Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
Since 2010, Maha Babeker has worked with Salmmah Women’s Resource Center in Khartoum, Sudan, as their Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. Salmmah was closed without notice by the Sudanese government in June this year. Maha has also coordinated WELDD projects to reform Sudan's adultery laws and to combat forced marriage and participated in WELDD training in Cairo in 2013 (public and political participation) and Geneva in 2014 (engaging with UN mechanisms, hosted by ISHR)
I was 17 years old when the government-sponsored scorched earth campaign in Darfur began. The unrequited violence in Sudan’s expansive western territory captured international attention; Darfur became somewhat of a household name. The United States and other governments committed themselves to punctuating this period of immense violence, but this still hasn’t happened. The fact remains that civilians in Sudan are living in crisis. Violence in Darfur is escalating, the United Nations/African Union Mission to Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping force was asked to leave the country, and the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) has just ended her decade-long investigation, citing the Security Council’s failure to support the ICC and push for arrests. Attempts to prevent Darfur from sliding back into chaos have failed, and the enormity of state sponsored violence is now stalling for international attention. The growing sense of resignation towards Darfur stands in jarring contrast to the needs of Sudanese women and children who are now experiencing unprecedented levels of sexual violence. Like so many humanitarian crises, the status quo in Darfur is managed by a culture of impunity. Victims of sexual violence, fearing stigma and reprisal, often refuse to file complaints against members of security forces, proxy armed forces, and paramilitary forces. In 2012, Sudan’s Justice Minister, Mohammed Bushara Dosa, even admitted that 25 percent of the population enjoys immunity from prosecution; overall, there is a prevailing lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies to take action, particularly when perpetrators belong to armed groups.
When I was 19, after two years of escalating violence in the East, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in March after an international commission of inquiry concluded that Sudan was unwilling and/or unable to carry out credible prosecutions in the war ravaged region. To date, the Hague-based court has charged three government officials for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also wanted for genocide in connection with claims that he orchestrated a campaign to wipe out the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit African tribes in Darfur. Sudan cooperated with the ICC until 2007, when Khartoum later refused to recognize its jurisdiction. 2007 was also the year that the UN/AU mission was established to protect civilians and secure aid in Darfur. After 8 years of questionable progress, UNAMID was asked leave the country in November after the Minister of Foreign Affairs released a slew of accusations, including the alleged cover up of sexual abuse by UNAMID peacekeepers against civilians.
It wasn’t the first time that the mission was accused of covering up its practices. Earlier this year UNAMID came under fire after Aicha Elbasri, the mission’s former spokesperson, released thousands of confidential emails, police reports, internal investigations, and diplomatic cables. Elbasri revealed that the mission had concealed evidence of crimes committed in Darfur, and refused to cast blame on the Sudanese government without first acquiring irrefutable (and often unobtainable) proof of the alleged human rights violations and abuses. Apparently the mission’s public reporting strategy has sought to minimize Sudan’s complicity and/or responsibility for the attacks and abuses committed in Darfur, furthering the culture of impunity. Although Elbasri’s allegations prompted calls in April for a UN investigation by a coalition of Darfuri rebel groups, some of the participating groups were themselves accused of human rights abuses. Elbasri also added to the growing compendium of documented insufficient cooperation by the Sudanese Government, particularly in terms of access to Darfur. According to a Security Council review in December, the Government of Sudan constrained UNAMID’s ability to carry out essential tasks, especially when it came to verifying and reporting on human rights violations in a timely manner. Sudan barred peacekeepers from investigating civilian casualties following aerial bombardment campaigns and routinely denied visas for UNAMID personnel. As a result, many flagrant human rights violations have gone unreported to the Security Council.
In her most recent meeting with the UN Security Council about the situation in Darfur, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda berated council members for their inaction and disregard concerning the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who despite having ten charges lodged against him by the ICC remains a fugitive of justice. The Prosecutor then announced that she had stopped the investigation into war crimes in the Darfur region, for lack of action by the Security Council.
“In all of these ten years since I began this case, there has never been any strategic plans provided to my office, nor have there been any discussions for concrete action on Darfur. Given this council’s lack of foresight on what should happen in Darfur, I am left with no choice but to hibernate investigative activities in Darfur as I shift resources to other urgent cases.”
— ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda
Bensouda continued, saying, “Unless this council takes action, what meaningful purpose is my updating supposed to serve?” Unfortunately, there are strong differences of perspective among Council members regarding the work of the ICC in Darfur, making it difficult for them to take any constructive action on this issue. While some Council members support the ICC ’s efforts, others view Darfur as an example of the Court’s alleged overemphasis on crimes committed in African countries. The African Union has even suggested to defer the ICC’s proceedings against al-Bashir until he steps down as a means of promoting peace. Meanwhile, Chad - a state party to the ICC - hosted the Sudanese President without executing the ICC’s compulsory arrest warrant. The dissenting views between the African Union and the United Nations have been criticized as hindering UNAMID’s peacekeeping efforts on the ground. Even though UNAMID tainted its credibility for protecting civilians by concealing evidence of crimes in Darfur, the presence of armed peacekeepers nevertheless deterred attacks and amplified the visibility of victims. Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, said, “The problems of Sudan can’t be solved by a UN peacekeeping mission. But if you withdraw UNAMID, I would fear for the people in the [refugee] camps. They would have no protection at all; and it’s not even clear they would be fed.”
In its final report to the Secretary-General, UNAMID recorded 66 cases with 99 total victims (thirty minors) of conflict-related sexual violence. 36 of those cases were reported to law enforcement agencies. Only nine cases were ever investigated, resulting in a grand total of four arrests. In the report, nearly 70% of victims described the alleged perpetrators as unidentified armed men, and 32 victims reported that the perpetrators were members of the Sudanese armed forces (Rapid Support Forces and Government Police). On November 2nd, local media sources began reporting that over 200 women and girls in the village of Thabit (North Darfur) had been raped by members of the Sudanese armed forces on the 30th and 31st of October. Following those reports, UNAMID dispatched a military team to investigate and verify the allegations,but was denied access by a blockade of armed government forces. Over the following days, UNAMID continued to engage with the Government at the highest levels to secure access to Thabit. Finally, on November 9th, UNAMID was able to send a verification mission to interact with the local community. The team’s findings, however, were inconclusive, and UNAMID publicly stated that they would require further investigation.
“None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Thabit on the day of that media report. The team neither found any evidence nor received any information regarding the media allegations during the period in question.”
— UNAMID Public Statement on Thabit
Just days later, the Government of Sudan sent a letter to the Security Council stating that UNAMID would not be permitted to visit Thabit again. Abdallah al-Azraq, a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Khartoum had refused the UN request to revisit Thabit because it was “an attempt to create an atmosphere for further escalation and decisions against Sudan.” When Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, briefed the Security Council on December 4th, Council members became aware of the presence of Sudanese armed forces during the verification team’s visit. An internal report revealed that the team’s inconclusive findings were owed in part to the heavy presence of military and police that created a menacing and intimidating atmosphere. For instance, the report indicated that the Government and military forces had prevented UN investigators from reaching Thabit for more than 10 days. As a result, the verification team’s ability to collect physical evidence and elicit honest answers was severely constrained. Additionally, uniformed officials followed the investigators as they interviewed potential eyewitnesses, interfering with their ability to elicit honest answers.
The allegations that 200 women and children were raped by the Sudanese armed forces should’ve snapped the world’s attention back to the escalating violence in Darfur. But it hasn’t. Sudanese government officials categorically deny the attacks took place while increasing reports of sexual violence, displacement, and aerial bombardments continue to flood local media outlets. To date, no alleged perpetrators have been brought to justice, many of whom continue to be implicated in atrocities against innocent people. Not only does the humanitarian situation continue to deteriorate, but the brutality at which these crimes are committed is increasing. In November, I was appointed Youth Ambassador for Sudan on Sexual Violence in Conflict. My mission is to increase the representation of Sudanese youth at the discussion table and to increase the visibility of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Over the next several months I will be meeting and engaging with young people in Sudan, urging the Government to take responsibility for investigating reports of sexual violence and addressing the age-specific needs of young people. The violations of human rights that are taking place under the watch of Sudan’s government reflects poorly on its capacity to ensure the provision of justice for survivors of sexual violence, and its demonstrated complicity for these gross violations of human rights are corrosive of any future stability. On behalf of young people in Sudan, I urge the international community to take decisive action and end the scourge of sexual violence against men, women, girls and boys in Darfur. If not now, when is the time to act? When will the international community appreciate the magnitude of my people’s suffering?