Is Sudan using chemical weapons on civilians in Darfur?

Darfur has slipped off the international public's radar. Will a new report alleging the use of chemical weapons against civilians revive it?

Albert González Farran/UNAMID/AP
Attahi Mohammed Sigit, sheik of Sigili village, North Darfur, shows to UNAMID staff members the destruction occurred in the village in November 2012, when he lost his 18-year-old son along with other several community members shot and killed by an armed force.

A new report from Amnesty International accuses the Sudanese government of launching chemical weapons attacks against civilians in the western region of Darfur, causing the deaths of an estimated 200-250 people – and wounding hundreds more – from exposure since January 2016.

“We are certain that the kinds of injuries that we’ve seen and the explanations for what people saw at the source of attack could not be explained simply by the explosive effects” of conventional weapons, said Keith Ward, one of two chemical weapons experts consulted by the human rights group, in a video released with the report.

Victims told the group they saw toxic clouds of smoke emitting from bombs dropped on villages. And in the hours and days after the attacks, many claimed that they suffered from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, loss of vision, respiratory problems and strange skin conditions, like blistering and rashes.

The experts concluded that the evidence suggested exposure to any of three different types of chemical agents. The use of them in battle would constitute a war crime under international accords to which Sudan is a party.

In a statement, Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s director of crisis research, called the use of chemical weapons “a new low” from the Sudanese military, long accused of committing war crimes repeatedly during the 13-year civil war.

“The evidence we have gathered is credible and portrays a regime that is intent on directing attacks against the civilian population in Darfur without any fear of international retribution,” she said.

On Thursday, Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Omer Dahab Fadl Mohamed, rejected the allegations. "The allegations of use of chemical weapons by Sudanese Armed Forces is baseless and fabricated," he told Reuters.

The group says it conducted its investigation remotely, since the part of Darfur where the attacks are said to have occurred, known as Jebel Marra, is under opposition control, and the government restricts access for outsiders.

The conflict in Darfur became the object of international public campaigns in the mid-2000s, but has since fallen out of the global spotlight. Little has changed; even Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, remains in power with an arrest warrant for war crimes outstanding in the International Criminal Court.

“While the attention to these issues has waned over the past decade, unfortunately that dynamic has continued to persist,” says Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The fact that the conflict has disappeared from the headlines may have to do with the emergence of other crises, like the one in Syria, or with a sense that the deployment of UN peacekeepers was enough, or even with fatigue after 13 long years of conflict, say researchers. But it also corresponds to the differing priorities of the two American presidencies that the civil war has spanned.

The Bush administration was partly responsible for exciting international calls for an end to the conflict, having accused Sudan’s government of genocide. That label, some analysts argued, reflected the administration’s preoccupation with Islamist terrorism, perhaps to the extent of prejudicing it: the indigenous opposition in Darfur, they said, was responsible for atrocities, too, not just the Arab-majority government. Nor were those atrocities necessarily motivated by ethnic hatred.

One 2009 op-ed from Monitor argued that international pressuring of governments to act may not have always had a positive outcome:

From 2006 until 2008, when the Save Darfur Coalition and many other groups began to pressure the government, the allocation of US funds shifted dramatically from humanitarian aid to peacekeeping, presumably due to the influence of the lobbyists and public pressure campaigns.

Of the $2.01 billion that was spent, $1.03 billion (51.3 percent) was spent on humanitarian aid, while $980 million (48.7 percent) was spent on funding peacekeeping missions, a significant shift toward peacekeeping.

In the end, these proportional changes were problematic because, as many casualty surveys show, the number of people who were "killed" in Darfur declined significantly after the April 8 cease-fire of 2004, while the rate of those who were dying of disease and malnutrition remained high.

Had the Darfur activists not advocated for a reallocation of funds, more lives would probably have been saved....

Instead of focusing on military intervention or the punishment of only one participant in the conflict (the Sudanese government), efforts should be directed toward funding the peacemaking process and the safe return of more than 2 million displaced refugees.

The Obama administration has made clear that it intends to narrow the military commitments of the United States. And as the conflict in Syria looks unlikely to end in a peace that resembles the administration’s initial demands – including the resignation of Syria’s president following the use of chemical weapons there – the impunity with which the Syrian regime has acted up to now might be encouraging the Sudanese government, says Ms. Kumar.

“The vacuum in Syria has emboldened them,” she tells the Monitor.

“It’s about what the international community has not been able to do in reaction to breaches of … international prohibitions against chemical weapons.”

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