Sanctioning Inaction on Darfur

By JOANNE MARINER

Monday, Apr. 24, 2006

As conditions in Darfur worsen, the United Nations dithers. Early this week, in an effort to take some semblance of action, the U.S. is planning to seek a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution to impose sanctions on those who have exacerbated the conflict in western Sudan.

But the vote is unlikely to have a great impact. The list of those facing sanctions is extremely short; the people it names are probably not the worst perpetrators; and the resolution may not even pass. With Russia and China on the Security Council, and now Qatar, an Arab League ally, the Khartoum government's interests are well protected.

The vote may be most meaningful as a bellwether. If the Security Council cannot move forward with what is already a manifest political compromise, it will never be able to tackle the tough choices on Darfur that loom in the future.

To date, Sudan has done almost nothing to protect civilians in Darfur. The government continues to support Janjaweed militias, organize attacks on the civilian population, and permit serious violations of international law to go unpunished. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator recently estimated that more than 200,000 additional people have been forced to flee their homes in the last four months alone. And while the Sudanese government has, over the past two years, suffered some setbacks at the U.N., it has also shown considerable skill in manipulating and dividing the international community.

At a moment when many are discussing U.N. reform, the Darfur crisis should be seen as a test. As an ongoing human rights and humanitarian emergency, it requires real strategy-- not just rhetoric -- and real movement forward -- not just concern.

Targeted Sanctions and the ICC Referral

Spurred by graphic testimonies, evidence of systematic and widespread abuses, and reminders of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the U.N. Security Council in 2004 passed several resolutions condemning war crimes and other abuses in Darfur. Although its threats were stronger than its follow-through, it did lay the foundation for serious action by authorizing a commission of inquiry to investigate violations in the region.

When, in early 2005, the commission reported that widespread crimes against humanity were taking place, the Security Council took two more important steps. The first was establishing a sanctions committee and a panel of experts to investigate individuals who violate the arms embargo, commit abuses of human rights, or impede the peace process. The penalty for such violations was to be targeted sanctions such as travel bans and freezes on foreign bank accounts. The second important step was referring the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Unfortunately, the panel of experts took its time in recommending individuals to be subject to sanctions. For nearly a year, the sanctions resolution remained an empty threat. In December 2005, expressing impatience with the slowness of the process, Human Rights Watch published a list of more than a dozen Sudanese that in its view merited consideration for sanctions.

The list included Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, and other of the government's most senior officials.

Protecting High-Level Alleged Perpetrators

In early 2006, the panel of experts issued a report finding widespread human rights violations and recommending sanctions. The report contained a confidential annex, later leaked, that recommended that seventeen people be subject to sanctions, including the Sudanese defense minister, nine other government officials, two Janjaweed militia leaders, and five rebel commanders. It also named President al-Bashir as a possible future target.

When the sanctions committee tried to forward the report to the Security Council, Qatar, the Council's only Arab member, and China, which depends on Sudan for oil, blocked the report's transmission. Three months of negotiations over possible sanctions ensued, with Qatar, China, and Russia - another country sympathetic to Khartoum's interests - posing objections at every step of the way.

The list of seventeen was radically revised, shrinking down to four (including one person who was not on the original list). Instead of a roster of top Sudanese officials, it now contains only a single mid-level air force commander. The other three names, in a strained attempt at balance, are not from the government, but rather from militias and rebel groups. (They include Musa Hilal, a notorious Janjaweed leader who no doubt deserves punishment, but also a rebel commander whose violations seem glaringly negligible in comparison with those of government officials whose names were omitted.)

And even this emasculated list now faces strong opposition. China, Russia and Qatar, looking out for Sudan's interests, claim that the passage of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the four could interfere with efforts to reach a peace agreement for Darfur.

What Future for the ICC's Prosecutions?

A review of recent history tells precisely the opposite story. The Sudanese government acts when it has to act: when it faces strong and concerted international pressure. It will do as little or as much as it feels compelled to do.

Sudanese officials must be watching the present vote closely. If the Security Council cannot muster the political will to impose such minor sanctions, then the chances that it will confront Sudan more aggressively in the future seem slim.

And possible confrontations are looming nearer. Sudan has yet to cooperate with the investigation being carried out by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and at some point, when charges are issued, it will fall to the Security Council to enforce the ICC's mandate. But if the Council is not willing to subject high Sudanese officials to sanctions, how eager will it be to subject them to prosecution?


Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney based in New York. Her previous columns on the Darfur crisis are available in FindLaw's archive.