Next week, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the future of the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) peacekeeping force in Eastern Chad will be released, outlining the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops in the Chad-Sudan border region visited by PHR researchers in 2008. The report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, released by PHR in June 2009, outlined urgent human rights issues in Eastern Chad, including food insecurity, camp infrastructure, access to health and psychosocial care, and security for refugee families. Among the disturbing findings of our investigation was a 50% rate of rape or sexual assault reported by women interviewed by the PHR medical team.

Since the time of PHR’s investigation, a number of security threats and human rights issues have been recorded — via international media reporting on hijackings and kidnappings of humanitarian aid workers, and reports such as that released by the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH) on the continued need for the peacekeeping force.

Many large-scale infrastructure issues remain, such as the weak Chadian legal system, drought and food shortage, and the continued operation of militarized rebel groups in the area, as well as auxiliary practical issues such as low phone coverage (a key issue for reducing attacks against refugees and humanitarians, as emergency phone calls allow for MINURCAT forces to be alerted to security problems). The recent dispute over the continued presence of the MINURCAT force has detracted focus from these problems, which need to remain at the forefront of the diplomatic and humanitarian agenda in Chad. (Despite ongoing needs in Eastern Chad, the Chadian Government opposed the MINURCAT mission’s renewal in January 2010.)

The withdrawal of MINURCAT transfers responsibility for the security of refugees and humanitarian operations to the Government of Chad (GoC) — a significant challenge for a state with low material wealth and incomplete infrastructure. So, what can be done, given the limitations of the current circumstances?

First, it is important to remember that the continued existence of the 200,000 Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad relies on the efforts of humanitarian aid workers and UN staff on the ground: managing the refugee camps, distributing WFP rations and shelter items, and providing emergency medical care. Humanitarian agencies have continued to operate in Eastern Chad despite increasingly frequent security threats to NGOs and personnel, and rely on police escorts in order to operate in the Phase IV security environment. The current system of police escorts for NGO convoys must be taken over by the Chadian police force, and it is particularly important that NGOs are not obliged to pay or provide other compensation for the new security arrangements, and that the GoC accept responsibility for ensuring the security of the humanitarian operations.

Secondly, refugee communities and the humanitarian actors working with refugees must be consulted and kept informed of the transition and departure of MINURCAT and how the GoC will continue MINURCAT’s security and protection activities. In order to ensure this takes place, the GoC should immediately establish a dialogue and consultation forum with refugee communities and humanitarian workers, and the international community should remain engaged in the transition process to ensure that this takes place.

Thirdly, it is of utmost importance that the MINURCAT withdrawal not be allowed to disrupt the humanitarian operations in Eastern Chad and/or detract from refugee security and protection. The continued monitoring of the human rights situation on the ground, and a specific focus on the security and protection needs of refugees, is paramount. The numbers of the civilian police force should be increased as the military component is phased out, and measures must be taken in the recruiting process to improve the conduct of police officers, sensitize police to human rights and gender issues, and dramatically raise the number of women police officers.

The disappointing withdrawal of the MINURCAT force — before the benchmarks of withdrawal have been met (see the Secretary-General’s December 2008 reports) — should not distract the UN Security Council or the international community from addressing the ongoing problems affecting the Darfurian refugee population in Eastern Chad. The reduction of arms, sexual and gender-based violence and human rights abuses (demilitarization of camps) must remain a key priority, along with assisting the voluntary and safe return of communities. In addition to resolving security issues on a community level, it is vital that widespread problems, such as the capacity and training of national law enforcement agencies, judiciary and prison systems, are addressed, and that the Chadian military assigns a quick reaction force to take over from MINURCAT’s civilian component.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)

This week the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) reported on a series of attacks on the civilian population in North Darfur by Chadian rebel groups. Between December 10 2009 and January 3 2010, attacks—including mutilation, rape and killing of civilians—were documented in the cities of Malit, Alsuyah and surrounding areas. Yet no word of the atrocities was reported by international news outlets. ACJPS has called for a full and thorough investigation of these attacks, which may constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

These reports from North Darfur draw attention to ongoing insecurity in parts of the three Darfur states and to the continuing failures of the current reporting system to highlight security threats. The month-long campaign of violence illustrates the UNAMID peacekeeping force’s limited capacity to respond proactively to protect civilians—as the force now enters its 2nd year of deployment with only 15,000military personnel deployed.

