Darfur once captured the world's attention as a contemporary symbol of the international failure to confront mass atrocities. In recent years, however, it has fallen off the radar screen, as the level of government-sponsored violence has subsided and as other pressing Sudanese crises, including the threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan, have captured the headlines.
But there is another reason you don't hear much about the troubles in Darfur these days: The United Nations human rights agencies essentially stopped issuing public reports on abuses there three and a half years ago, according to U.N. officials, human rights advocates, and a leaked U.N. report. The sunnier accounts of events in Darfur in some ways reflects the tendency of the U.N. and African Union leadership to trumpet the successes of a peace process that they have helped brokered, and downplay its failures. But the long silence owes much to the Sudanese government practice of intimidating U.N. officials and independent aid workers into remaining quiet or minimizing government violations -- by threatening possible expulsion or harassment on the ground.
Indeed, the U.N.'s reticence to report publicly on rights abuses intensified after the Sudanese government expelled 13 relief organizations in March 2009, heightening fears that open criticism of the regime could trigger a swift crackdown on outsiders. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has not issued a single report on abuses in Darfur, Sudan, since January 2009, when it documented government killings of displaced Darfurians back in the Kalma camp for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in August 2008.
The U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which includes staff from the high commissioner's office, has also been largely silent. A group of three former U.N. experts, meanwhile, recently wrote a confidential report claiming that the U.N. mission in Darfur has minimized critical reporting of government abuses, downplaying a series of attacks against the Zaghawa tribe last year that displaced 70,000 people, and which amounted to ethnic cleansing."There has indeed been a drop-off in the number of public human rights reports produced by UNAMID over the past couple of years, and it is something we have been concerned about and have been raising with the team on the ground," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner, told me. Colville declined to elaborate on why the U.N. had stopped issuing the human rights reports it had periodically published on Darfur until the beginning of 2009.
U.S. officials and human rights advocates acknowledge that the nature of violence in Darfur has changed since the bloodiest phase from 2003 to 2005 of a government counterinsurgency campaign that has never entirely ended and that has led to the death of more than 300,000 people and the displacement of nearly three million. A peace treaty between Chad and Sudan has undercut the military position of one of Darfur's main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement. There is at least a peace agreement in place now, that while not exactly delivering peace, has created a political process to channel some of the region's more violent impulses. But that doesn't meant that the problems have gone away: The region continues to be plagued by intertribal warfare, banditry, and crime.
Meanwhile, Khartoum continues to kill civilians through a campaign of aerial bombardment, as it has recently attacked the central Darfurian region of Jebel Marra. It also imports weapons in violation of U.N. sanctions, and it provides military support to favored militias in an effort to root out possible bases of support for rebel forces now bent on toppling the government. Indeed, the three former U.N. experts documented evidence that Khartoum -- which traditionally supported Arab militia in Darfur -- trained, armed, and organized local non-Arab tribes for the first time to fight anti-government Zaghawa rebels.
Early last month, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, privately raised concerns about the lack of reporting on rights abuses in Darfur in a private meeting with Ibrahim Gambari, UNAMID's representative. More recently, the United States, Britain, and other European powers also pressed the U.N. chief peacekeeper, Hervé Ladsous, in a closed-door Security Council session to step up reporting on rights abuses, arguing that developments on the ground still require public reporting on abuses by government or rebel forces in Darfur.
"From a U.S. point of view, we're hardly sanguine about the security situation" in Darfur, Rice told reporters on April 26. "We see that the violence is escalating in four or five regions of Darfur, and we're particularly concerned about North Darfur and Jebel Marra."
The partial reporting moratorium comes at a time when media interest in Sudan has waned, or at least shifted from Darfur to other parts of Sudan, including South Sudan, which declared its independence last July 2011, culminating a landmark agreement that ended a 28-year civil war between Khartoum and the southerners. The nascent country has since been plagued by violent flare-ups in places like Abyei, South Kordofan, and elsewhere along the border, raising fears that Khartoum and South Sudan might again be on the brink of war, this time a battle between two well-armed independent nations.