Report Details Dire Human Rights Situation in Sudan


4-19-06, 9:16 am

Despite the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and an agreement on national reconciliation between the government and the opposition political coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance, widespread atrocities continue in that country. Government-sponsored violence, torture and arbitrary arrest, internal displacement, enforced destitution, attacks on human rights workers, and sexual violence remain a dangerous pattern in both Darfur and throughout the Sudan, according to a newly released report by the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT).

Above all, 'despite the consistent abuse ... of human rights and international humanitarian law, measures to hold accountable members of government security forces and armed groups across Sudan, and [a] reform of the judiciary, have yet to be undertaken,' the report states.

The report, titled 'Annual Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Sudan, March 2005 – March 2006,' goes on to charge the Khartoum government with fostering conditions of inhuman and discriminatory treatment of large sections of the population, denying medical care to refugee populations, and brutalizing displaced persons who seek housing or aid near the capital.

The report estimates that currently 1.5 million people have been internally displaced and are living in squalid conditions in refugee camps throughout the Darfur region, squatter settlements scattered across the country, and in impoverished areas in the outlying districts of Khartoum.

The report documents the conditions of one such camp near Khartoum known as the Mayo camp. Mayo currently houses 50,000 people from several southern-based tribal groups. Heavily armed government troops roam the camps freely. Refugees live in squalid conditions, including poor public restroom facilities, a dangerous open drainage system near where children play, lack of electricity, no publicly funded humanitarian aid, generally very poor sanitation conditions, and almost no transportation. This camp is considered among the most developed of all of Sudan's refugee camps, according to the report.

Politically, the government uses arrest and torture to silence political opponents and dramatically undermines rights to free expression and association. Government security forces have attacked peaceful demonstrators on many occasions. Journalists and humanitarian workers who seek to bring these crimes to the attention of the world are regularly harassed, arrested, threatened and prescribed.

Many political opponents of the government, especially those suspected of having ties to the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M), have been arrested and subjected to torture in order to extract confessions of sedition or other crimes by government security forces.

In early 2006, the ruling party of the Sudan government passed a law called the Organization of Humanitarian Voluntary Work Act. This law, ostensibly to encourage humanitarian work, actually provided the government with 'sweeping powers ... to interfere in the work of human rights defenders, both foreign and local humanitarian and human rights organizations operating inside Sudan,' the report observes.

SOAT concludes that once this law is fully enforced, rather than aiding humanitarian work, 'NGOs and their members will be effectively controlled and criminalized.' The law provides for surveillance of NGO activities, and critics of the government, as is now common practice, will be punished more efficiently.

In a poignant section that provides just a small hint of the extent of ongoing violence, the report lists dozens of cases of sexual- and gender-based violence and violence against children, without identifying individuals by name. It documents numerous cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, hundreds of killings, and many hundreds of wounded by name and incident for which it found specific documentation. This small sampling probably only scratches the surface of the total number of people affected in the last year.

Recommendations for Reform and Justice

To remedy this ongoing humanitarian crisis, SOAT recommends five important reforms: imposing a cease-fire in Darfur, implementing the new Constitution, initiating legal reforms, reforming the security sector, and developing and refashioning the education system.

In Darfur, the report calls on both government forces and opposition forces to immediately implement a cease-fire and prioritize the protection of non-combatants. It calls for the government to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and bring perpetrators of violence to justice with fair legal proceedings.

The comprehensive peace agreement provided for the adoption of a new 'Interim Constitution,' which under the present government has not been fully implemented. This Constitution provides protections through a 'Bill of Rights' for political and civil freedoms and equality. SOAT's report challenges the Sudan government to guarantee these rights and apply them equally to all people, including those in Darfur. Additionally, the report calls for full protection and access for international and local humanitarian and human rights workers to the affected areas.

Rather than promoting religious or ethnic divisions, the central government must guarantee the provisions and spirit of the Constitution 'as regards the status of Khartoum as a symbol of national unity that reflects the diversity of Sudan, including ensuring the implementation of secular law, with particular reference to respect for various religions, beliefs and customs.'

In the legal arena, torture and arbitrary arrest violate current Sudanese law, the report argues. A full review of the legal process should be undertaken, and judges and lawyers that reflect the ethnic and religious diversity of the country should oversee reforms and be placed permanently in all levels of the judicial system, recommends the report. In addition the recently established 'Special Court for Darfur,' universally characterized as a kangaroo court designed to prosecute political opponents of the government under the guise of justice for Darfur, is outside the bounds of existing law and must be replaced, in order to bring perpetrators of mass killings and other violence to justice who may not be meet the specific judicial criteria of the ICC.

The security apparatus constitutes a sector in which violations of human rights and Sudanese law took a dangerous turn in 2005. Mass arrests, torture, detention without charge, and the secretive nature of the government's security forces pose a grave threat to a just resolution and national reconciliation. The report describes the extra-judicial character of the security forces as acting with 'impunity' and 'without outside control.'

The report calls for bringing security forces under full civilian control and eliminating paramilitary or other forces not legally constituted to act as such. This demand is a direct reference to the government-aligned militia forces known as the Janjaweed, widely regarded as responsible, along with regular government security forces, for the 2004 mass killings of an estimated 400,000 people in Darfur.

Because of the ethnic character of the violence, the events of 2004 were described as 'genocide' by the Bush administration in September 2004, a position it reiterated in March 2006. Observers on the ground in the Sudan regard greed on the part of the dominant ruling group and its allies for land owned by marginalized Darfurian tribes in the southern regions as a major motivation for the events of 2004. This oppression is further fueled by deep disparities in wealth and development between the northern and southern regions and is a key sources of much of the violence. SOAT's report documents that once the current Islamic fundamentalist regime came to power in 1989 it systematically funded and armed paramilitary groups that openly adhered to an 'Arab-supremacist' racial ideology (rather than mere religious discrimination) that targeted non-Arabic nomadic tribes in southern regions such as Darfur.

The report does not point out that the Bush administration has refused to adopt measures to aid the international effort to bring criminals to justice in Sudan and end the violence, including opposition to the fomation of the ICC and the undertaking of its work on the Darfur tragedy. Rather, despite its severe rhetoric, it has tacitly approved the Sudanese government's actions by normalizing relations with it and providing material aid.

Finally, the report calls for an overhaul of the country's education system. A reformed education system, the report states, would eliminate 'polarizing perspectives in the historical, philosophical, and social science content of the education curriculum' in favor of emphasizing cultural diversity as integral to a united Sudan. The report also calls for a more democratic system of education which, rather than 'transmitting information to passive students,' would encourage 'inquiry and active learning.'

SOAT is a 13-year-old human rights organization of activists based in Sudan and Great Britain. SOAT workers interviewed scores of victims of displacement and abuse as well as humanitarian workers for this report. SOAT workers also inspected prisons and reviewed media reports and UN, NGO and government statements and positions papers in preparing this valuable human rights document.

--Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and may be reached at