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UN Mission Goes to Darfur to Assess Situation

09 February 2007

A U.N. human rights mission led by American anti-landmine campaigner and Nobel Laureate, Jody Williams, leaves on Saturday to assess the situation in Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur. The team will report back on its findings to the UN Human Rights Council in March. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The mission is going ahead even though the team members have not yet received their visas for Darfur. Nobel Laureate, Jody Williams, says the United Nations is still in negotiations with the Sudanese government, but, adds she fully expects to get the visas when the team arrives in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Stopping first in Addis, she says, will allow the team to meet with the African Union, which is based there. She says it is important to get the AU's perspective of the situation in Darfur.

"Addis seemed a very logical point of departure given the role of the AU," she said. "It has been our intention to go there. So, we are going there. I fully anticipate that the Sudanese government will recognize that it has agreed to this resolution and that it is in its interest to have this mission there. I am not going to worry. I am proceeding."

About 7,000 African Union soldiers are in Darfur. But, the AU force is too small and too weak to protect civilians from being killed or abused. The International Community has been pressuring Sudan to allow a larger U.N. peacekeeping force to assist the AU in Darfur. But, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, so far, has refused to agree to a U.N. force.

The current Williams-led mission to Darfur is seen as another pressure point to get the Sudanese President to change his mind.

The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council agreed to send a mission to assess the human rights situation in Darfur during an emergency session in December. The six-member team includes the ambassadors of Gabon and Indonesia. Critics say their presence undermines the independence and impartiality of the mission. They note that both Gabon and Indonesia have supported Sudan and shielded it from accountability.

Williams is aware of the controversy surrounding the composition of the team members.

"There is no way that any nation who is receiving a mission mandated by a resolution that it agreed to is going to have veto power over the members of the mission," she added. "That would be absurd. This is an independent mission. Nobody is telling us what to think. Nobody is telling us what to say. Nobody is telling us what to write. And any of you who knows me well know that that is certainly the way I would operate."

The United Nations estimates more than 200,000 people have been killed and about 2.5 million people have been made homeless since war broke out between the Sudanese backed Janjaweed militia and African rebel groups in 2003.

Williams says she is extremely busy and had to change her schedule to accept this mission. She says she would not have done so if she did not believe the mission could make a contribution toward helping the people of Darfur.

Williams says the mission will present the Council with a list of recommendations that it hopes will be implemented in Darfur.

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