Over a thousand armed rebels stormed an African Union base in Darfur on Sunday, killing at least 12 peacekeepers in the worst attack on the international force since they were deployed in 2004. More than 50 others are reportedly missing after the weekend raid. We speak with acclaimed Sudanese human rights lawyer and opposition member of Sudanese Parliament, Salih Mahmoud Osman. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Sudan, over a thousand armed rebels stormed an African Union base in Darfur Sunday, killing at least 12 peacekeepers. More than 50 others are reportedly missing after the weekend raid. The precise identity of the rebel group that carried out the attack remains unknown. Since the now-defunct Darfur Peace Agreement was signed in May 2006, the number of rebel groups operating in Darfur has grown five-fold, from three to 15.
Sunday’s attack on the African Union base was the deadliest since the 7,000-strong force arrived in Darfur in 2003. The assault came weeks before the planned initial deployment of an expanded United Nations-African Union force of 26,000 soldiers. High-level peace talks in Libya between the Sudanese government and the Darfuri rebel groups are also scheduled to take place later this month.
This latest took place just as a new diplomatic initiative for peace got underway. A delegation of the so-called “elders,” including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, arrived in Khartoum on Sunday. This is how Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the purpose of their visit to Sudan.
ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: We do not represent our countries or any country or non-governmental or inter-governmental organization. We consider ourselves elders of a global village. Due to the urgency of the conflict and the immense suffering in Darfur, we have decided to come here first. This is our first mission as elders.
AMY GOODMAN: Salih Mahmoud Osman is an internationally recognized human rights lawyer from Darfur and opposition member of the Sudanese Parliament. He has given free legal aid to the victims of arbitrary detention, torture and persecution by the Sudanese state for over 20 years.
At the height of the violence in Darfur in 2004, Sudanese security forces arrested Osman and detained him without charge or trial for seven months. He was released after a hunger strike and today continues to defend political and civil rights in Khartoum and Darfur.
Osman received Human Rights Watch’s highest award in 2005 and is one of the three finalists for the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought this year.
Salih Mahmoud Osman joins me here in New York at the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk about the attack that just took place?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Sure. It’s sad news — I must confess to that — but still, it confirms our fears that African Union forces have no capacity, and they are not in a position to provide proper protection to the people of Darfur, let alone to themselves, first of all, let alone the people of Darfur.
AMY GOODMAN: Who attacked them?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: I don’t have the concrete news about it, information about that. But most probably now the presence of the African Union forces has been controversial since last year, when so many people had the feeling that these forces are not in a position to provide protection to the people, and sometimes people say that they are siding with the government of Sudan on so many occasions, because sometimes atrocities occur in front of their eyes, but they don’t intervene to protect the lives of the people there.
AMY GOODMAN: Who shores up, who funds, who finances the African Union, the peacekeepers?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: In fact, also I don’t have that concrete information, but my guess is that it is the international community, it is the U.N. itself, that’s financed the presence of the African Union forces on the ground in Darfur. It’s not the AU, as such. The AU, the African Union, is providing soldiers, but it is the U.N., other countries around the world, who provide the facility, the finance for them.
AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to happen? Do they simply need more finances, or should it be a different force?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: It should be a different force. It is the U.N.-AU hybrid forces that is — that might possibly provide the protection that is needed. And now we of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1769 that says it is the responsibility of the international community to send the robust force in Darfur to protect the lives that are perishing on a daily basis.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the overall situation in Darfur right now, the displaced people? Are the murders, the attacks, the rapes up or down?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Sure, because the current situation is that still we have more than two-million-and-a-half people who are being forcibly displaced from their homes living in the camps right now, and they are held there for an indefinite period. They don’t know when and how they can go back to their homes. And we have also refugees across the border in the Chad Republic. They are also there for so long time now, and they are not also capable to come back to their home.
And it’s very sad, very, very important to mention that the land that has been depopulated by these people is now occupied by people coming from outside Sudan, Arabs coming from Niger, from Chad, from Mali, and even from Mauritania, to settle. That seems to establish what we have been calling it, an ethnic cleansing right now that is happening. Still, the government of Sudan is using helicopter gunships and interim aircraft to target African communities, and there is always the influx of IDPs, displaced people, coming into camps.
