Sudan: The Crisis in Darfur

Jemera Rone
Counsel, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
Thursday, June 16, 2005 2:00 PM

This week peace talks resumed in Nigeria in a new attempt to reach a peace deal in the Darfur region's two year conflict, which has claimed more than 180,000 and displaced millions. While U.N. officials have labelled Darfur as one of the worst humanitarian crises on the globe, President Bush went a step further in condemning the Sudanese government's action as genocide. Despite the efforts of the African Union, Sudan's government continues to arm the Janjaweed milita, widely accused of committing atrocities against civilians in their campaign against rebels in the region. Why has this situation deteriorated into the humanitarian emergency that it is today? What are the prospects for current peace talks between rebels and the Sudanese government?

Jemera Rone, counsel for the Africa Division at the Human Rights Watch, was online Thursday, June 16, at 2 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the crisis in Dafur.

A transcript follows.


Fairfax, Va.: Why is the West even involved in this problem? Hand it over to the Arab world to fix.

Jemera Rone: The West has a deep interest in what happens in Africa and especially Sudan. Sudan has been a past sponsor of terrorist groups -- Osama bin Laden lived there for six years, 1990-96. There is a lot of oil in Sudan, recently exploited.

There are a growing number of Sudanese refugees in the U.S. and Canada who can explain this much better than I. Their stories of persecution at the hands of the government are horrible. Those affected are not only people from Darfur but also those from the south, from the central Nuba Mountains, from the east, and from the north--all have been targeted in order for the present government to take and stay in power. The means for holding on to power have been creation of a strong security state, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, and open warfare with scorched earth, target the civilians strategy.

The U.S. has taken a big role in Sudan and it must follow through. It was the chief international proponent of the current north-south peace agreement that settled the 20-year war in the south but left Darfur and the rest of Sudan out.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I'd appreciate it if you would describe the current relationship between President Al-Bashir and President Bush. I understand that Khartoum joined the American "War on Terror" even in the midst of the Sudanese government's continued Islamic oppression on the Southern Christians and animists. Now that several years have passed since Al-Bashir's committment to fighting terrorism and the recent declaration of genocide by President Bush, what is that status of relations between these two leaders and/or governments?

Many thanks for the work you do on behalf of HRW!

Jemera Rone: President Bush and Sudanese President Omar El Bashir have never met, to our knowledge. Nor should the Sudanese president be granted an interview with any diplomat representing the U.S. -- aside from the contacts already made -- until the situation in Darfur (western Sudan) is totally resolved, the north-south peace agreement settling that 20-year war is fully implemented, emergency laws and restrictive practices have been abandoned, and victims are compensated.

The Sudanese government is highly desireous of good relations with the U.S. In this particular case, unilateral sanctions have been very successful. The U.S. has made it a crime for any U.S. citizen (including corporations) to do business with Sudan's government or any of its corporations--by Executive Order of Pres. Clinton in 1997, renewed yearly since. The U.S. has a veto in IMF and World Bank and other financial institutions which it exercises against the Sudanese government.

The Sudanese government, which came to power via military coup in 1989 and has had several "one party" elections since then, wants international respectability, to be treated by the U.S. as just another country with which it has trading relations. Although the U.S.' historical ties with Sudan are not deep, the U.S. is currently so dominant internationally from a political and financial point of view that its opposition has a critical impact on countries such as Sudan.

The U.S. government--every time we at Human Rights Watch ask about interest in oil development and counterterrorism--insists that there are three things the Sudanese have to do before normal relations are reinstated:

1) cooperate on antiterrorism.

2) provide full humanitarian access

3) end the war in the South -- now amended to compliance with the north-south peace agreement and ending the war in Darfur. We need to keep reminding the U.S. government that without substantial improvement in human rights and

4), the U.S. must hold firm against any concessions to the Sudanese government.

