UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 31 -- A U.N. commission investigating atrocities in Sudan has concluded that the government did not pursue a policy of genocide in the Darfur region but that Khartoum and government-sponsored Arab militias known as the Janjaweed engaged in "widespread and systematic" abuse that may constitute crimes against humanity.
The five-member U.N. commission of inquiry "strongly recommends" that the U.N. Security Council invite the International Criminal Court to pursue a war crimes prosecution against those suspected of the worst abuse. The Sudanese justice system, it concluded, "is unable or unwilling" to address the situation in Darfur.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
At Least 18 Dead After Sudanese Forces Quell Protest (The Washington Post, Jan 31, 2005)
U.S. Urges War Crimes Tribunal for Darfur Atrocities (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2005)
Annan Urges Action on Darfur at U.N. Commemoration of Holocaust (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)
Guns Stop 'Crying' In Southern Sudan (The Washington Post, Jan 24, 2005)
U.S., Europe Debate Venue for Darfur Trials (The Washington Post, Jan 21, 2005)
The 177-page report documents a concerted campaign of violence directed primarily at Darfur's black African Fur, Masalit, Jebel, Aranga and Zaghawa tribes. Since the violence began in early February 2003, more than 70,000 people have died from violence and resulting disease, and more than 1.8 million have been driven from their homes.
The commission's work is the most extensive international effort yet to document the atrocities in Darfur and to analyze their legal implications. In doing so, the commission was more cautious on the question of whether the violence amounted to genocide, the position taken by former U.S. secretary of state Colin L. Powell.
Nevertheless, the commission set the stage Monday for international war crimes prosecutions, charging the government and the Janjaweed of engaging in violence that included murder, torture, kidnapping, rape, forced displacement and the destruction of villages.
Senior U.S. officials said the commission's findings were serious enough to prosecute rights abusers as war criminals, despite the panel's decision not to declare that genocide had occurred. A finding of genocide -- an attempt to systematically destroy a nation or ethnic group -- would have been considered a more powerful and symbolic statement, experts said, but its practical and legal impact would not have been significantly different from the commission's finding of possible crimes against humanity.
"Our interest here is accountability for the perpetrators of the atrocities, and there are obviously various ways that can be achieved," said Anne W. Patterson, acting U.S. representative to the United Nations.
The report's author, Antonio Cassese of Italy, said the commission placed the names of suspected war criminals, and the supporting evidence of their crimes, in a sealed file that will be presented to a future prosecutor.
The report's long-anticipated release precedes what many expect will be an intensified political battle in the Security Council over how to pursue such prosecution.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and European governments on the council want the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, to oversee prosecution of Sudan's alleged war criminals. "This is a case which is tailor-made for the ICC," said Emyr Jones Parry, Britain's U.N. ambassador.
But the United States opposes the ICC and wants to create a new African court to handle the prosecutions. The Bush administration refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the ICC out of concern that U.S. citizens could be subject to politically motivated charges before it.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, has cautioned European supporters of the ICC not to force the Bush administration into a "thumbs-up or thumbs-down" vote in the council on an ICC prosecution.
Instead, he sought to rally support for a new tribunal in Tanzania that would be headed by the African Union and supported by the United Nations.
Stuart Holliday, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for special political affairs, said: "We're still in the process of discussing a variety of options, including with our African colleagues."
The violence in Darfur began in February 2003, when rebels from the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement took up arms against the government. Khartoum organized and equipped the Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, which participated in a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at expelling many of the region's black tribes.
Khidir Haroun Ahmed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, did not respond to a request to comment Monday before the report's release. But the Sudanese government has long denied that it has targeted civilians as part of its military campaign against the rebels.
The U.N. commission's report said a court could still determine that government officials or militia leaders did commit acts "with genocidal intent." But the panel found that "the crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing" from policy pursued by the government. "Generally speaking," it said, "the policy of attacking, killing and forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds."
That, however, should not "detract from the gravity of the crimes perpetrated" in Darfur, the report said, adding that they may be "no less serious and heinous than genocide."