“The UN Panel of Experts on Darfur Disappears,” from Dissent Magazine, September 27, 2011 –
by Eric Reeves
The UN Panel of Experts for Darfur, authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005), was given the mandate to monitor an embargo on the movement of arms and military supplies into Darfur and a UN Security Council ban on “offensive military flights in and over the Darfur region.” The panel has been the most authoritative body investigating reports of bombing attacks, including those targeting civilians, or attacks so indiscriminate as to put civilians at risk. But as the bombing attacks continue apace—more than 100 so far this year in Darfur alone, not to mention the even greater number of attacks in South Kordofan and Blue Nile—the panel has ceased to function. By delaying, obstructing, and finally refusing entry to the panel, Sudan’s National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime has successfully defied the UN.
There are significant implications to this collapse, yet neither the UN Secretary General nor anyone within the Secretariat has said anything about it. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN/African Union Joint Special Representative to Darfur who is supposed to lead the peacekeeping mission and peace process there, and Chande Othman, the UN special representative for human rights in Darfur and Sudan, have also been silent on the demise of the panel.
The Security Council has apparently been intimidated into keeping quiet by Beijing’s anger at the panel for reporting a year ago on the movement of Chinese weaponry and ammunition into Darfur, much of it with a manufacturing date after the Security Council imposed its arms embargo. Even earlier, former panel coordinator Enrico Carisch testified to the U.S. Congress that key Security Council members, including the United States, were failing to support the panel’s work.
As far back as 2007 the confirmed findings of the panel, representing only a few months of aerial attacks at the end of 2006, were greeted scornfully by Khartoum’s ambassador to the UN:
“On a map of Darfur, the [UN Panel of Experts for Darfur report] showed over 100 black dots where it said incidents of ‘aerial bombardment’ had taken place between October  and January. Asked who else but the government [of Sudan] could be responsible for the bombings, [Ambassador] Abdelhaleem said: ‘These are big lies, big lies.’ He accused the [UN Panel of Experts for Darfur] of including the map ‘to make some people in this area happy.’ ‘They want to hear this music—that Sudan did that, the government did that, they bombed here, they killed there. This is the music that is very much enjoyed by some people here,’ Abdelhaleem said.”
But the panel provided far too much detail to justify Abdelhaleem’s callous dismissal. In its October 1, 2008 report, as in all of its reports, to the Security Council, the panel noted a great many highly specific examples:
“104. According to local reports the bombing killed six people and injured four (one of these a four-year-old girl), all as a result of shrapnel and the haphazard yet deadly flight of metal pieces placed inside the ordnance. Secondary effects described by villagers included respiratory problems immediately following the bombing and illness resulting from villagers using the metal bomb fragments to construct eating utensils.”
“105. The bombing resulted in damage to several dwellings, the local clinic and the village water pump, thus depriving the community of its sole source of potable water. The nearest water source for the village is now the village of Daya, some 10 to 20 km away. Humanitarian aid from United Nations and other agencies has disappeared since the bombing and at the time of the Panel’s visit, the community was suffering from shortages of food and medicine. According to residents of Umu, Antonovs continue to fly regularly over the village, most often during the morning hours, terrifying the population.”
My own extensive research, using a wider ranger of sources to confirm aerial attacks on civilians throughout Darfur, finds that hundreds of aerial attacks have occurred in violation not only of Resolution 1591 but international law protecting civilians in war zones: seventy attacks in 2006, seventy-five in 2007, ninety in 2008, seventy-five for 2009, ninety in 2010, and as noted, more than 100 to date in 2011. Civilian casualties have been staggering in some cases, although for most attacks no figure has been confirmed. Radio Dabanga has provided some of the most comprehensive coverage, like in this dispatch from April 28:
“Twenty-seven people were killed, including 18 women and 9 children, when an Antonov plane dropped several bombs on the areas of Koloberi and Gurlengbang in the southern part of the Jebel Marra region. Six women were also injured in the air attack. A witness told Radio Dabanga that the airstrikes led to the burning of 27 houses and also the death of sheep and cattle. He stated that the bombed areas had been free of any rebel presence.”
This attack, like most, went uninvestigated.
During its existence, the panel mission was able to establish that in addition to bombing civilians, the regime on numerous occasions had painted its military aircraft a white color that made them virtually impossible to distinguish from UN humanitarian aircraft, in violation of international law. It also brought to light key facts about Khartoum’s ongoing relationship with Arab militias, used as paramilitary forces against Darfuri civilians. Such revelations made Khartoum’s determination to end the work of the panel entirely predictable, especially after the international community failed to object in any meaningful fashion to the regime’s March 2009 expulsion of thirteen key international relief NGOs, which provided roughly half the humanitarian capacity in the region.
The last report of significance from the panel came two years ago, on October 2, 2009, and made clear that even then they were experiencing serious interference from Khartoum, which had restricted UNAMID flight operations. In one specific example, “the Panel attempted to fly to Umm Baru to conduct investigations, but twice the UNAMID flight was denied permission by NISS [National Intelligence and Security Services] to leave the El Geneina airport.” Since then, Khartoum has managed to turn Darfur increasingly into a “black box,” with no place for international observers.
Now, four of the panel’s five members—its experts on international law, arms, aviation, and Darfur—have resigned, the only exception an Indian national who coordinates the panel and is reported to have performed poorly. A well-informed regional source indicates that he was chosen because the UN in New York thought that Khartoum officials would find him sufficiently pliant.
Darfur continues to demonstrate just how completely dysfunctional the Security Council has become, and how little the Council’s resolutions mean, even ones containing “demands” (as Resolution 1591 did) with Chapter 7 authority, based on the UN’s prerogative to respond to any “threat to international peace and security.” This has enormous implications for Sudan as a whole, particularly UN efforts to secure access for humanitarian relief in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum’s serial military actions in Abyei (completed May 20), South Kordofan (beginning June 5), and Blue Nile (beginning September 1) have created huge numbers of displaced persons and profoundly disrupted humanitarian lifelines. The humanitarian side of the UN, badly led by Georg Charpentier, finds itself negotiating from a compromised position because of political weakness and discord in the Security Council.
The acquiescence to Khartoum’s refusal to permit the UN panel to fulfill its mandate has not been lost on any Sudanese party. It diminishes the chances of a peaceful resolution to Sudan’s conflicts—present and prospective. The disappearance of the UN Panel of Experts for Darfur will figure significantly in the Khartoum regime’s thinking about any number of issues, including human rights reporting and humanitarian access in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. And yet again it’s clear that Sudan’s problems are deeply interrelated, and that actions and policies in one region deeply affect Khartoum’s military calculations in others.
[Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]