In terms of counterrorism, that cooperation has been going on since the end of the Clinton administration. If it were only a question of the merits, the Sudanese government would probably be removed from the state department list of countries that cooperate with or shelter terrorists. The cooperation has been good. But even if it were perfect, it would never be enough to qualify Sudan for lifting of sanctions and other benefits it seeks from the U.S. -- unless human rights respect is improved in major ways.

Even today, the press is restricted; the only opposition English language newspaper in Khartoum (read by ex-pats and southern Sudanese) has been closed--again. Displaced southerners in Khartoum have been threatened with brutal displacement by police and army--again. And in the war in Darfur, there is consolidation of ethnic cleansing because the government has not reined in the Janjaweed militias, in the least little bit.


Sterling, Va.: Thank you for coming to chat with us. Does the Sudanese Government still deny that they arm and/or support the Janjaweed militias?

Jemera Rone: Yes, the Sudanese government continues to deny that it has anything to do with the Janjaweed militias. They claim first of all that "Janjaweed" is not the right term -- and waste your time in semantics. Then they say that they do not know where the Janjaweed are or how they can arrest them. When I visited Darfur, I asked one foreign observer (who had lived there several months) if it was true that the Sudanese government did not know who the Janjaweed are or how to find them. "!@#$," he replied. "They can summon them to their offices any time they want. In fact, they are IN the offices already. Not just the military barracks: they are in the governor's office when I visit. Sitting there and drinking tea. Janjaweed is what the victims call their attackers. It is a slang word of denigration in Darfur. Naturally the attackers prefer to think of themselves as "saviours of the nation" etc. But we intend to work for justice, how ever long it takes.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you considered inventoring the number of people in Darfur who are on life support? When you present that number to President Bush and urge him to err on the side of life, perhaps then he will take action to save the lives of people threatened by crises.

Jemera Rone: That's an excellent suggestion that I hope one of the groups rallying U.S. citizens, especially students, to work on Darfur will take up. For more information on what ordinary people are doing and can do on Darfur, check out are links to many groups and also a place to buy green bracelets and videos for public education. Our Web site is chock full of Darfur information and we also have a video -- no bracelets yet, however:


Vienna, Va.: How can the above poster even ask about why the West is involved with this crisis? That person needs to go out and see the movie "Hotel Rwanda." These are PEOPLE, they are humans...who are affected by this crisis, and we can easily help them. Gee what a novel idea... to help countries not because we NEED to (i.e. oil in the Middle East), but because we can and should.

Jemera Rone: Thanks for this -- I entirely endorse your remarks.


Anonymous: When Colin Powell visited Darfur, his opinion was that genocide was being committed there. Since then there's been rounds of political jousting. The Sudan government denies any wrongdoing, such as arming the Janjaweed. What will it take for the Sudan government to feel culpable for what is happening? I'm hoping that I'm wrong, but there doesn't seem to be an easy solution to Darfur as long as the Sudanese government is not willing to take responsibility. The African Union can't bring peace if the Sudanese government has more important things on the agenda.

Jemera Rone: If the Sudanese government were able to recognize its responsibility, then we would not have the crisis we now face in Darfur. This is a very controlling government and although there are factions, the end result has been the same: denial of responsibility and denial of all real facts. When I talked to government officials in Khartoum and Darfur, it was like being in a parallel universe: everything they said was directly opposite what the hundreds of victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch and others have said. The officials repeat exactly the same party line. That's because their jobs are on the line. The press is very controlled, especially on the issue of war and Darfur, so the ordinary Sudanese living inside Sudan, who does not have friends or relatives in Darfur, does not have much of an inkling at all of what is going on. There is little pressure from inside Sudan on the government -- which is only nominally elected and is unresponsive to protests against its military operations and human rights atrocities. If the solution were easy, none of us would be here today. They would have solved it already. It is very complex but that does not mean we can or should ignore it. The primary reason it is so hard is the attitude of the government. There is one wrinkle that provides some hope. The north-south agreement, signed in January 2005, provides that the former southern rebels will be part of the government, starting in August 9.  We should probably now start lobbying our contacts among the southern rebel leaders--of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army--and all our southern friends to see what they can do to get the former rebels to weigh in on behalf of the people of Darfur. The great powers (U.S., U.K. etc.) are hopeful that this ex-rebel presence in the Sudanese government will accomplish miracles in Darfur. That remains to be seen. And it may just be another way for them to duck out of a more vigorous role in making peace and respect for human rights.


