We look at a region the United Nations has called "one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world"–the Western province of Darfur in Sudan. We speak with UN Envoy for the Prevention of Genocide Juan Mendez, who visited Darfur in September and issued a report on human rights violations. The U.S., China, Russia and Algeria subsequently prevented Mendez from conducting a briefing to the UN Security Council. Mendez speaks about the ongoing violence in Darfur and his recommendations for peace. [includes rush transcript]
Over the past two years, at least 180,000 people have died in the region and over 2 million people have been left homeless. The conflict erupted in early 2003 when the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Movement took up arms against Khartoum to end what they call the neglect and oppression of the mainly black inhabitants of Darfur. The Sudanese government is accused of responding by backing Arab militias known as the Janjaweed.
In December, Human Rights Watch published a report with a list of senior Sudanese officials who it said should be investigated for crimes against humanity. The report said the government methodically organized the looting and destruction of villages, with troops and militia members permitted to take land, livestock and other civilian property after killing, raping and torturing tens of thousands of people. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently warned, "the vast majority of armed militia have not been disarmed, and no major steps have been taken by the government to bring to justice or even identify any of the militia leaders or the perpetrators of attacks." The conflict has been labeled as genocide by many human rights groups.
The UN Security Council has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe the situation, but the Sudanese government has indicated it would not cooperate. Peace negotiations began in November between Khartoum and the two rebel movements. African Union officials called off the talks in Abuja, Nigeria this week to respect a Muslim holiday, the Eid el-Kabir festival. The talks have been mired in disagreement as the security situation in Darfur continues to worsen.
In this country, Congress recently rejected a bill that would appropriate $50 million dollars in funds to the African Union, the only peacekeeping force on the ground in Darfur. Last Friday, one of the AU’s peacekeepers was killed in the latest breach of the ceasefire.
For more on Darfur we are joined by Juan Mendez, the top United Nations envoy for the prevention of genocide. In October, the US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, blocked Mendez from addressing the Security Council on human rights violations in the Darfur region. Bolton said, "We should talk about next steps, not about how to arrange the furniture in the Security Council." Juan Mendez is the president of the International Center for Transitional Justice here in New York City.
- Juan Mendez, the United Nation’s Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice. From Argentina, Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on Darfur, we turn now to Juan Mendez. He’s the top United Nations envoy for the prevention of genocide. In October, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, along with China and Russia and Algeria, blocked Juan Mendez from addressing the Security Council on human rights violations in Darfur. Bolton said, "We should talk about next steps, not about how to arrange the furniture in the Security Council." Juan Mendez is President of the International Center for Transitional Justice here in New York City and joins us in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JUAN MENDEZ: Thank you for inviting me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is good to have you with us. Clearly, the Security Council didn’t feel the same way, at least in October. Can you explain what happened after you returned from Darfur to make your report to the Security Council?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I had come with a very distressing view of the situation, and unfortunately the situation has grown worse, even after I returned. And so I thought I had a very urgent message to convey to the Security Council and had some constructive suggestions as to how to address it. My job was created in response to a Security Council resolution, so the most important aspect of it is supposedly this access to the Security Council that the Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide should have. That’s why I had asked — well, actually, the Secretary General had asked that I be allowed to brief the Security Council.
It took a whole week of negotiations, during which some states, but not significantly — not the United States delegation, had objected to my presentation. And at the very last minute, when the decision had to be made, and generally they’re made by consensus, although being a procedural issue, it could have gone to a vote. And at that session, when they were about to decide, Ambassador Bolton spoke against my presentation.
AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds?
