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September 22, 2004

Glass House Weakens US Case in Darfur

by Sanjay Suri

LONDON - The first visit by an Amnesty International team to Darfur over the last several days showed that the U.S. human rights record has weakened its case to intervene in a human rights crisis elsewhere.

"It has made it much harder for the U.S. to take on its self-described role as human rights leader," executive director for Amnesty International U.S. Bill Schulz told IPS.

Schulz, who returned from a visit to Darfur Tuesday as a member of an Amnesty team, said the visit showed that "the U.S. loses an effective voice as a moral force in the world because of a blotched record of its own."

He said that in about a third of all conversations with Sudanese government officials, they had brought up the U.S. human rights record.

The U.S. record had been raised by officials to "justify their own ill-advised practices," Schulz told media representatives earlier. But this showed that "if you commit human rights abuses yourself, you hand fodder to others to justify their deviations."

Sudanese officials had raised issues such as the detentions in Guantanamo Bay and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Schulz said.

The United States now needs to prove its credentials by doing more than passing resolutions and threatening sanctions, he said. It needs to provide hundreds of millions of dollars so that 1.2 million people can be helped to return to safety and rebuild their lives.

This is not the first shadow over human rights cast by the United States.

"The so-called war on terror, the way it is being implemented by restricting civil liberties has had an enormous impact on our work and that of human rights organizations," Amnesty International director-general Irene Khan told IPS.

Sudan is not the first country to say that its record is no worse than what the United States is doing, Khan said. "We've heard this from many countries, in Asia, in Africa."

On the other hand the United States is not the only government to apply double standards to human rights, Khan said. "The Sudan government wants to make this an easy let-out, but they have to stand by their own record."

The Amnesty delegation says Darfur presented a picture of distress of people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed, denial of responsibility by the Sudanese government, and disappointment at the slow progress to resolve the crisis.

In ways it could be getting worse. "This situation has now continued for a long period," Khan told IPS. People in camps are getting only about 45 percent of their food needs, and so "people are getting hungrier and hungrier, and their resistance is wearing down."

The problem is not so much in the pipeline as in the logistics of getting the food to people. "In an area without an inch of tarmac where even an airfield is just sand, feeding 1.2 million people in camps is going to be a humanitarian nightmare."

Tensions are building up within camps, she said. "Men cannot venture out of camps, and in the confinement anger is building up," she said. In a couple of cases officials providing humanitarian relief had been attacked.

Abandonment of homes meant that nomadic groups had moved into some areas, and the demographic pattern was changing as a result, she said, leading to more tension.

"There is a practical crisis about to explode into a catastrophe," Khan said. "People are still being raped and killed and pushed out of their villages."

The Amnesty team reported that officials continue to deny any government responsibility for the violence.

One minister had said simply that Muslim men do not rape, Khan said. He had suggested that stories of rape could have arisen because the Arabic word for rape sounds like another that means "forced robbery." One official said the West had picked up on the "Janjaweed" because the word was musical and easy to say.

The government had shown reports on television of action taken, Khan said. But many of these turned out to be common criminal cases such as embezzlement. Of the two rape cases cited, one was a case of adultery, and in the second there was an acquittal.

Just before they departed, Sudanese officials gave the Amnesty team another list of cases where they claimed action had been taken. Amnesty members said these claims have not been verified.

(Inter Press Service)

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