Herndon, Va.: Are the Janjaweed militias as evil and as murderous as the Rwanda interhamwe? If so, is it not imperaive the world, specifically the U.N., the U.S., France, and U.K. learn from the horrible foreign policy mistakes in Rwanda that lead to 800,000+ deaths?

Jemera Rone: It is very hard to compare the Janjaweed with other notorious murderous groups such as the Interahamwe--because of different nationalities, cultures, etc. But the Janjaweed are ghastly enough on their own to warrant our extreme concern. We must remember, too, that it is not only the Janjaweed militias who are involved. These militias, and the marginalized, nomadic tribes from which they derive their uneducated and greedy pillagers/rapists/killers, have only been able to do their evil work because the Sudanese government has backed them, armed them, clothed them, put them on the payroll, and conducted joint operations with them, together with Sudanese officers and military intelligence, tanks, armored personnel carriers, Antonovs, MIGs, and helicopters. There have been many ethnic conflicts in Darfur over resources, migration routes, water, pastures, grazing, and so forth over the years as dessertification progressed, population grew, agriculture with irrigation spread, and animal population soared. None of these conflicts has ever resulted in anywhere near the 2 million people currently displaced and 200,000 or so killed, 2,000 villages destroyed, and millions of livestock looted. The smaller tribes making up the Janjaweed could never accomplish all this on their own -- and in less than two years! They can only do it because they have the backing of the Sudanese government, and they are guaranteed no prosecution for murder, arson, robbery, rape, etc. One reason they could never do this on their own is that the groups they are attacking include some of the larger and better-defended groups in Darfur: the Zaghawa, the Fur (for whom the region is named), and the Masalit. But they do not have anything like the military capacity of the government--which buys its military hardware with its oil money. And obviously even the two rebel groups cannot protect the victims from this huge disaster that has befallen them, unlike even previous conflicts and droughts. I don't think that the governments of the world have learned much from Rwanda. The U.S. does not even have a special envoy to Sudan/Darfur. One person from each country is needed, so that the finger can be pointed at individuals as well as governments. There needs to be a much higher-powered U.S. and other engagement with the diplomatic process, but also a deeper knowledge of what is actually happening in Darfur. Now the rebels are in political leadership crises, and forcing them to reach an agreement this month in African Union-sponsored talks will not realistically achieve peace on the ground. There is a ceasefire agreement in place between the Sudanese government and the two Darfur rebel groups, would you believe it? Why not start there, and use all the levers possible to make all sides live up to it?


Springfield, Va.: While I agree we need to do more, what are the Arab League and others doing to solve these problems? Just because more needs to be done, don't assume that the West needs to do it all.