JUAN MENDEZ: I think he wanted to limit the number of people from the Secretariat to speak, because there was a scheduled speaker from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations who was addressing the Security Council on that same day. Since then, the mission visited me, the U.S. mission visited me and gave me some explanations as to what had been the real intention behind it, and I am satisfied that the next time I ask to brief the Security Council or the Secretary General asks that I brief the Security Council, I can count on the U.S. support for my participation.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you plan to say?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, it depends on the issue. Right now, I will — my report to the Security Council on Darfur was sent, nevertheless, in written form. Of course, that’s not an appropriate substitute, because being able to brief in an open session is much more important than just sending in a paper. But at least my recommendations are before the Security Council, and I think they should be taken up probably this month.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you think some of the resistance of the U.S. has to do with — well, let me go back to our May 3rd program, where we interviewed a reporter, Ken Silverstein, who did this expose for the Los Angeles Times that revealed the U.S. has quietly forged a close intelligence partnership with Sudan, despite the government’s role in the mass killings in Darfur. We said, at the time, in the days after the September 11th attacks, President Bush issued an ultimatum to the world: Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.
Three-and-a-half years later, it’s been revealed the Bush administration has allied itself with a government listed as a state sponsor of terrorism and one that the administration has accused of committing genocide against its own people: Sudan. This major expose in the Los Angeles Times revealed the U.S. has quietly forged this close intelligence partnership with Sudan. The Sudanese government has since publicly confirmed it’s working with the Bush administration and the C.I.A.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell accused the Sudanese of carrying out genocide in Darfur. Already 180,000 have died in the region from fighting or hunger, but relations appear to have since changed for the better. One senior Sudanese official told the Los Angeles Times the country had achieved complete normalization of relations with the C.I.A.
The Los Angeles Times reported the C.I.A. sent an executive jet to Khartoum to ferry the chief of Sudan’s intelligence agency to Washington for secret meetings, sealing Khartoum’s sensitive and previously veiled partnership with the administration. The man they picked up, the Sudanese intelligence chief, Major General Salah Abdallah Gosh, has been accused by members of Congress of directing military attacks against civilians in Darfur. Do you know about Gosh?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I’ve heard that story, and I read it at the time. It’s relatively well known. I think it’s an instance of where the different aspects of U.S. foreign policy seem to work at odds with each other. I don’t think that that means — I really don’t know about the anti-terrorist connections between one government and the other. That’s not my specialty. And I don’t think it means automatically that the United States is not serious about stopping mass killings, whether they call it genocide or not, in Darfur. But it definitely does limit its credibility, when it has to press at the Security Council for harsh measures.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, what needs to happen is first we have to get going on four simultaneous areas in a very concerted way, and in all of which the international community is doing something, but in all of which we’re doing only half-measures. One of them is humanitarian support. We now have almost three million people who are completely dependent on humanitarian aid, and delivery of humanitarian aid is very difficult because of the security situation.
The next is protection, precisely, not only to protect the humanitarian relief, but also to protect civilians. We have a very limited African Union presence that has done a lot of good, but it is insufficient to protect everybody in place. And also the situation is beginning to break at the seams, because the actors on the ground are getting used to the limits of the international protective presence.
The third is accountability. The Security Council did refer the case to the International Criminal Court, which was a great step in the right direction, but the government of Sudan acts as if that doesn’t affect it. We should be telling the government of Sudan, in no uncertain words, that it doesn’t have a choice whether to cooperate or not with the investigations of the International Criminal Court.
And finally, the peace process. There’s an Abuja process, a so-called Abuja process, under the support of the A.U. again, and some neighboring countries. And it’s basically stalled; it’s going nowhere. Mostly, it’s stalled because of a lack of the cooperation of all parties to the conflict, the rebels and the Sudanese government. But I think we need to instill a lot more pressure on all parties to come to a definitive agreement that will make the conflict go away, so that we can proceed to the return of communities to their villages and to resuming a normal life.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Mendez, you’re the U.N. Special Adviser to the Secretary General on Prevention of Genocide. You were last in Darfur in September?
JUAN MENDEZ: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you see there?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I saw that the different things that the international community had put in place had produced a modicum of improvement on the situation. For example, throughout 2005, the number of incidents of human rights violations went dramatically down from the worst of those that had been — that had happened in 2003 and early 2004. But at the same time, the situation was beginning to show signs of strain.
