25 June 2004 Declaring that the people of Darfur, Sudan, "are suffering a catastrophe," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that he would use his upcoming visit to the region to press the Khartoum Government to protect its civilians from continuing atrocities by notorious militia groups.
In a press conference on the eve of his official trip to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe, which includes a three-day visit to Sudan and neighbouring Chad, Mr. Annan said "terrible crimes have been committed" in Darfur.
Two UN human rights reports last month found that Government-allied Arab militias, known mainly as the Janjaweed, have conducted wide-scale human rights abuses against Darfur's black African population, including killings, rapes and the destruction of villages.
Asked whether the events constituted genocide, the Secretary-General recalled that he had previously noted that reports indicated "it was bordering on ethnic cleansing."
"The issue is not to discuss what name to give it. We all agree that serious crimes are being committed. International humanitarian law is being broken, and there are currently very serious violations, grave ones, that we need to act [upon]. We don't need a label to propel ourselves to act. And so I think we should act now, and stop arguing about which label to put on it," he said.
He urged international donors to provide immediate assistance - both in funding and in resources such as equipment and personnel - to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.
"We have a shortfall of $140 million for this year…We need all of this assistance now, not in one or two months when it will be too late. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake," he said.
UN agencies estimate that more than one million people are internally displaced within Darfur and another 150,000 live as refugees in Chad because of the fighting between the Sudanese Government, two rebel groups and the militias since early last year.
The Secretary-General said he had pleaded with the Sudanese Government to stop the Janjaweed from carrying out more attacks and disarm them. "I am going in myself to find out the situation on the ground, support my people and put additional pressure on the Government to do what it has to do," he said.
Mr. Annan said he would meet United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, who will be in Khartoum at the same time, "where we will collectively be putting pressure on the Government to do what it has to do."
He warned that the leaders of the Janjaweed, and not just its field commanders, would be punished for any crimes. "Given the atrocities that have happened and the crimes that are being committed - these are universal crimes - so the perpetrators ought to be put on notice that they will be held accountable wherever they are," he said.
Noting that Sudan has signed the treaty setting up the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world's first permanent tribunal for war crimes, Mr. Annan said Africa's largest country is "morally bound" to live by its terms.
He also warned that the peace process in southern Sudan, where a brutal 21-year civil war is nearing an end, is being imperilled by the continuing violence and misery in Darfur.
"The most sacred responsibility of any government is to protect its people against the kind of crimes that have been committed in Darfur. If the Sudanese Government doesn't have the capacity to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to assist, and the Sudanese Government should seek such assistance," he said.
The Secretary-General described the humanitarian needs in Darfur as massive, but he said UN agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) have made significant progress in recent months in bringing relief.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is on schedule to provide food to 1.2 million people by the end of August, an anti-measles campaign is targeting 2.2 million children, and the number of people with access to safe drinking water has increased by 350,000.
However, the recent onset of the annual rainy season raised the threat of the spread of water-borne diseases, Mr. Annan said, adding that large number of latrines are being built to avoid epidemics.
The Secretary-General also urged Sudanese President Omer Al Bashir to make it easier for humanitarian workers to gain access to suffering civilians. While access has improved, he said, there are still too many delays in granting permits to non-UN aid workers and in clearing aid supplies and equipment through customs, and aid workers are being subjected to personal threats.
Earlier this month Mr. Annan appointed Jan Pronk of the Netherlands as his Special Representative for Sudan. Mr. Pronk will accompany the Secretary-General to Sudan, as will Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Mohamed Sahnoun, Mr. Annan's Special Adviser for Africa.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced today that it has opened three offices across Darfur to help as many of the region's more than one million internally displaced people as possible. The number of staff will also be increased from seven to 30. UNHCR has already helped more than 110,000 refugees camped along the Chadian-Sudanese border relocate to eight camps further inside Chad, where they are considered safe from cross-border raids by the Janjaweed.
Video of press conference [42mins]