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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 70

Senator STEPHENS (1:40 PM) —I rise today to speak on a matter of public interest concerning the continuation of the appalling human rights atrocities being perpetrated against the people of Darfur. Despite unprecedented international attention in recent months, the Sudanese government has neither stopped attacks by militias against civilians nor started to disarm these militias. The people of Darfur continue to endure dislocation, starvation and acts of violence. The United Nations now estimates that more than 50,000 people have been killed and over one million displaced in Darfur, the westernmost Sudanese province. During the last parliamentary session, the Senate moved a significant motion concerning the slaughter and human rights abuses in Sudan and the urgency for Australia to act constructively about it.

I will now go back to the history of this conflict. It began almost 20 years ago. Over that period of time, Darfur has been denuded. This has led to famine, social breakdown and heightened competition for resources between pastoral and nomadic ethnic groups. These problems were compounded by the Sudanese government's policies of neglect, exclusion of local groups from power and predatory economic practices. Meanwhile the regime has consciously encouraged a so-called Arab identity for the nomadic tribes as against the African farmers. The problems escalated in February 2003 when two rebel groups—the Sudan Liberation Army, the SLA, and the Justice and Equality Movement, the JEM—demanded an end to the chronic economic marginalisation that they had been suffering and sought a power-sharing agreement with the Arab ruled Sudanese state. They also sought government action to end the abuse of their rivals, Arab pastoralists who were driven onto African farmlands by drought and desertification and who had a nomadic tradition of armed militias. To suppress this opposition, the government unleashed the Janjaweed militias, allowing them to lay siege to the villages of ethnic groups from which the rebels drew most of their support base.

The result, as we all know, was a mass exodus which led to the overcrowded camps, the depletion of the livestock population and the massive health risks that we read about in the media and see on the news every evening. There have been massacres and executions. Towns, villages and wide stretches of farmland—among the most fertile in the region—have been burnt and forcibly depopulated. This is the major catastrophe that is unfolding in Darfur. With rare exception, the Darfur countryside is now completely emptied of its original inhabitants. Everything that can sustain and succour life—livestock, food stores, wells and pumps, blankets and clothing—has been looted and destroyed. Villages have been systematically torched, often not once or twice but three, four or five times. Rape has been used as a weapon of war during these attacks. An unknown but large number of raped women are now not only homeless and starving but also pregnant. We have all seen the footage of refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of people—again, mainly women and children—are barely subsisting in squalid conditions, threatened by the twin dangers of starvation and disease.

But the Sudanese government's response is what concerns me most. The Sudanese government's response to international calls for investigation of human rights abuses shows its contempt for the West. First, it denied any abuses while attempting to manipulate and stem information leaks. It limited reports from Darfur in the national press. It restricted international media access and tried to obstruct the flow of refugees into Chad. When the exodus of the Darfuri villagers began, the Sudanese government inhibited the work of aid agencies by denying visas, limiting equipment availability and subjecting aid workers to intrusive surveillance. Just last week we saw reports that a United Nations team had begun investigating allegations of genocide against the Sudanese government. The UN panel had meetings with the foreign minister, Mr Ismail, and the justice minister, Mr Yassin. Mr Ismail promised his government's full cooperation with the UN team that will be investigating charges that Khartoum's 21-month clampdown against the Darfuri rebels amounted to genocide.

Mr Ismail claimed that his government welcomed the commission because it had nothing to hide and that the investigation would refute the allegations about Darfur. But, as the team began its search for evidence of genocide, ethnic minority rebels again accused the army and its militia allies of destroying the evidence of mass graves. The Sudan liberation movement spokesman, Mahmud Hussein, said that the militiamen are attempting to `obliterate the truth' by emptying a mass grave in Kabkabiya, west of the North Darfur state capital of El Fasher. There can be no doubt about the government's complicity in this violence. These reports of government tampering with evidence suggest the regime is fully aware of the immensity of its crimes and is attempting to cover up the record. There are now new reports of the violent tactics being used against civilians as tens of thousands of refugees are being relocated by Sudanese security forces. The BBC reported just days ago village elders being thrown to the ground and beaten and kicked by the police while the commander of the operation strolled about calmly giving orders to his men. They reported that women, some having walked hundreds of kilometres to find safety after their families were murdered, were shot at whilst burning rubbish in an attempt to protect their children from disease and that several of them were killed.

