AMNESTY International’s claims last month that the Sudanese government has used banned chemical weapons in Darfur’s Jebel Marra since January this year that have left over 200 people dead appear now to be sounding very hollow after the claims were challenged by various bodies closer to the conflict in the region.
For example, the Joint Special Representative of the UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), Martin Uhomoibhi, said in a statement, ‘In spite of the almost 20,000 UNAMID personnel on the ground in Darfur, none of them has seen any Darfuri with the impact of the use of chemical weapons as described by Amnesty International’s report.
‘Not one displaced person meeting such description has shown up at any UNAMID Team Site clinics where they would have naturally gone for help.’
He continued, ‘Amnesty International claimed to have made calls into Jebel Marra but did not for once call any of the almost 20,000 UN personnel all over Darfur, including in places like Sortony and Nertiti within a stone’s throw from the places where chemical weapons were reported to have been used.
‘Not one among the leadership of the armed movements in Darfur discussed use of chemical weapons with me or my Deputy during several meetings spanning January, April, May, July, August and September this year,’ Uhomoibhi added.
The head of UN peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, said the world body had no evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Darfur, but urged the Sudanese government to cooperate with future investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Khartoum itself debunked the Amnesty claims, suggesting that they were made in anticipation of the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva last month in the hope that the allegations would sway the Council to apply further sanctions on Khartoum. This did not happen.
The Sudanese government pointed out that the UN Panel of Experts concerning Sudan –which was set up in 2005 under Security Council Resolution 1591 to monitor the arms embargo on Darfur – ‘despite its hostility to Sudan…has never reported the use of chemical weapons of other prohibited material in Darfur.’
Khartoum added, ‘All international organisations and UN agencies in the Jebel Marra area that have worked there since the conflict broke out early in 2016 have never reported the use of chemical weapons.’
The problem with the Amnesty claims is that the human rights watchdog did not have representatives on the ground to ascertain the allegations. It said that it relied on satellite pictures and ‘telephone interviews’ with people in the region. But the government said satellite ‘evidence’ was flawed, because of its selective nature. It pointed to the US-based Satellite Sentinel Project, which monitors both Sudan and South Sudan for human rights violations, which critics say has ignored South Sudanese infringements.
The government also claimed that the only people Amnesty would have spoken to would have been members of the rump of the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army led by Abdel Wahid whose group is the only Dafuri rebel force that has refused to negotiate with Khartoum and has rejected African Union intervention.
Amnesty itself admitted that its report could be incorrect because ‘credible information is extremely difficult to find’ in Darfur and that information was ‘remotely’ collated.
This is not the first time that Sudan has been accused of dabbling with chemical weapons. In 1998 former US President Bill Clinton ordered American missile strikes against a supposedly chemical weapons plant in Khartoum, which Washington said was processing the VX nerve agent. It turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory, Al-Shifa, which was providing affordable medicines for rural communities in Sudan. The owner is now seeking about £35 million in damages from the US authorities who have grudgingly accepted that a mistake was made.