PoC: The Politics of Counting Rape in Darfur

During my fieldwork in Khartoum in February/March this year a paradoxical development was brought to my attention. The records of UNAMID, The African Union/UN Hybrid operation in Darfur, indicate that sexual violence is on a decrease in Darfur. These records are, because of their sensitive nature, not open to the general public. Several interviews with both diplomats and humanitarian actors supported this assertion.

If sexual violence in Darfur is in fact on the decrease, that is good news indeed. But the validity of the assertion invites critical scrutiny.

Interviews conducted with humanitarian and political actors suggest that only the reporting of rape cases to UNAMID has gone down. Sudanese informants referred mockingly to UNAMID as “the African mistake in Darfur”, implying that the largest peacekeeping operation to date is not up to the task. They explain that the reporting to UNAMID has gone down because in 2009, the Sudanese government has expelled the humanitarian actors that were most active in referring cases to UNAMID and in speaking out publicly and bringing attention to the systematic and widespread rape in Darfur.

It is close to impossible to get research permits to Darfur for a Western researcher. But my interviews in Khartoum with International and Sudanese nationals active in Darfur before and after the expulsions suggest that the violence, including sexual violence, may actually be on the increase. In the words of a former minister from Darfur “the violence is escalating (…) It is out of control and it has become an everyday event by the police, the security, the Janjaweed and the rebels. The international community is deserting them. UNAMID is doing nothing. They are not protecting civilians. They cannot even protect themselves. (…)”.

The lack of reporting and the implicit conclusion that sexual violence might be on the decrease, potentially has significant political implications; it backs President Bashir’s claim that the evidence for the systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur was fabricated by the international community in an effort to undermine the Sudanese government.

Systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur: Government denial

In 2005, the UN published a report on sexual violence in Darfur concluding that the Government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed were responsible for widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

An arrest warrant for Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009 indicting him on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians). The indictment speaks to 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010) on women, peace and security and acknowledges the sexualization of violence in Darfur. The President insists that the allegations of widespread and systematic rape were being fabricated for political purposes. In an interview with Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 Bashir argued that

“When it comes to mass rape, there is no document or evidence, just accusations (…). We are fully convinced that no rape took place. It might have happened at an individual level, but this is a normal crime that can happen in any country in the world. Mass rape does not exist.

Expulsion of humanitarian actors from Darfur

The Sudanese government’s reactions to this indictment have had dramatic repercussions for the humanitarian presence in Darfur, including within the area of gender based violence (GBV) programming.

Immediately following the ICC indictment, the Sudanese government expelled 13 international NGOs operating in Darfur and de-registered prominent national NGOs that between them employed nearly 40% of Darfur’s aid workers. The Vice-President stated that

“Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests.”

Government officials made it clear that they would fill the void left by the International NGOs with “national and friendly foreign NGOs”.  In addition to the international NGOs that were expelled, the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) de-registered three Sudanese NGOS; the Amal Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights Development and Environment and the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO).

The Sudanese government harbours a particular antipathy towards those humanitarian actors that address gender-based violence, and/or speak out publicly about rape cases. As a consequence, a humanitarian worker explains “The meetings in the GBV cluster used to be packed. Now they are empty (…)”.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was accused of spying for the ICC. In 2005, MSF published The Crushing Burden of Rape,  a report  on the widespread sexual violence in Darfur. MSF reported treating nearly 500 rape survivors from October 2004 to early February 2005. Two senior members of MSF Holland were arrested charged with espionage and publishing false information. In 2006, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Darfur after publishing a report on 80 cases of rape around Kalma Camp in southern Darfur. Khartoum claimed the findings were false.

In 2013, one of the major concerns on the ground is the diminished capacity on reporting on GBV violations. In the words of an activist from Darfur:

“The arrest warrant of Bashir has affected our work in Darfur. The word ‘protection of civilians‘ became very sensitive. If we use that term then the government thinks that we are collecting rape cases and reporting them to the ICC.  With the ICC, reporting of rape has become more difficult. (…)”.

Similarly, according to an international organization working within the area of GBV violence in Darfur; The gaps left by the expulsion of 13 NGOs following the announcement of the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir in March 2009, remain. (…) The expulsion of the International NGOs has significantly reduced the capacity for monitoring and referrals, as well as diminished the reporting capacity on GBV issues”.

International NGOs as political tools?

The International NGOs most forceful in the work and advocacy on GBV has been expelled. Remaining humanitarian agencies openly admit their reluctance to speak out about sexual violence. Because of government restrictions and intimidation, it is increasingly difficult for the remaining actors to work within the field of GBV without the risk of expulsion. As a consequence the reporting of rape to UNAMID has gone down. This poses an ethical dilemma to the remaining International NGOs:  On the one hand, if the government restricts or even blocks work on GBV, the humanitarian NGOs can still provide vital services in water, sanitation, and food security. On the other hand, by keeping silent on GBV, do the remaining humanitarian actors, described by the government as ‘friendly foreign NGOs’,  simply serve as political tools for Bashir in his claim that ‘Mass rape does not exist’ in Darfur?