The images were quite shattering. These unprotected people are suffering in the face of raw power, with women being taken away from their families and then tear gas being fired at older women and children. The Sudanese government and its militia allies are abusing their authority mercilessly, and the international community appears powerless. So what can be done? As the situation stands, the negotiations between the Sudanese government and the rebel representatives remain in deadlock. Khartoum has refused to join the rebels in signing a protocol which includes the creation of a no-fly zone over Darfur. The challenge is to restore peace so that the Darfuri people can return to their homes. Some commentators claim the solution is a robust peacemaking effort that links the peace negotiations between Khartoum and the Sudan Liberation Army with the conflicts in Darfur. Others argue that only regime change will stop the slaughter. I think I do not need to spell out why so many people are reluctant to go down that path.

On 23 August the Brussels based International Crisis Group issued a report entitled Darfur deadline: a new international action planurging the international community to enforce tough sanctions against Sudan's government leaders and its lucrative oil industry. The report argued that a failure to take strong measures would not only mean tens of thousands more dead but also, firstly, likely condemn Sudan to many more years of war and, secondly, spread instability to its neighbours. The 53-nation African Union has a small contingent of 155 Rwandan troops. They are in the Sudan monitoring the cease-fire. The International Crisis Group has asked the United Nations Security Council to provide strong back-up to the AU peacekeeping mission—at least 3,000 troops. To demonstrate its seriousness and to help persuade the government of Sudan to accept this mission, it suggests an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against responsible regime officials and ruling party businesses as well as the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate mass atrocities, including `systematic rape and other gender based violence'. The report argues that history has shown that Khartoum responds constructively only to direct pressure.

On 30 July the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Darfur. It asked the Sudanese government to take firm steps to end the violence. It placed an arms embargo on the Janjaweed but aimed no measures at the government that acts behind them. The plan of action signed by the UN with the government days afterwards actually left ample room for Sudan to avoid meaningful action within the 30-day deadline set by the resolution, which of course has now passed. Government officials continue to undermine roads towards peace. Despite claims that action is being taken against the Janjaweed militias, there have been no reported arrests. Similarly, the assertions that the government is investigating the rape allegations ring very hollow when it claims it is unable to find a single case of rape that could lead to a prosecution.

Clearly there needs to be a much tougher stand by the international community, including Australia. As the ICG report bluntly summed it up:

The international response to the crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur remains limp and inadequate, its achievements so far desperately slight.

... ... ...

The Khartoum government ... has acted in bad faith throughout the crisis.

It will not be easy to persuade the Sudanese government to begin to share power and increase participatory democracy, but we have to work out how to do it. Appeasing Khartoum and settling for mild resolutions or threats of embargoes that make no real difference will certainly not bring about the necessary change. As Jose Ramos Horta wrote in the Age on 26 August:

The virtual paralysis in regard to the tragic situation in Sudan amply illustrates the difficulties and dilemmas faced by leaders when—

faced by—

such complex conflicts.

A humanitarian intervention in Sudan by the West could very well turn into a military fiasco and further exacerbate the political tensions. But by not intervening, the West is accused of ignoring genocide.

He goes on to argue:

The best course of action is for the West to provide financial and logistical support towards an enhanced and effective African Union intervention force coupled with punitive actions against the Sudanese leaders.

To date, while Australia has been reluctant to intervene in Darfur beyond making a financial commitment, the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has visited refugees in Darfur and has tried to pressure the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, to do more to end the atrocities; the Swedish Ambassador to Nigeria, Sten Rylander, has been representing the EU at talks between the Khartoum government and rebel groups; and the Dutch foreign minister, Bernard Bot, has visited Sudan to discuss the disarmament of Arab militias. So I believe that it is high time that our own foreign minister, Mr Downer, visited Sudan to gain a first-hand understanding of how Australia can most effectively contribute to the interconnected problems of humanitarian relief and security on the ground.

As I speak today millions of people are starving—starving as a result not of a natural disaster but of the deliberate destruction of crops in the course of this conflict. The role of the Sudanese government in this whole debacle has been one that has concerned me most significantly. Amnesty International recently released a report that documented interviews with many of the refugees that have moved out of Darfur and into Chad. The reports that concern me the most are those that indicate that the Sudanese government is actually supporting the victimisation and violations that are occurring in Darfur in very specific ways. We have to hold the Sudanese government to account. The need for humanitarian aid is desperate. Our government has already allocated $20 million for relief in Darfur, but I call on the government now to make a greater commitment through appropriate international agencies and to use its participation in international forums to apply diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government to cease these atrocities immediately.