AMY GOODMAN: Salih Osman, what is the significance of the elders coming to Sudan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of South Africa, former President Jimmy Carter?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: We appreciate immensely their initiative, but it still is always doubtful if there is no collective international community will to resolve the situation in Darfur, because on one hand we have this government of Sudan, which is very much determined that the plan of ethnic cleansing or genocide should be established before the international community intervenes; on the other hand, we have the rebel groups who are now splitting among themselves and makes it very complicated that efforts of peace talks or ceasefire is always very much difficult to say. But let’s see how the elders are going to make the initiative and what is their plans. I don’t know exactly whether they are mediators or they are going to put pressure on the government of Sudan.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Salih Mahmoud Osman, internationally recognized human rights lawyer from Darfur. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, urged the international community to support his efforts to arrest the two Sudanese officials wanted for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. I want to play a clip of the response from Abdul-Mahmoud Abdul-Halim Mohammed, the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations.
ABDUL-MAHMOUD ABDUL-HALIM MOHAMMED: In no way we are going to surrender any of our citizens to be prosecuted abroad. If there are any crimes, the place is Sudan, and the people to do that is the Sudanese judicial system.
AMY GOODMAN: Salih Osman, your response?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: My response is that everybody knows that our Sudanese judicial system is incompetent and unwilling to provide justice to the victims. It is because we don’t have in our penal code a provision that makes it a crime, like crimes against humanity or war crimes, let alone genocide. But the ambassador knows that up to this moment, even, inside Sudan, notorious perpetrators who are highly implicated in the commission of crimes, they are still beyond the reach of our domestic justice, so there is no possibility of any perpetrator being held accountable for his acts in Sudan. It is only the International Criminal Court that has the jurisdiction to bring to justice those who are still enjoying privilege, like Harun, who is now minister for — is still minister for humanitarian affairs, and lastly he has been also including in a commission to investigate about violations of human rights in Darfur and also in Sudan. That is very much insulting the feelings of the victims. It is just like putting insult to grievous injury.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the upcoming high-level peace talks that are going to be hosted by Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader, between the rebel groups and the Sudanese government?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: I’m not very optimistic about that, because we have seen — there have been always talks from now and then in Libya, but there was no result at all. The situation is that we have the rebel groups, the —- all factions of the rebel groups, who don’t have one single unified negotiating position. That would make it very much difficult. Some are willing to go; others are not. But -—
AMY GOODMAN: What has been Gaddafi’s role?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Gaddafi has been always saying he’s a mediator, but so many people don’t have that same feeling that he’s an appropriate mediator in this.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Because, in fact — because always Libya has been seen as somebody who was interested in Darfur himself, and there are some factions who are very much affiliated with Libya, and that is — makes it like there is no possibility that all the factions might agree.
AMY GOODMAN: The role of China?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: The role of China — we are very much sad to say that China has for a long time been undermining the interest of the people of Darfur. That is in the context of always the victims and survivors has this feeling that China is not doing sufficient effort to address the humanitarian situation there in Darfur.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the relationship with Sudan that China has based on oil?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: It is based on oil and other economic interests. And that is why China is always siding with the government of Sudan. But nevertheless, we have seen some improvement in the position of China. When the last United Nations Security Council Resolution 1769 was adopted, China was also there. China was not abstaining. China joined the other members of the Security Council.
AMY GOODMAN: Salih Osman, you were detained in 2004 for seven months. Are you concerned about returning to your region of Sudan, Darfur, where you live?
SALIH MAHMOUD OSMAN: Yes. I’m determined to go back, and I always go back there. And I go to the camps, even, inside Darfur, everywhere, around Nyala, El Fasher, Zalingei and El Geneina. So there’s no way that I can avoid standing with the people there in the time of this suffering. This is an immense human suffering there that is going on in Darfur.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for stopping by our firehouse studio here in New York, Salih Mahmoud Osman, internationally recognized human rights lawyer from Darfur.