Darfur (Sudan) Early Warning Brief:

Gross Human Rights Violations Emergency


Condensed Brief:

Emergency: Ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity. Massive numbers of refugees and internally displaced. Killing and rape of civilians widespread.

Full Brief:


1. Background

Darfur is a rugged and relatively isolated region in the western reaches of Sudan. It is also an arid land, offering little in the way of resources or economic opportunity. Darfur is ethnically diverse with many groups but none predominate. Some ethnic groups are considered “Arab” while others are considered “African.” However, this supposed ethnic or racial division is not as clear as one might think: everybody in Darfur is black and Muslim and those labelled as being “African” might actually speak Arabic rather than indigenous languages. Categorisation often occurs based on racial features or even way of life (“Arabs” are nomadic herders). The term “African” is sometimes used in a pejorative sense as somehow representing people who are not “civilized,” i.e. not exposed to the benefits of Arab civilization. The largest “African” groups in Darfur are the Zaghawa, Masalit, Tunjur, Berti, and Fur. The name Darfur derives from the “dar” (homeland) of the Fur (the Fur played a very important historical role in Darfur). “Arabs” began to arrive in significant numbers in the 14th century. Within the Arabs one can distinguish between the Baggara Arabs (cattle grazing tribes living in the south who received land title) and the Abbala Arabs (camel herding tribes living in the north without land rights).

There are two central factors which created the context for the current crisis: 1) famine and competition over scarce resources, and 2) discrimination against “Africans” by the central government. Darfur (like other regions of Sudan) has long been an impoverished periphery relative to Khartoum’s core. This marginal economic and political status of Darfur dates back to the era of British colonialism. In the post-colonial period, Darfur continued to be economically marginal; while, culturally-speaking, Darfur underwent a process of “Sudanization,” where the various groups in Darfur willingly assimilated into the Sudanese “core.” Yet, in spite of this assimilation, many people in Darfur continued to feel a sense of alienation: that they were not receiving the benefits of citizenship in the state of Sudan. This sense of alienation and marginalisation would later fuel the rebellion.

Furthermore, the Abbala Arabs retained a degree of bitterness over their landless status. The Abbala Rizeigat tribe was particularly impoverished and when the famine of 1984-1985 occurred they were driven south in search of land and food security. This put the Abbala Rizeigat in direct conflict with the “African” tribes already living in these areas. The Abbala Rizeigat and other Abbala Arabs were core constituent groups of the Janjawiid (“men on horseback) militia that would go on to commit gross human rights violations in Darfur.

In spite of their common religion, Africans in Darfur found that they were still disdained by some Arabs and the central government. National identity in Sudan has long been oriented towards the Islamic Middle East and away from Africa. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his manoeuvrings towards the creation of a pan-Arab belt in North Africa also helped to introduce the Arab supremacist ideologies that first emerged in Darfur in the early 1980s. In 1994 extensive reforms were undertaken in Darfur, including the division of Darfur into three states (a move that reduced the Fur to a minority in each state), the creation of many new local government positions dominated by Arab appointees, and the disruption of the traditional Hakura system for land title (with the implication that Arab groups without Hakuras now had some legitimate claims on the land). Eventually, unrest and dissatisfaction among certain groups of Africans of Darfur turned to rebellion.

The Sudanese government, preoccupied with peace negotiations in the major north-south civil war, decided to use Arab militias (Janjawiid) as proxies to pacify Darfur. The Janjawiid were recruited (with money) and organised by the government and provided with arms, communications equipment, and advisors. Moreover, they were directly supported in their operations by military intelligence and the air force (Antonov planes repeatedly bombed villages). In 2003 the government began its “counterinsurgency” campaign, a campaign that was characterised by indiscriminate attacks on civilians, ethnically-targeted massacres, and the systematic use of rape as a tool of terror. This campaign of gross human rights violations resulted in the death of approximately 400 000 people (an estimate from the Coalition for International Justice) and the displacement of millions (out of a total population of approximately 7.4 million people).


2. Current Situation

Figure 1.1 - Confirmed Damaged and Destroyed Villages

 Source: ReliefWeb (original source: United States Department of State).

The situation in Darfur has actually worsened in the last year as violence has intensified in North Darfur. Moreover, there is increasing spill over of violence into neighbouring Chad. In addition to those that are direct victims of the violence (death, as well as physical and psychological casualties), there are currently over two million Darfuri refugees and internally displaced, as well as another 1.5 million people relying on social assistance for survival (according to The population (especially those in refugee camps) are vulnerable to continued attacks from the Janjawiid. The Sudanese government is continuing its non-cooperation with the international community, barring the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs from visiting refugee camps in Darfur. The Sudanese government also has yet to fully admit its role in these crimes or to take measures to reign in the Janjawiid and restore the human security of the people of Darfur.


3. State of Response

The international response to the Darfur crisis has long been tempered by other interests: the desire to see the peace process in the South Sudan conflict brought to fruition, and also the need for the help of the government of Sudan in global counterterrorism initiatives. The situation in Darfur first came to the world’s attention in 2003 with reports from international NGOs such as Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group. In spite of this, the events in Darfur received little media coverage and remained quite obscure until in March 2004 UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila stated that it was “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.”

Since then there has been a great debate over the semantics of the word “genocide” and whether the situation in Darfur qualified as genocide. The international community also engaged in a great deal of hand-wringing about what actions it should take, thus its de facto response became a paralysis and derogation of responsibility. It seemed that nothing had been learned from the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide. The determination of whether genocide occurred in Darfur was ultimately irrelevant: it was undisputed that at the very least crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations were occurring. Eventually, in September 2004 the UN created a Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to assess human rights violations and subsequently, in March 2005, the situation in Darfur was referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution of international crimes

The UN also authorised (in April 2004) the deployment of a small African Union (AU) force to monitor a cease-fire. This force eventually has grown in size (to approximately 7 000 peace-keepers) and in mandate (to include the protection of civilians). Unfortunately the AU force is lacking in resources and capability and its mandate is now scheduled to end this year. The Sudanese government refuses to allow the UN to deploy its peacekeepers to take over the mission from the AU (in August 2006 the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of 20 000 peacekeepers to the region). In response to the recalcitrance of Sudan, Britain, and other countries, are seeking to impose sanctions on the Sudanese Government. The fate of the people of Darfur remains uncertain and, until greater international efforts are realised, people will continue to die.

References and Further Reading

Flint, Julie and Alex de Waal. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books, 2006.

Human Rights Watch, “Crisis in Darfur”

Prunier, Gérard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca, USA: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Wikipedia, “Darfur Conflict”