PHR continues to urge donor governments to honor troop commitments in order to make UNAMID an effective protection force prepared to take robust action to protect civilians. Material, logistical and political support are needed in order to fulfill the mandate of the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, which includes not only direct civilian protection, but also restoration of security conditions necessary for humanitarian delivery and promotion of human rights and the rule of law. In addition, the current deficit of women peacekeepers, police officers and translators, along with the lack of an integrated strategy to combat sexual and gender-based violence (expected some time this year), restricts the capacity of present uniformed personnel to respond to the needs of survivors.

The civilians left in the wake of the atrocities in North Darfur require medical treatment, including psychosocial services, and the communities of Um Za’at, Um Shurbak, Takous, Hilat Awlad Mahmoud villages destroyed in attacks on November 9 need support for rebuilding. The main UN humanitarian relief agency, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), is not authorized to work with internally displaced people (IDPs) in Sudan, so these services must be provided by international and national NGOs in the area—making the presence of properly trained NGO personnel essential, and effective coordination from UN sector leads indispensable (UNFPA and UNICEF in the case of the protection sector). On the Chadian side, it is vital that the returned rebels face justice, which requires international support for much needed justice system reforms in Chad and support for the DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) mandate.

UNAMID needs a coordinated response from the international community in 2010 to finally resolve the issues that for 2 years have hindered its performance and the realization of it’s mandate. Even the full deployment of 27, 000 UNAMID uniformed personnel, along with necessary military and other material (including military helicopters), will provide only minimum conditions for peacekeepers to address necessary measures to protect refugees, facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid and help provide United Nations personnel with protection and freedom of movement. Finally, as the events of the past month have highlighted, there is a continuing and urgent need to establish a regular system of information sharing and strategic collaboration on the security situation in Darfur and affected surrounding areas in Eastern Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR)—which should include UNAMID and MINURCAT (its peacekeeping counterpart in Chad and CAR), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

The ACJPS report of December 10 – January 3 attacks can be found at ACJPS.

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(Washington, DC) – Forty human rights and advocacy groups have sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for restoration of sexual and gender-based violence programming as a priority issue for U.S. policy on Sudan. Treatment and care of rape survivors was largely eliminated when Sudan expelled 13 international NGOs and closed three Sudanese relief organizations operating in Darfur in March 2009. Initiated by Physicians for Human Rights, the letter includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, Enough, Genocide Intervention Network, Save Darfur, Refugees International and the International Refugee Rights Initiative as leading signatories.

The expulsion of 16 relief organizations took place after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges on March 4, 2009. Many of the expelled groups were doing work related to the protection and treatment of rape survivors, including emergency assistance for injuries, documentation of injuries, access to HIV/AIDS prophylactic treatment, and pregnancy testing, as well as psychological and social support. These programs were severed after the expulsion, and have yet to be restored.

Secretary Clinton introduced the Obama administration’s Sudan policy review on October 19, 2009, in which she identified the humanitarian situation in Darfur as U.S. Strategic Objective #1 of the administration’s Sudan policy. The review did not directly address care of victims of sexual and gender-based violence, despite the scale of sexual violence during the conflict, and the continued danger of attacks both within and around UNHCR camps in Darfur and eastern Chad.

In the public letter to Secretary Clinton, the groups state, “the U.S. is the primary donor to the humanitarian operations in Darfur, and the recent engagement of the al-Bashir regime by the Obama administration now presents the opportunity to ensure that SGV services are provided to survivors in Darfur, and across the Sudan-Chad border in Eastern Chad.”

