In the early 2000s, a brutal conflict in western Sudan between the government and rebels led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, with millions displaced as refugees. In 2004, the United States declared Sudan’s actions a genocide.
After that spike in attention and concern, the world has largely forgotten about Darfur. Unfortunately, the government of Sudan has not.
Because Sudan’s government routinely blocks journalists from going into the Darfur region and severely restricts access for humanitarian workers, any window into life there is limited. The government has hammered the joint peacekeeping mission of the United Nations and African Union into silence about human rights concerns by shutting down the United Nations human rights office in the capital, Khartoum, hampering investigators of alleged human rights abuses and pressuring the peacekeeping force to withdraw.
Just last week, the regime reportedly convinced the peacekeeping mission to pull out of areas it says are stable, hoping no one takes a closer look. As a result, mass atrocities continue to occur in Darfur with no external witness. This is also the case in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, two southern regions devastated by the government’s scorched-earth tactics.
Every once in a while, however, a sliver of evidence emerges. In recent years, citizen journalists and human rights defenders from Darfur and the Nuba Mountains have smuggled out videos showing bombing raids and burning villages. Images captured by our Satellite Sentinel Project confirmed the systematic burning and barrel bombing of at least half a dozen villages in Darfur’s eastern Jebel Marra area last year.
To avoid scrutiny, the government has spent millions of dollars provided by Qatar to set up “model villages,” where it encourages Darfuris displaced by violence to settle. Human Rights Watch recently documented a chilling incident of mass rape at one of these villages, Tabit.
The army had controlled the town since 2011, with a base on the outskirts, and was not trying to drive the population from their homes to gain territory. The sexual violence has no military objective; rather, it is a tactic of social control, ethnic domination and demographic change. Acting with impunity, government forces victimize the entire community. Racial subordination is also an underlying message, as non-Arab groups are singled out for abuse.
Human rights courts around the world have found that rapes by army officials or police officers can constitute torture. When issuing its findings about crimes committed in a similar situation in Bosnia, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia determined that the rapes of women at two camps were acts of torture since sexual violence was used as an instrument of terror. The mass rapes in Tabit follow the same pattern.
During our own visits to Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and refugee camps in neighboring countries, we have heard story after story like those from Tabit. These “torture rapes” are just one tool in Sudan’s criminal arsenal, which also includes aerial bombing of hospitals and agricultural fields, burning of villages and the denial of food aid.
Over time, international outrage has shifted away from Darfur. When change doesn’t come fast enough, attention spans are short — especially for places that appear to have no strategic importance. In the last two years, however, Darfur became important to the Sudanese government when major gold reserves were discovered in North Darfur, the region that includes Tabit.
According to the International Monetary Fund, gold sales earned Sudan $1.17 billion last year. Much of that gold is coming from Darfur and other conflict zones. The government has attempted to consolidate its control over the country’s gold mines in part by violent ethnic cleansing.
Unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council is too divided to respond with action to the crimes being committed in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. Russia and China, which have commercial links to Khartoum through arms sales and oil deals, are unwilling to apply pressure that might alter the calculations of the Khartoum government. But that doesn’t mean the international community is without leverage.
First, international banks, gold refiners and associations like the Dubai Multi Commodities Center and the London Bullion Market Association should raise alerts for Sudanese gold and initiate audits to trace it all to its mine of origin to ensure that purchases are not fueling war crimes in Darfur. The gold industry has already adopted a similar approach to suppliers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Second, the international community has imposed sanctions unevenly and without sufficient enforcement to have a significant impact. The United States and other countries should expand sanctions and step up enforcement to pressure Sudan to observe human rights and to negotiate for peace. Most important, the next wave of American sanctions should target the facilitators, including Sudanese and international banks, that do business with the regime either directly or through partners.
The “torture rapes” in Tabit are a reminder to the world that the same conditions that led to the United States’ declaration of genocide in Darfur are still firmly in place, with devastating human consequences. We must not forget the survivors, and we must impose deterrent costs on the orchestrators and their enablers.