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

More Will Call it Genocide

Top Sudanese rights lawyer says won’t be long before US view of Darfur shared by rest of world.
Less than a year before he leaves office, United States president George Bush used his recent trip to Rwanda, which suffered a genocide in 1994, to draw parallels between it and Darfur.

But, as faltering steps are taken towards a solution to the Darfur crisis, his words seemed isolated as the United Nations and the African Union both refuse to use the “genocide” label.

The US has also failed to win round its closest ally, Britain, which prefers to side with the European Union and employ less harsh terms for the death and destruction in Darfur.

Yet, a prominent Sudanese human rights lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman, who recently was awarded the European parliament's prestigious Sakharov prize for his work in Darfur, said soon the rest of the world will call the Darfur crisis a genocide.

"No one can deny what is happening in the region and it is only a matter of time before the UN also uses this term [genocide]," Osman told IWPR in an exclusive interview.

Luis Moreano-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC, has never ruled out calling Darfur a genocide, noted Osman.

“Right now, he is filing charges about war crimes because that is what he has evidence on,” said Osman. “I am sure that one day he will be able to gather sufficient evidence to establish that genocide has been taking place.”

But Osman warned that people shouldn’t argue about labels.

“It’s sufficient to know that crimes against humanity are being committed in Darfur, and these should carry the same penalty as those associated with genocide,” he said.

The UN estimates that as many as 200,000 people have died in the region since the crisis erupted in 2003 – the figure includes indirect causes of death associated with the war, such as disease and famine.

Osman believes that this figure, which was cited three years ago, is now likely to be much higher.

“Genocide is not about numbers,” he said, “but about whether crimes are being committed against specific groups of people. This definition is based on the provisions of the Rome Statute.”

The Rome Statute, signed in 1998, gave birth to the ICC. Its definition of genocide is based on an earlier UN convention, adopted in 1948, which states that the term should apply to cases where killing or grievous injury is taking place to a specific group of people as defined according to national, ethnic, racial or religious grounds.

Osman is highly critical of the Sudan government for its role in the killing, which he insisted is part of a wider “Arabisation” strategy. “The government’s aim is ethnic cleansing,” he said. “They are taking land and encouraging Arabs elsewhere, such as from Chad and Niger, to come and do the same. And these Arab tribes are occupying the land that has been depopulated by African communities.”

Last year, the ICC issued indictments against two individuals for war crimes in Darfur: Ahman Muhammad Harun, now Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs, and Ali Kushayb, a former leader of the Janjaweed militia, accused of many of the atrocities in the region. Osman welcomed the indictments, but criticised the UN for not pressing Sudan to comply with the court.

Osman also expressed concern with the recent appointment to the government of Musa Hilal, a controversial figure widely believed to have been a key member of the Janjaweed militia. In January, Hilal was appointed chief adviser to the ministry of federal affairs.

Osman has no firsthand knowledge of Hilal, but said, “This person is clearly controversial. Although he has not yet been indicted, there is growing evidence that he is implicated in war crimes in Darfur. He himself has said that he recruited Janjaweed members. His appointment to the government is very provocative. It is adding insult to already grievous injuries.”

Meanwhile, the Sudan government has remained adamant that it will not give up Harun and Kushayb to the ICC.

“Our view on this is quite clear and will not be changed,” said Mutrif Sadiq, Sudan’s deputy foreign minister. “We are not a signatory of the ICC’s protocol so we should not be subjected to its jurisdiction. We refuse to accept double-standards. Others, who have also not ratified the ICC protocol, are not subject to it – so why should we be? The ICC is being used as a political tool.”

The US also is not a party to the ICC agreement.

Osman disagreed with Sadiq that the ICC’s decisions cannot be applied to Sudan.

“It is ridiculous for Sudan to plead that they are not a member of the ICC as a way of justifying crimes against humanity,” said Osman. “War crimes are an international concern.”

Osman has been involved in fighting for human rights in Sudan for over twenty years, despite a poor record by the government for allowing dissent.

“The margin of freedoms is still extremely narrow and the track record of the government is very poor,” he said. “You only have to look at how journalists and politicians are treated – intimidated, harassed, arrested – to see how we have no freedom of speech in this country.”

Osman has been arrested three times and continues to be harassed for his work on human rights. “The intimidation is always there, but you cannot give up,” he insisted. “Being awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European parliament helps strengthen my belief to keep going.”

Blake Evans-Pritchard is a freelance journalist based in Khartoum.

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