Darfur Refugee and Top UN Envoy for Prevention of Genocide Discuss Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan and Role of International Community

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We take a look at what the United Nations calls “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises”–Sudan’s Western region of Darfur. We speak with Fatima Haroun, a Darfurian refugee, and Juan Mendez, the United Nation’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to what the UN calls “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises”–Sudan’s Western region of Darfur. The African Union has set a deadline for the end of this month for warring parties in the Darfur region to agree on a new ceasefire. Since 2003, two rebel groups — the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Movement — have waged an armed struggle against the Sudanese government.

The rebels are fighting to end what has been described as genocide against the mainly black inhabitants of Darfur. The Sudanese government has responded by backing militias known as the Janjaweed. At least 180,000 people have died in the region and over 2 million people have been left homeless. Earlier this month, the Sudanese government blocked the top humanitarian official at the United Nations from visiting the Darfur region. The official, Jan Egeland, accused Sudan of trying to cover up for ethnic cleansing. He said the situation is “changing dramatically for the worse.”

Hopes for an African Union-brokered ceasefire remain grim. The current talks mark the seventh round of negotiations between Karthoum and the rebel groups in the last two years. Previous ceasefires have repeatedly been broken. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council remains divided on how to address the issue. At the UN Monday, Russia and China blocked a measure backed by the U.S. and Britain to sanction four individuals from both sides of the conflict over alleged abuses. Russian and Chinese officials said they wanted to await the results of the ongoing peace talks. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the US would force a vote on the issue anyway.

  • John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Here in this country, a growing movement is mobilizing to put pressure on the Sudanese government and the companies they do business with. Last week, the California State Teachers” Retirement System Board voted to divest from any companies with ties to Sudan. The board oversees the country’s second largest pension fund. The vote came just weeks after the University of California regents approved a similar measure. Both decisions followed concerted campaigns from California student activists.

To talk about the latest developments in Darfur and the response in this country and around the world we speak with two guests:

  • Juan Mendez, United Nation’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. He has visited the Darfur region twice since his appointment in July 2004. He is also President of the International Center for Transitional Justice.
  • Fatima Haroun, a Darfurian refugee who has lectured widely on the crisis. She is member of the Darfur Rehabilitation Project and the Sudan Peace Advocates Network.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the U.S. would force a vote on the issue anyway.

JOHN BOLTON: We have felt for some time that the sanctions procedure was an important aspect of our policy, American policy toward Sudan and Darfur, in particular, and an important element of the council’s policy, as well. So this will be, in effect, a test to the council to see if the sanctions procedure is going to work at all. And we have moved slowly, unfortunately slowly, but we’ve certainly come to the point where it’s time for a decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in this country, a growing movement is mobilizing to put pressure on the Sudanese government and the companies they do business with. Last week, the California State Teachers Retirement System Board voted to divest from any companies with ties to the Sudan. The board overseas the country’s second largest pension fund. The vote came just weeks after the University of California Regents approved a similar measure. Both decisions followed concerted campaigns from California student activists.

To talk on the latest developments and the response in this country and around the world, we are joined by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. He’s visited Darfur twice since his appointment in July 2004. We’re also joined by Fatima Haroun. She represents the Darfur Rehabilitation Project at the Sudan Peace Advocates Network, a refugee from Darfur who’s lectured widely on the ongoing crisis. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

I would like to start at the U.N. Juan Mendez, you attempted to speak about what’s happened in Darfur before the U.N. Security Council, but you were blocked. By who?

JUAN MENDEZ: That was when I had just returned from my second trip to Darfur in early October of this year, and there was an attempt to reach consensus, and the Chinese and the Algerian delegate at that time were first to object to it. And at the time when a final decision had to be arrived at, the U.S. delegation, which until that time had been speaking in favor of my briefing the council, suddenly turned around and opposed it, as well. And then the Russian delegate also opposed it. This could have been a procedural issue. It could have been voted on, but the chair at that time, the Romanian ambassador, evidently wanted to have consensus. So I didn’t brief the council at that time. But the U.S. delegation later visited me and gave me an explanation that I think means that in the future, I won’t be blocked, at least not by the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: So what’s this issue of the four individuals to be sanctioned, and do you think this is adequate?

JUAN MENDEZ: This is an important issue. The sanctions regime has been approved in general by the Security Council more than a year ago, but as happens in other countries, as well, it’s one thing to say there will be sanctions and then — especially if they’re targeted individual sanctions. Then, applying them to individuals takes forever apparently. I think it’s important that we start applying the sanctions regime, so it’s not just an idle threat. It’s a real specific way of separating individuals who are an obstacle to getting solutions in Darfur.

I am not familiar with the four names that the U.S. and U.K. delegations have circulated, so I can’t comment on whether it’s appropriate or not. It seems to me like four is a very low number.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Ghosh one of them?

JUAN MENDEZ: I don’t know. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Who had just been to Britain and who had —

JUAN MENDEZ: Yeah, the intelligence chief. I know who you mean, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — been brought to the United States and has an intelligence relationship with the United States.

JUAN MENDEZ: I have no idea, but what I do think is that the number probably should need to be a lot higher than four, although the delegations proposing it have said that this is only the first step. But as a first step, it also is already encountering some difficulties in the council.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Jan Egeland, the top humanitarian official at the United Nations who went to Darfur?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, the government of the Sudan did not allow him to go to Sudan, to enter Sudan, and they also did not allow him to go to Chad via the airspace of Sudan. So, in effect, they barred him from visiting the area where most of the humanitarian action in the world is taking place today.

