The situation in Sudan’s Darfur region has steadily worsened, with Government forces, allied militias and rebel groups committing widespread abuses, the United Nations human rights chief said today, adding civilians are being specifically targeted and sexual violence is rising.
Addressing the opening day of the second session of the new enhanced UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour also singled out Iraq and Sri Lanka as case studies where ethnic strife had given rise to grave abuses perpetrated by both official and rebel forces.
In Darfur, where over 400,000 people have lost their lives and some 2 million more have been driven from their homes in three years, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), she noted that the Government refuses the international assistance the UN Security Council deems essential and she stressed the need for unflinching accountability.
“Civilians have been displaced on some occasions for a second and third time. Humanitarian access is more restricted than ever,” she said.
“Combatants routinely make a mockery of the principles of international humanitarian law: not only are armed groups failing to discriminate between civilians and combatants, they specifically target civilians who are from tribes and groups perceived as hostile.”
The level of sexual violence in Darfur continues to rise, while “no progress is made in holding anyone accountable for these and other crimes.”
Calling the Security Council's referral of the situation of Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) more than a year and a half ago a significant step towards ending impunity, Ms. Arbour highlighted the “continued and clear failure or unwillingness” by the Government to hold perpetrators of international crimes to account.
“The ICC must be able to exercise the full force of its mandate,” she declared. “To this end, it is imperative that the UN Member States give their unequivocal support to the work of the Court, and remind the Government of Sudan that its cooperation with the International Court is not optional, but rather an obligation stemming from a UN Security Council decision taken under Chapter VII (allowing for enforcement measures).”
Noting that violent ethnic strife is not unique to Sudan, Ms. Arbour said that despite positive developments in Iraq, including the new Government’s expressed willingness to address pressing human rights concerns, the situation remains most alarming, with the breakdown in law and order, daily attacks, extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture.
“Cases of violence are often inadequately investigated and remain unpunished. Existing mechanisms for preventing and redressing violations are still insufficient due to the abysmal security situation and a lack of adequate resources,” she added. “It is of paramount importance that the Government of Iraq, political parties, religious and tribal leaders and civil society work together in order to bridge the sectarian and ethnic divide in the country.”
Ms. Arbour said Sri Lanka had descended further into violence with the death toll climbing among civilians, scores of extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by Government security forces, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other armed elements, and some 240,000 people driven from their homes just since April.
“While LTTE abuses continue on a large scale, human rights violations by State security forces, and the failure of the Government to provide the protection of the rule of law to all its citizens also generate serious concerns,” she said.
“The Government's public commitment to investigate these crimes, including the killings of 17 humanitarian workers of Action Contre la Faim, is welcome. In too many cases, however, investigations have failed to produce results and victims have been denied justice and redress.”
On “a cautiously more optimistic note,” Ms. Arbour point to significant positive developments in Nepal with the reinstatement of the House of Representatives, the naming of a Prime Minister and the installation of a new Government, and a declaration of a ceasefire by parties to the conflict.
“As a result of these political and security developments, the human rights situation improved significantly,” she said. “However, progress in Nepal is fragile. It is essential that all stakeholders remain committed to the peace process and that they respect human rights.”
In a message delivered by Ms. Arbour, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed that the Council, inaugurated in June to replace the much-criticized UN Human Rights Commission, seen by many as ineffective, had a mandate to give voice to the voiceless victims of abuse throughout the world, establishing universality, objectivity and non-selectivity, and eliminating double standards and politicization.
Noting that in its inaugural session and again in a Special Session in July, the Council was rightly concerned with the tragic events in the Middle East, he said he trusted it would focus the same vigilance on violations and abuses wherever they may occur, highlighting the situation in Darfur which threatened to get even worse in the near future.