Darfur: Do We Need More Facts?

The UN Human Rights Council, the 47-member replacement of the Commission of Human Rights held a two-day Special Session 12-13 December 2006 devoted to Darfur, Sudan.  The Council heard 30 Council member states, 40 UN member states which can come to the Council as observers with the right to speak but not vote, 5 UN Specialized Agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as 19 NGOs.   Some of the NGO speakers had come from working in Darfur or neighboring Chad.

A Special Session is the “highest profile” event which the UN human rights bodies can organize, and in the Commission on Human Rights’ 61 year history there were very few.  The Special Sessions on former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were outstanding events. The transition from the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council at the start of 2006 required writing new rules of procedure. The holding of Special Sessions was made easier by lowering the number of states needed to sign a request to hold a Special Session. 

The 12 July-14 August 2006 war in Lebanon was the first real test of the way the new Human Rights Council would work.  Two Special Sessions were called closely together to deal with Lebanon and a Third Special Session was called to deal with the continuing violence in Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine.  The Special Sessions were called, largely as a reaction to the failure of the UN Security Council to demand a cease-fire but without thinking out in advance the role of human rights in reaching a compromise solution to the conflicts in the Middle East.  There have been an endless number of resolutions in the Commission on Human Rights concerning Israel and Palestine, mostly critical of Israel.  However, there has been little change on the ground.  Some NGO representatives had hoped that the change from the Commission to the Council would bring about changes in the way of working.  The hope was that there would be careful analysis of the purpose and possible impact of resolutions.  However, in a rush to react to real violence and despair in Lebanon and Palestine, resolutions whose wording differed little from past condemnation of Israeli behaviour were adopted.


In order to give some teeth to the resolutions and to mark a difference from the Commission resolutions, it was decided to send a team of Special Rapporteurs to Lebanon and Israel and to report back.  The Special Rapporteurs were a creation of the Commission on Human Rights, largely in response to growing awareness of a problem.  The Human Rights Council has decided to continue these Special Rapporteurs for one year during which there is a governmental review of their objectives and roles.  NGO representatives fear that the governments want to abolish the Special Rapporteurs as the Special Rapporteurs are named as independent experts and some have been highly critical of government actions.   Nevertheless, for 2006, they have been particularly active and have started working together or making joint statements or appeals.  It may be that this “higher profile” of Special Rapporteurs will prevent governments from abolishing them or limiting their capacity to work.


The following Special Rapporteurs and their UN Secretariat staff went to Israel and Lebanon from 7 to 16 September :

            Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions;

            Paul Hunt, Special Rapporteur on physical and mental health;

            Walter Kalin, Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons;

            Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing;

            Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur on the right to food.


The five Special Rapporteurs went to Lebanon and Israel and made a well-documented report.  While there were useful recommendations made to the government of Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah, there were few new avenues of action proposed.  The most telling contribution was the section by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, who stressed the impact of cluster bombs in preventing agriculture in south Lebanon.  His report has helped to highlight the destructive quality of cluster bombs and the need to work for a ban on the use, manufacture and transfer of cluster bombs – an effort now undertaken led by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government of Norway.


In the light of the dramatic recent worsening of the situation in Darfur, the spreading of the conflict to Chad and the Central African Republic, could the Human Rights Council do less than also send a team to collect facts and make recommendations?  Currently, ever-larger areas of the three Sudanese provinces of Darfur are the scene of fighting. More and more people are displaced within Darfur.  The luckier ones are able to cross the frontier into eastern Chad, but the situation in Chad is increasingly unstable as insurgencies wanting to overthrow the government of Chad mix with those of related tribal backgrounds in Darfur. The fighting in Darfur is also spilling over into the Central African Republic – a poor country with a fragile government.  There is a real danger of regional instability.


Although the insurgency in Darfur began in 2003, it was really only in 2004 that the UN humanitarian agencies and international NGOs started highlighting what was going on.  While there are currently parts of Darfur where UN and NGO aid workers cannot go due to the lack of minimum security, there have been highly detailed reports on the systematic destruction of peoples, the uprooting of communities and the destruction of economic infrastructure.  Louise Arbor, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Special Session that there was “credible evidence” that the Sudanese military was responsible for ground attacks and aerial bombardments.


With so much information on Darfur available, what is the value of a fact-finding mission of five “highly qualified persons” – as yet unnamed by the Council Chairman, Ambassador Luis De Alba of Mexico?


The value of the fact finding report is not for the additional information to the UN and the NGO world which is already well informed from aid agencies working in the area. The value will depend on the way in which factions in the government of Sudan and the insurgencies use the report to justify policies which they have already chosen for other reasons.  A UN report can serve in some ways like the Baker Commission report on Iraq.  It says nothing that people interested did not know already from other sources.  However, the Baker report can serve to legitimize those who see the need to talk to the governments of Syria and Iran and to those who want to start planning a withdrawal of troops.  The “wise men” status of the Baker Commission offers a justification for those in decision-making positions to raise issues that had not had high profile debate before.


In Sudan, both the government and the Darfur insurgencies are “closed societies” with no public debate and repression against those who do not follow the “party line”. Thus we can only assume that there are factions who see the “dead end” quality of the current warfare and who are ready to negotiate a real settlement based on sharing power and revenue and starting a development program so that people in Darfur see some rapid improvements in their standard of living.  Such people are probably in a minority and not at the highest level of power either in the government or the insurgencies.  Unless they can say “international opinion holds that a  continuation of violence and counter-violence leads nowhere”, their policy proposals will not be heard.  Thus they need support from outside such as the UN fact-finding team and from calmer civil society voices within Sudan.


It is only a guess that such people exist and will take the chance of coming to the fore. We will have to see who the wise men are and what their recommendations will be.  However those of us concerned must be prepared to highlight the report so that it does not end, as too many UN documents, as just file numbers.




            Rene Wadlow is the editor of the online journal of world politics

            www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative

            to the United Nations, Geneva.