AMY GOODMAN: Fatima Haroun, what is happening in Sudan?

FATIMA HAROUN: It’s — I can call it genocide. It is crimes against civilian innocent people: killing, burning, looting all their resources, and displacing them, burning them. It’s devastating. That’s what’s going on on a daily basis. Civilians who are disarmed, have nothing to defend themselves, are being attacked by the Janjaweed militia backed by the government troops, and they are being bombed from the air by helicopters. And this is going on. It’s being denied by the government of Sudan, but there are a lot of evidence and documents to prove it.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is perpetrating this?

FATIMA HAROUN: The government, and the militia, Janjaweed, are supporting the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the Janjaweed?

FATIMA HAROUN: They are Arab groups from Darfur who have interest, and the government has promised them if they kill the African indigenous people, they will get the land. They will get all the privileges. They will be predominant in the area. And that’s what they are doing. And they were given chances to steal and take away everything.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your estimates of how many people have been killed?

FATIMA HAROUN: It’s very difficult to make an estimate, but I can say up to 700,000 people have been killed, either by direct killing or by disease and malnutrition.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done right now?

FATIMA HAROUN: I will ask for an immediate intervention of the international community. I mean, the U.N.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened, Juan Mendez, to the African Union?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, the African Union has done a wonderful job, both in protecting people on the ground and in sponsoring the Abuja talks. But in both cases, it has been half-measures, in the sense that the international community did not give the African Union the full support that it needed. It has been chronically short of funds. It has been at least 200 million under-funded. And so their presence on the ground has been limited. Where they have been present, they have been doing very good job, but they’ve —

AMY GOODMAN: Who has under-funded it?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, the international community. The big nations. Europe and the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And why won’t they fund the African Union?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, they did fund it up to a certain extent, but they not only did not fund it at any time at the level that they needed, but they also announced that there won’t be renewals of that. And that’s what made the military observer mission begin to set dates for its termination, and now we’re talking about a replacement or at least an integration from that force into a larger U.N.-sponsored force.


JUAN MENDEZ: That’s the problem. I mean, we — at least for six months or so, there’s now an extension of the mandate of the A.U., because we need at least a six-month lead time to prepare another force to be there, maybe even more than six months.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s an extension of the mandate of the African Union, and yet it’s not funded.

JUAN MENDEZ: That’s right, but there’s going to be a donor’s conference soon, at which point I am hoping that it will be funded and not only funded to just to keep it as a bridge force, because six months will be a very dangerous period. Especially the people who are vulnerable now are going to be even more vulnerable in the next six months. So I’m hoping that the funding will come at a level in which this force is not just kept there, but strengthened.

AMY GOODMAN: In whose interest is this to continue? I mean, how is it possible with the U.N. saying this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, that year after year this continues, that you as a U.N. official can try to speak before the U.N. Security Council, and four major forces, China, Russia, the United States, Algeria, stop you from speaking?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I think the question of my briefing the council is important for me and for my office, but it’s not important in the large scheme of things. As long as —

AMY GOODMAN: Just as an example.

JUAN MENDEZ: Yeah, as long as my reports are before the council — and they are. The Secretary General passes them on to the Security Council, and I think that what I have to propose is considered by the Security Council. But I think the main problem that we have had so far is that we have been dependent on the cooperation and the consent of the Sudanese government. For good reason. I mean, of course if you can get this done with consent, it’s always better than to do a non-consensual intervention. But the facts on the — and seeking African solutions to African problems is, in principle, a good idea.

The problem is, in Sudan, is that we have been completely dependent on the consent of the Sudanese government that has been playing games with that consent all along. The A.U. has not been more effective on the ground, not only because of lack of support by the international community, but also because the Sudanese government has at every step hampered its ability to protect people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the Sudanese government are the perpetrators. Why would they say “Fine?” Why would they in any way consent unless forced?

JUAN MENDEZ: Well, because it’s in their interest to avoid international isolation, to avoid more international isolation than they suffer now. But, unfortunately, they are able to recruit allies, partly in some African Union members, but mostly in the Arab League, and so they — and, of course, some other major powers that seem to protect them, and so they are able to forestall more robust action by the international community. The problem is that we are getting to a point where things are very, very dangerous, and unless we get more serious about telling the Sudanese government that its cooperation is essential, but with or without its cooperation, the people in Darfur are going to be protected, it’s not clear to me that we can avoid a major disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any hope, Fatima Haroun?

FATIMA HAROUN: Yes. It seems that American people are getting to know a lot about the issue in Darfur, and they are putting pressure on the American government. And I am hoping that something better will happen. By the end of this month, there’s a big rally in Washington, D.C., to show the U.S. that it’s very essential to take an action and stop the genocide in Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want the thank you both for being with us. We’ve been speaking with Fatima Haroun, who is a refugee from Darfur, now living in Philadelphia, lecturing widely. She works at the Darfur Rehabilitation Project in the Sudan Peace Advocates Network; and Juan Mendez, who is the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. They will both be speaking, along with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for his columns at the New York Times, and with U.N. Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown, at an event called “We Are the Best Hope for Peace in Darfur” Wednesday here in New York at the New York Society for Ethical Culture off Central Park. I want to thank you for being with us.

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