Jemera Rone: The Arab League looked hopeful last year when it sent a mission to investigate human rights abuses in Darfur. The gist of the findings was leaked, and it looked even better, from our point of view. Then the report was squashed and never published. Since then, they have been rallying around the flag of the Sudanese government, although I heard that the Egyptians were trying to temper that. In short, we cannot count on the Arab League at present to take up the cause. The African Union, however, which includes the North African countries, has assumed responsibility for the ceasefire monitoring in Darfur. This has been a blessing, since no one else has stepped up to the plate. But it is a mixed blessing, since 1) the A.U. is very young and has never mounted such a military operation before and 2) it gives the U.S., E.U., and others an easy out. We at Human Rights Watch have been pounding on the donors, that is, the richer countries, to fully fund and back the A.U. mission in DArfur. The A.U., which was initially very territorial and refused to accept even logistical aid for fear that the "ex-colonials" would rush in and claim credit for whatever went right (and blame the A.U. for whatever went wrong), now has agreed to substantial assistance from the U.N., NATO, U.S., Canada, et al. So we are back at the donor governments, pressing them to give more money and hardware and intelligence (satellite photos and people to interpret them) and planning and budgeting and all other kind of assistance to the A.U. to make their mission in Darfur a success. The A.U.'s mandate to start with was to observe the ceasefire--which has been in tatters since day one (April 2004). They expanded that to include some civilian protection and are willing to do more. The most pressing need of the A.U. now, aside from the backup and hardware (helicopters, trucks, etc.), is more troops on the ground. They have about 2,300 African troops (Rwandans, Nigerians, South Africans, Senegalese, and a few others). These are a pitifully small number. The plans of the AU (put together with the help of the U.N., E.U., U.S., etc.) are to put a total of 7,700 in Darfur by end of September. NATO is coordinating a major airlift. The A.U. is also supposed to decide at its July 4-5 summit to put in a total of 12,300 troops by spring 2006. This will help enormously to protect civilians. The current military plan does not call for static protection: it envisions aggressive patrolling around displaced persons camps and on the major roads and in other areas. How much of this they can do depends on how many troops they have. The A.U. troops have already patrolled around areas where some women are gathering firewood, and this has been very popular with the women and prevented the previous practice of the Janajweed and others of raping and robbing these women out in the fields. But much more of it has to be done.


Arlington, Va.: There are reports of massive investments by China in the Sudanese oil industry. How much is that, and are the Chinese doing anything in the way of humanitarian assistance ?

Jemera Rone: The Chinese are major players in the Sudan oil industry, and own the rights to Block 6, which juts into South Darfur and where there is allegedly oil. See for oil concessions in southern Sudan. The Chinese own (through China National Petroleum Company) 40 percent of the main southern oil concession that produces oil for export -- the only one so far producing for export. The governmen6t of Sudan will make between 2 and 3 BILLION dollars this year on the oil exports, to be shared with the new southern regional government, when the peace agreement is implemented, hopefully within a few months. I am not aware of much that the Chinese are doing in terms of humanitarian assistance. They have many other investments in Sudan, such as helping them build refineries and arms manufacturing plants! They also export many cheap consumer goods (such as toothpaste) to Sudan. The Chinese are on the Security Council and they actually abstained on the resolution to refer the case of Darfur to the International Criminal Court, in March 2005. That was a big triumph, from a rule of law point of view, as we feared they would block that measure since they are so close to the Sudanese government. We need to be asking the Chinese what they are doing to get the Sudanese government to treat its citizens correctly, and stop spending all its revenue on ways to militarily punish and defeat civilians.


Annandale, Va.: You wrote, "I don't think that the governments of the world have learned much from Rwanda."

That alone makes me want to cry enough tears to fill an ocean.

If what you say is correct, what can we do as citizens? There already are weekly protests in D.C., yet the government doesn't seem to be doing anything other than paying lip-service to the crisis. People know about the crisis, but feel impotent as to what to do about it. I'm sorry.

Jemera Rone: I can only suggest that you and your friends and others who feel so strongly find new ways of expressing your outrage. Get into action. Check out websites until you find groups you can work with, whose goals you agree with. Everyone has a different role to play. In my youth -- in the dim past of the 1960s -- we took a lot of different actions to draw attention to civil rights and the war in Vietnam, not all of which were writing letters. But it started there. Be creative! Don't stop. And remember, solutions are not easy or fast but for that reason it is all the more necessary to stay involved and not give up hope. The people of Darfur, I can assure you, are really counting on you. They have told me and others so, many times.


Washington, D.C.: With regard to the U.S. Special Envoy, former Congressman John Danforth served in that capacity up until his appointment at the U.N. Is there really no one in his place? I thought Robert Zoellick had been appointed the new envoy.

