“The main thing that the victims complain about is the bombing with the poison… The poison comes from some bombs, not all bombs… It causes lung infections… it causes lots of coughing. Victims are always coughing… It also causes eye infections… And vomiting and diarrhoea… When shrapnel hits the body it causes blisters… but it is mostly the smoke that causes the problems… The smoke changes the colour of skin to white. And sometimes the skin becomes rotten and I am compelled to cut away the rotting part…” – Hassan, a caregiver in Western Jebel Marra, interviewed in June.
International rights group Amnesty International (AI) has levelled fresh allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and contravention of treaties outlawing the use of chemical weapons against the Sudanese government.
The group investigated events in the Jebel Marra region in Central Darfur, and estimates that between 200 and 250 people, many or mostly children, died due to exposure to weaponised chemical agents between January and September this year.
AI published the report on Thursday, September 29, but had sent it to the Sudanese authorities for a response on September 15 and received a reply from Minister of Justice Awad Hassan Elnour.
Predictably, Mr Elnour denied the allegations of chemical weapons use: “Concerning the use of chemical weapons by SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces), we were very astonished to hear this accusation. It is the first time for us to get knowledge of such allegation which implicates a heinous humanitarian crime. It takes no effort to categorically repudiate such an assumption”.
He told the rights group that there was an investigation by an independent committee set up in February to investigate human rights abuses in Darfur. Among that committee’s findings were the following:
- “All the persons examined stated that they left their villages in Jebel Marra voluntarily for fear caused by hearing sounds of explosives.” The minister, it appears, does not think that fleeing due to bombings is coercive. As of August 31 the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that there were 198,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) in Darfur – the vast majority of whom are from Central Darfur where Jebel Marra is located.
- “Their general health appearances looked normal, and when the committee asked them about their health condition they replied that only their children had suffered ailment due to weather change, as they moved from a mild climate to hot places”. Pictures in the Amnesty International report appear to disprove this finding by the committee.
- People said that they were content with the military intervention by the government forces against rebel groups like Sudan Liberation Movement – Abdel Wahid faction.
The number of IDPs in Darfur due to this year’s offensive is the highest it has been in the region in over a decade. Yet the government and President Omar Al-Bashir have consistently denied that the conflict is ongoing – going so far as to say that the UN Mission in Darfur (Unamid) should not have had its mandate renewed in June as the region is now peaceful.
However, the evidence of war crimes – the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants – and crimes against humanity documented by AI in the report appear damning.
The allegation of chemical weapons use in particular will warrant a response by the international community and an independent, transparent investigation into the accusations will be called for. AI was not able to visit the areas where the alleged chemical weapons attacks took place and instead had to rely on witness testimony, satellite pictures, photographs, and expert opinion. As such, the regime still has plausible deniability until investigators are allowed to do a proper investigation – but it is unlikely that the regime will comply.
These allegations come a week after the US Department of State issued a surprising statement thanking the Sudanese government for its help in countering terrorism. The statement was a signal that US relations with the regime were warming, but this new development will make such a rapprochement far more difficult.
Western powers have moved closer to Khartoum in order help stem the flow of immigrants passing through the country headed to Europe. That policy change, one of engagement, was heavily criticised. Now, if these allegations are found to be true, the West will have to explain why it is willing to deal with a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own civilians with many or most of the victims being children.
Engagement with Mr Bashir’s regime looked like the pragmatic strategy a week ago, seeing as sanctions had done little to change the regime’s nature after being in place for nearly two decades, but these findings would make such a strategy untenable and would motivate calls for tougher sanctions.
African leaders, such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, have welcomed Mr Bashir back into the fold and defended him against critics. It will be interesting to hear how they react to the new allegations.