GENEVA, (Reuters) – United Nations chief Kofi Annan on Tuesday demanded that the world body’s human rights watchdog, meeting in special session on Sudan’s Darfur, send a clear message that the “nightmare” of violence had to stop. “The people in Darfur cannot afford to wait another day. The violence must stop. The killings and other gross violations of human rights must end,” Annan said in a statement to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.
The Council, launched last June in a plan to make the U.N. more effective, is debating whether to send a special mission of investigation to the troubled western region of Africa’s largest state where aid officials say more than 200,000 people have died in three years of violence.
The decision is seen as a credibility test for the new body,which has been accused of focusing too much on the Middle East and alleged Israeli violations and ignoring what the U.N. has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Urging the 47-state body to send a team of “independent and universally respected experts,” Annan said the Council must show Darfur’s people that “their cries for help are being heard.”
Khartoum says the situation in Darfur, where long-simmering ethnic violence erupted into war in 2003, has improved since a peace treaty earlier this year with one leading rebel group.
It disputes the death toll in the region, where over 2 million have been driven from their homes, and pins the blame for violations on rebel groups that are still fighting. However, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, echoing Annan’s warnings, said that civilians continued to be the target of deliberate and “devastatingly brutal” attacks in what was an “unrelenting tragedy.”
Evidence compiled by her office since 2004 pointed to a systematic failure to protect civilians, prevent violence and bring those responsible to justice, she said in a speech.
While some attacks could be attributed to rebels and tribal in-fighting, eyewitnesses and victims described many of them as “coordinated operations between government forces and associated militia,” Arbour said.
The Sudan government denies accusations by human rights and aid officials that it has armed the so-called Janjaweed militia blamed by Arbour and others for some of the worst offences. “Mass rape and other egregious human rights abuses have not subsided,” Arbour said. “Victims and other vulnerable civilians are entitled to expect from you a credible response.”
The U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland said in a written statement that the international community had possibly a last chance to “reverse the trends that are pushing Darfur and the region towards disaster.” “In few, if any, areas of the world can the international community rely on so many highly reliable sources of what is happening,” he said.
European officials said that the Council debate was part of a diplomatic drive to get the Sudan government to accept U.N. reinforcements for badly stretched African Union troops who are trying to police the huge region the size of France.
Death toll statistics in Darfur vary widely, ranging from 70,000 to the nearly 400,000. On Monday, the Government Accountability Office, a U.S. government watchdog, said the State Department’s estimate of 98,000 to 181,000 people dead over the past two years was probably an underestimate.
While accepting the need for a mission, the African group on the Council wants it to be made up of diplomats from the Geneva-based body, who the Europeans say would lack the expertise to carry out an effective probe.
The mission should find out “what the facts are today, not what they were in 2004,” said Algeria’s ambassador Idriss Jazairy, speaking on behalf of the African group. “If we limit the mission to the assessment of an experts’ mission, especially if we pre-judge its outcome in its terms of reference, we will just get more of the same and maintain the status quo. For the African Group, this is not an option.”