Clearly, the international military presence, mostly under the aegis of the African Union, was not sufficient to protect people on the ground, and so there were breakdowns in protection and breakdowns even in fighting. There was renewed fighting in North and South Darfur and a general situation of lawlessness in West Darfur that unfortunately now has been complicated by raids into neighboring Chad. So now the lawlessness has become even a more worrisome development, because it does affect international peace and security, as well.
So, I came back very concerned that we could be facing another humanitarian disaster and a human rights disaster pretty soon. In fact, the Janjaweed have not been disarmed, and they are showing signs of being active again. And, of course, all of the fighting is not just fighting between armed groups. It’s fighting between armed groups that directly and very personally affects the civilian population.
AMY GOODMAN: And who are the Janjaweed?
JUAN MENDEZ: The Janjaweed is a militia composed mostly of the so-called Arab tribes and that was armed originally by the government to go against the so-called African tribes that are mainly the support, the civilian support of the rebels. And they conduct a counterinsurgency tactic that is as dirty as it gets, in the sense that it directly attacks civilian populations as a way of eliminating the support that the adversary has.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch gears slightly, to come back home, which also branches out internationally, to the issue of torture. You are the Special Rapporteur on Genocide right now for Sudan. Before that, you taught law at Notre Dame. You, for 15 years, worked at Human Rights Watch.
JUAN MENDEZ: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were born in Argentina and were imprisoned there for a year and a half by the Argentine generals. The issue of torture is one that has become a national discussion right now. Three influential Republican senators are condemning President Bush for claiming he has the authority to ignore a new law banning the torture of prisoners during interrogations. He signed off on the McCain bill that said that prisoners would not be subjected to the cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, and yet, at the same time, quietly signed a signing statement that says unless — he reserves the right when it comes to dealing inthe war on terror. What is your response to this whole issue?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, in addition to being a victim of torture myself, I have studied torture and its development in Latin America and elsewhere for virtually all of my professional life. And I think any decision to order violations of the dignity — personal, physical, and psychological dignity — of a human person is illegal, immoral, and, in the end, counterproductive.
I am persuaded that the international law is very clear on the matter and that domestic law is even clearer on the matter. And I am also persuaded that no authority is there to order the infliction of severe pain and suffering on anybody, no matter who we think they are.
In addition, it’s very counterproductive, because it just creates the incentive for people to torture against American soldiers and servicemen and agents, generally, and we lose the moral high ground of saying we fight the war, but we fight it within the strictures of morality and humanity. And if we lose that moral high ground, we also lose the support of people in this country and around the world that we desperately need to win an effective war against terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: And President Bush’s response that in the war on terror you have to do unorthodox things, because we’re talking about very extreme situations?
JUAN MENDEZ: Yeah, well, I think that’s what all torturers have always said. I mean, I have yet to find a government, a military dictatorship in Latin America, that didn’t say, 'Yes, it's true, but for us, it’s different, because we are different, because our situation is different, because we face exceptional circumstances.’ Under the aegis of exceptionalism, we go down a very dirty road, a very painful road, from which we recover very — in very difficult terms down — in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: What were the reasons that your captors gave for arresting and torturing you?
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I was a lawyer defending political prisoners, and the exceptional circumstances of Argentina, lawyers who defended political prisoners were as guilty as their clients. And they needed to get information about my clients by torturing me. They didn’t get much, I hope. At least I don’t have that in my conscience about having made other people suffer my same fate. But in the end, it meant that they had to torture just about everybody, including people who were much more innocent, if you want to say it that way, than I was. And in the end, it discredited the armed forces of Argentina, it discredited the police forces, and now that we have 20 years of democracy, it’s still hard to get people to believe in their institutions again. That’s the kind of thing that we face when we go down this path of torture.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Mendez, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
JUAN MENDEZ: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
AMY GOODMAN: The Special Adviser to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on the Prevention of Genocide, previously President of the International Center for Transitional Justice and worked at Human Rights Watch for about 15 years, actually current President of the Center for Transitional Justice. Thank you so much.
JUAN MENDEZ: Thank you.