Annan sends UN rights officials to assess how to protect civilians in Sudan

Kofi Annan briefs reporters

16 September 2004 – Secretary-General Kofi Annan today announced he is dispatching the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and his Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Juan Méndez to the strife-torn region of Darfur in Sudan to recommend what can be done to protect civilians there from continuing brutal attacks by local militias.

Ms. Arbour and Mr. Méndez will arrive in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Saturday to begin their mission, Mr. Annan told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York.

"Their job is not to describe or characterize what is happening, but to see what more can be done to stop it, and to prevent further abuses," he said, referring to the debate about whether the situation should be termed genocide. "Civilians are still being attacked and fleeing their villages even as we speak," he added.

More than 1.2 million Sudanese are internally displaced within Darfur and another 200,000 live as refugees in neighbouring Chad since the mainly Arab Janjaweed militias allied to the Government in its conflict with two rebel groups began attacking black African civilians.

The Secretary-General said he told Security Council members yesterday that he wants a proposed commission of inquiry into whether genocide has taken place in Darfur to proceed.

The United States is circulating a draft resolution on Darfur among Council members after its Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that the killings in the war-torn region over the past year constituted genocide.

The Council's 15 members are holding consultations this afternoon about the content of the draft text.

Mr. Annan said it is the first time in the Council's history that it has ever been seized under Article 8 of the Genocide Convention, which allows parties to the treaty to "call upon the competent organs of the UN" to take action under the Charter to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.

"It seems to me inconceivable that [the Council] should fail to respond. In any case, the Council must be fully engaged. It must continue to pressure all sides," he said.

But the Secretary-General said that, regardless of whether the crimes being committed in Darfur are defined as genocide or not, it is essential to take action immediately to protect the civilians.

He also said the ceasefire in Darfur is being broken by both sides - the Sudanese Government forces and the two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Earlier this year, two UN human rights fact-finding reports accused the Janjaweed of committing numerous atrocities, including the murder and rape of villagers, the destruction of homes and cropland, and the poisoning of wells and other water sources.

This week a survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicated that hundreds of people in the vast, impoverished region are dying every day, either because of diseases contracted in the often crowded and unhygienic camps for displaced persons or because of Janjaweed attacks.

Video of press remarks [07mins]

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