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Human rights situation in Darfur 'remains grim' - UN rights expert

11 July 2008 – Government forces and rebel groups continue to commit human rights violations in the Darfur region of Sudan, while populations in the southern part of the country also suffer from ongoing violence, according to an independent United Nations rights official.

Sima Samar, who has just completed a two-week visit to Sudan, also spoke out against this week’s attack on the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID, which left seven dead and 19 wounded.

“I strongly condemn Tuesday’s attack on UN peacekeepers in Darfur,” she said in a statement released today. “I am deeply saddened by the loss of life and my thoughts are with the families of those killed and injured in this unacceptable attack.”

Ms. Samar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Sudan, welcomed some “positive steps” which she said the Government had taken in Darfur, including the deployment of more police officers, the increased activities of State Committees against gender-based violence and the sentencing of several regular forces personnel found guilty of rape.

“Despite such positive steps, the human rights situation on the ground remains grim,” Ms. Samar stressed, saying she had seen the town of Tawilla completely deserted following an attack by the Government’s Central Reserve Police.

She added that Darfurian civilians continue to suffer from violent actions by various rebel groups, including the destruction of villages near Kafod, the burning down of a mosque and the killing and injury of civilians.

She also noted that 135 vehicles belonging to aid agencies had been hijacked so far this year forcing the UN World Food Programme to cut its delivery of rations by half.

“The Government has primary responsibility regarding the promotion and protection of human rights,” Ms. Samar said. “I also call on the rebel groups to fully comply with their obligations under international law and to take all necessary measures to protect civilians.”

Referring to a 10 May attack on Khartoum by members of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Ms. Samar said she strongly condemned the reported use of child soldiers in the attack. She also welcomed the Government’s decision to allow independent observers access to the captured child combatants and urged the Sudanese authorities to help demobilize and reintegrate them into society.

Ms. Samar said that 34 civilian deaths had resulted from the fighting during the JEM attack, according to the Government, and that it appeared that a number of these deaths may have been deliberate or the result of a disproportionate use of force. She called for an official enquiry into the allegations.

Adding that she was very concerned about the Government’s response following the attack, she said that a significant number of people had reportedly been detained, although since the UN had no access to them it was impossible to verify the figures. She had also heard allegations of torture, mistreatment and inhumane detention conditions, even though the Government has assured her that its policy was not to use torture.

The Special Rapporteur also visited Abyei, a town in an oil-rich area near the boundary between northern and southern Sudan, which was largely destroyed following clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Ms. Samar said that eyewitnesses and victims reported very serious human rights violations. She called on the Government to launch an in-depth independent fact-finding enquiry and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In Southern Sudan, Ms. Samar heard reports of fighting between villagers and SPLA forces and allegations of retaliatory killings by the SPLA, which illustrated a more general concern about the role of military SPLA forces for civilian policing. She called on authorities to make a comprehensive transition from military to civilian law enforcement.

The Special Rapporteur also said she had heard strong concerns expressed about the UN’s inability to protect the civilian population from the conflict. “The disillusionment I heard from communities in places like Tawilla or in Abyei is startlingly similar. Compounded by a lack of public awareness, expectations may often be unrealistically high,” she said, urging the UN to provide clear guidance on how exactly its protection of civilians mandate should be interpreted and implemented on the ground.

Ms. Samar will present a report on her visit to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.

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