the struggles in Darfur stem from attempts to gain control over the oil resources in southern Darfur.

After her third trip to the region, she addressed the U.N. General Assembly about her recommendations for improving human rights there. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

The people of the Sudan had high expectations that their lives would change for the better after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the adoption of the Interim National Constitution and the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan in 2005. Despite these developments, and the great desire amongst Sudanese for democratic transition, there have been significant delays in the implementation of the CPA. Violations of the Constitution and international human rights law has led to growing disappointment and lack of confidence in the will of the parties for real change.

The people of the Sudan have seen little change in their daily lives. Discrimination and marginalization of certain groups continue, and basic rights such as access to food, shelter, health and education are not guaranteed.

The process of harmonizing national legislation with the Interim National Constitution, which recognizes international human rights standards as an integral part, is seriously delayed. Laws which violate the Interim National Constitution and human rights are still in use….

The situation in Darfur has dramatically deteriorated, despite the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May, which unfortunately did not lead to peace. The government, allied militia and rebel groups continue to commit serious abuses under international human rights and humanitarian law. In particular, they have conducted indiscriminate attacks on villages, including killing of civilians, torture, rape, looting and forced displacement. In addition, many people have been arrested and detained at checkpoints, and many have been held incommunicado and tortured. Furthermore, I have received reports that militia based in Darfur are attacking civilians across the border in Chad and the Central African Republic.

The Government of Sudan has failed to comply with its international obligations for the protection and promotion of human rights. Numerous recommendations have been made by the U.N. to assist the government in fulfilling its obligations under international law, but these recommendations have remained un-implemented.

For example, thousands of Sudanese troops have been deployed to Darfur in clear violation of the cease fire agreements… The government also continues to support large-scale attacks by militia groups on villages…

The human rights situation in the south of Sudan remains fragile, in particular with regard to the enjoyment of social and economic rights. Poverty is overwhelming. The rights to education, health and adequate housing, as well as the right to development are almost non-existents… Returnees and IDPs [internally displaced persons?] are starting to arrive and face enormous difficulties. The general lack of human and financial resources in southern Sudan impacts negatively on the delivery of services and facilities by the government, hindering its capacity to provide protection to civilians. Killings, rapes, extortion, looting, harassment and intimidation have reportedly been committed by different groups with impunity…

The right to life continues to be violated, in particular, in Darfur. The government has failed in its responsibility to protect the population from attacks in areas where it has control, and failed to disarm the government-backed militia. Moreover, due to the conflict, many parts of Darfur are now inaccessible for humanitarian relief workers, leaving communities without vital food and health aid, resulting in further fatalities.

Rape and sexual violence against women continues, in particular, in Darfur. In most cases, victims do not approach the authories for fear of reprisals or mistrust in the police and the judiciary. Even when victims have tried, in most of the cases the authorities have failed to bring perpetrators to justice.

I believe that lasting and sustainable peace is not possible without justice and reconciliation. In this regard, ending impunity and ensuring accountability should be of the utmost importance. …

The space for freedoms of expression, association and assembly is closing. In the reporting period there has been a noticeable crackdown on human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and members of political opposition parties. Peaceful demonstrations have been violently dispersed and demonstrators have been arrested and detained. Journalists have faced harassment, suspension and arrest, particularly when reporting on human rights concerns in conflict or marginalized areas….

My recommendations:

—The immediate priority should be to ensure effective human rights protection assistance to vulnerable populations in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. Furthermore I call on all parties to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law, in particular with regard to the protection of civilians.

—All parties should facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and grant relief workers unimpeded access to internally displaced persons and other communities in need.

—The Janjaweed militia and other armed groups need to be disarmed without delay. Strict vetting procedures should be put in place to ensure that those responsible for the most serious human rights and humanitarian law violations are not absorbed into the regular armed forces or given government positions.

—All reports of human rights violations should be investigated proactively and perpetrators brought to justice to stop the culture of impunity…

—I encourage the government to pursue the implementation of the CPA and the Interim National Constitution without further delay, with a special focus on law reform. Consultations should be held with a broad spectrum of society, especially relevant professional groups, to ensure the proposed reforms effectively respond to the actual needs of victims and society in general.

—The government should ensure that relocations occur in a manner that respects the dignity and rights of affected people….

—Finally, I call on the international community to support and facilitate an inclusive dialogue process in Darfur, and other parts of the Sudan, to address the roots of the conflict towards sustainable peace and stability