The ongoing danger of rape and sexual violence facing women and girls in Darfur and Eastern Chad necessitates both protection and treatment services for the displaced Darfuri populations. Peacekeeping forces have yet to implement firewood patrols in many areas of South Darfur state, West Darfur state, and in Eastern Chad, leaving Darfuri populations at risk. A recent report by Cambridge-based Physicians for Human Rights, Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, found that as many rapes were reported at the Farchana refugee camp in Eastern Chad, as were reported from attacks in Darfur.

PHR’s Deputy Director, Susannah Sirkin, noted, “It is appalling that six years after women fled these atrocities, they continue to suffer silently and in constant fear of ongoing sexual assault.”

Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, added, “In Darfur’s pervasive climate of impunity, women and girls have little or no hope of redress for these crimes.”

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Physicians for Human Rights calls for immediate end to Sudan’s obstruction of humanitarian operations

(Cambridge, Mass.) — Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) welcomes the renewed sense of urgency and purpose contained in President Obama’s new policy on Sudan, but remains skeptical that the genocidal regime in Khartoum can fulfill the role of trusted partner envisioned in the policy.

“The new policy relies heavily on offering incentives to the Bashir regime to improve the situation on the ground and to advance peace, but the regime has shown no willingness to make positive change since the crisis began,” said Frank Donaghue, PHR’s CEO.

“Effective incentives are fine but the Administration and international community should be maintaining strong multilateral pressure on the regime and giving a higher priority to the accountability for genocide and atrocities, which it acknowledges are necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s Deputy Director, who has coordinated the organization’s work on Darfur.

PHR Calls for End to Impunity for Genocidal Campaign, Including Rape

As an independent medical organization which has documented, from 2004 to 2009, the Sudan government’s mass killing and rape, pillage, forced displacement and destruction of all means of survival for hundreds of thousands of Darfuri civilians, PHR calls for an end to impunity for this genocidal campaign.

An immediate goal for US policy which is not explicitly addressed in the new comprehensive approach is an end to the gender-based violence occurring inside and outside camps in Chad and Darfur and an end to impunity for the crime of rape.

In line with US Strategic Objective #1, “A definitive end to conflict, gross human rights abuses, and genocide in Darfur,” UNAMID and all UN agencies must be tasked with specific reporting on the problem of gender-based violence and must be free to report without obstruction by local authorities. The current system, which discourages women from reporting rape and seeking justice, must be reformed and existing rape laws must be strengthened.

The US and UN must also immediately demand a commitment from the Government of Sudan to cease impeding support programs for victims of gender-based violence and remove any obstacles to gender-based violence programming in technical agreements between the government and humanitarian NGOs. It is essential that the US monitor the ongoing situation on the ground in Darfur and not allow Omar al-Bashir’s government the opportunity to further deceive the international community over human rights abuses. The Government of Sudan must accept an independent fact-finding mission to assess the human rights situation in Darfur, and the State Department should immediately encourage a high-level congressional delegation to perform this role, according to PHR.

As the US engages with the Government of Sudan and international partners to attempt to reinvigorate the peace process, US policy must remain committed to safely return refugees in Chad and displaced in Darfur to their homes and rebuilding of their villages and livelihoods. This goal should not be lost in efforts to achieve short-term forward progress in the peace process and immediate improvements in humanitarian assistance to the millions of displaced Darfuris.

The renewed commitment by the Obama Administration to end the conflict in Darfur and move forward with implementation of the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement must not deter the US from supporting the UN Security Council and the ICC in pursuit of justice by enforcing the arrest warrant for President Bashir.

“Lasting peace cannot be achieved in Darfur without a process that brings justice for war crimes and genocide,” said Sirkin. “It will undermine long term prospects for peace if President Bashir and others alleged to be responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity in Sudan are let off the hook so that they can participate in a process of negotiations with uncertain results.”