Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Court Urged to Consider Environmental Crimes

Darfur victims say environmental crimes should feature in indictments against Sudanese officials.
By Katy Glassborow
Victims, pressure groups and legal experts want the International Criminal Court, ICC, to charge Sudanese officials with man-made environmental crimes which they say contributed significantly to the mass displacement of Darfur civilians.

In addition to ordering their campaign of terror and mass killings, the government instructed its allied Arab Janjaweed militia to drive out mainly black farmers and civilians by burning fields and contaminating water supplies, claim refugees.

Almost two million people are now in camps, while the government is encouraging Arabs from Chad and Niger to settle the now empty land.

The role the environment had in the Darfur conflict was raised controversially in June by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who said the causes of the crisis were more complex than an ethnic dispute between Arab militias and black rebels and farmers.

He argued that it began with an ecological crisis arising, at least in part, from climate change. But Darfur IDPs (internally displaced people) say such arguments risk masking the guilt of government officials who drove people from their homes by destroying their food and water sources.

Khalil, an IDP in the El Fashir region of north Darfur, said the position taken by the secretary-general allowed the Sudanese government to escape the blame for environmental crimes committed by the allied Janjaweed militia.

He said the Sudanese government thought that “if they burn villages, destroy trees and make water shortages, the people will move away because of hunger and thirst to make way for the Arabs”.

Yasir, from a camp in El Fashir, told IWPR the Sudanese government was forcing people out by burning their crops, and that “the International Criminal Court should investigate this kind of crime”.

“It (the government) supports people who destroyed villages, burnt our crops, destroyed our shallow wells,” he said.

The UN asked the ICC to investigate Darfur in March 2005, and since then prosecutors have been questioning victims in refugee camps outside Sudan, because the government refuses to cooperate with the court or recognise its jurisdiction over serious crimes in the region.

Despite evidence like Yasir’s testimony, the ICC is yet to press charges related to deliberate environmental destruction against anyone over the Darfur crisis.

In February this year, the Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Ahmed Harun, the former Sudanese minister of state for the interior, and Janjaweed commander Ali Kushayb had personally orchestrated violence in Darfur.

Moreno-Ocampo made it clear his evidence proves the government and Janjaweed worked together to execute war crimes and crimes against humanity against innocent civilians.

In April, ICC judges agreed to issue arrest warrants against the two men, detailing 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, destruction of property, torture, murder, persecution and pillaging.

But the arrest warrants make no mention of the deliberate destruction of trees, crops, pastures and wells.

Beatrice Le Fraper Du Hellen - who heads the ICC’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division, JCCD, which secures government cooperation - told IWPR such charges would be very hard to prove.

“We would have to prove the intent behind contaminating wells and burning fields,” she said.

But the Africa director of pressure group Human Rights Watch, Peter Takirambudde, said although competition for resources has undeniably helped cause the Darfur conflict, it cannot disguise the intent of government officials.

“It is the government and not Mother Nature who is to blame,” he said.

HRW has documented instances in west Darfur where the Sudanese government and Janjaweed militia systematically destroyed villages, food stocks and wells. People who tried to salvage destroyed food stocks were beaten.

However, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and advisor to the UN, told IWPR the biggest cause of damage to the Darfur environment was a long-term decline in rainfall, which is “probably due to anthropogenic climate change, caused largely by rich-country greenhouse gas emissions”.

He said the region desperately needed a development strategy and international financial support to implement it.

“Even with peace it will remain one of the very poorest and most desperate places on the planet,” Sachs told IWPR.

Over-grazing, soil erosion, and an increased population - which has risen from one million to six or seven million over just 80 years - have certainly contributed to environmental damage in Darfur.

Nevertheless, victims, pressure groups and legal experts IWPR has spoken to want the international community to keep sight of those responsible for man-made environmental damage.

Justice Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, told IWPR that depriving citizens of the means to live equals genocide.

While the calamity in Darfur might have been exacerbated by a booming population and dwindling food supplies, it is “predominantly man-made,” a fact which Justice Goldstone “hopes to see reflected in indictments”.

As the ICC has not been into Darfur, it is hard for prosecutors to gather evidence of environmental crimes, such as burnt fields and destroyed wells, despite the existence of satellite images, which track destruction caused by Khartoum’s “scorched earth” policy.

Prosecuting “new” crimes under international law is challenging, but prosecutors at the Special Court for Sierra Leone have recently pressed charges of “forced marriage” against individuals suspected of orchestrating violence in Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war.

They argued that forced marriage was prevalent in the conflict, and is the only charge which accurately describes the experience of girls conscripted into militias and government ranks.

Despite branching out to try crimes accurately reflecting the specifics of the conflict, in June this year SCSL prosecutors failed to secure convictions for forced marriage against three accused from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and are launching an appeal against the acquittal.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Jan Coebergh, a Hague-based Darfur analyst, provided additional research.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?