Jemera Rone: Robert Zoellick is not an envoy to Darfur or any other specific place. He is number two in the entire state department (if I am not mistaken). He has been doing many of the things that John Danforth did, but he simply does not have the time to devote himself to one issue. That is why many are asking that another high-visibility person, who is seen as close to the president, be appointed to deal with Darfur. Danforth was tasked with the south.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a difference between the Muharaleen and the Janjaweed?

Jemera Rone: Different regions of Sudan. The muraheleen is the name given to the (Darfurian and Kordofani) horse-backed raiders, ethnic militias ubacked and used by the Sudanese government against the southerners in Bahr El Ghazal from the mid-1980s until the end of the southern war--about 2002. The Janjaweed are the government-backed ethnic militias coming from a different part of Darfur (and different ethnic groups) used against others in Darfur. Same counterinsurgency strategy: draining the sea (the civilians) in order to catch the fish (the rebels). They don't even care if the fish are around! They just drain. So there is not so much difference after all, from the point of view of the government. These militias are tools. Their compensation is loot taken by force from the targeted civilians--livestock, household furnishings, tools, whatever they want and can carry. One of the other differences is that it took a lot longer for the government to erode southern Sudan. They seemingly perfected the ethnic militia/forced displacement/scorched earth strategy in the south. Then they applied the identical strategy in Darfur -- but on a much faster timetable. I think they knew they had to move quickly, but even then, they did not think the world would care The targets and victims in southern Sudan were non-Muslims (Christians in the minority, mostly those practicing traditional African religions). The targets and victims in Darfur were Muslims. I suspect the Sudanese government may really have believed that the West cared only about the south because the victims were Christians. I am glad to say that many have responded to Darfur without regard to the religion of the victims.


Ashburn, Va.: Someone above mentioned the brilliant film "Hotel Rwanda", which incidentally got me to educate myself on the crisises going on in The Sudan. Do you fear that a peace agreement will lead to an escalation of the violence, as it did in Rwanda when the Hutu President was assasinated? What would stop the extremists in the Sudanese militias, particularly the more well-armed Janjaweed militias, from using the peace agreement as a stepping stone to even more violence? And doesn't this situation make it even more important and urgent that the West get involved NOW?

Jemera Rone: I am not afraid that a peace agreement will lead to an escalation of the violence in Darfur. The politics and the numbers are different than Rwanda. We also have the presence of African Union troops in Darfur, among whom is one battalion (about 1,000) of Rwandan troops, who are the brothers of the Rwandan victims of genocide. Their president has said that they will not stand by and watch people slaughtered. For that reason, and because the A.U. troops are in general more politically aware of African politics than are European troops (or even the usual Asian peacekeeping forces, including Pakistanis and Indians and Bengalis etc.), there is some hope in Darfur that was not present in Rwanda. The Janjaweed are not able to capture state power in Khartoum, and they do not have enough well-placed allies for that. But it is beginning to look like Darfur is a "failed state," although the offices are held by people appointed by Khartoum, which is close to a police state in this respect. There is no real effective government for all the people in Darfur, and certainly no government that is capable of protecting people and restoring order. The economy of Darfur has been so damaged by this conflict that it is probably worse than a failed state. Since the victims, the 2mm people, are mostly farmers, and they cannot plant or return to their land to plant in safety, they earn no income. They have no money to buy anything. They do not sell cheap food locally to others. Prices of grain in the market have gone sky high. This affects everyone. Especially the nomads. The World Food Program estimates that in addition to the 2 million displaced, another 1.5 million who have been affected by the economic crash/meltdown will need food assistance. The entire population of Darfur is only 6 million: this is more than half a large population. It is more necessary than ever for the world to get and remain engaged until this widening crisis is halted and ethnic cleansing is reversed.


Jemera Rone: I have to sign off now. It has been a pleasure! Thank you for your well-informed questions and the opportunity to participate.

Jemera Rone

Human Rights Watch


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