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Investigators say slavery "commonplace"

An international panel investigating alleged slavery practices in Sudan has said the abduction of civilians by both government and rebel forces was "commonplace", and called on President Umar Hasan al-Bashir to lead a campaign against the practice.

"Abductions of civilians and forcible recruitment by the armed forces of all sides in the war is commonplace," according to the report from the US-led eminent persons group on slavery, abduction and forced servitude in Sudan.

The expert group urged the Sudanese president to "take the lead in launching a campaign to make clear to all his government's firm opposition to these practices in all their forms", it stated.

This should include immediate release of all such victims, an announcement of the government's intent to prosecute persons who commit such abuses, and the enactment of new criminal legislation, it added.

Of particular concern was a pattern of abuses occurring in conjunction with attacks by pro-government militias known as murahilin on villages in areas controlled by the Sudan people's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) near the boundary between northern and southern Sudan, the panel said.

These abuses were characterised by: capture through abduction; forced transfer of victims to another community; subjection to forced labour for no pay; denial of victims' freedom of movement and choice; and often, assaults of personal identity such as renaming, forced religious conversion, and the prohibition on the use of native languages, it stated.

Through the mediation of US special envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A in December 2001 agreed to facilitate the visit of a US-led and internationally-supported mission to investigate means for preventing abductions, slavery and forced servitude.

The government of Sudan and its predecessors had been responsible for arming militia groups (including members of the Baggara, Masariyyah, Rizayqat and Zaghawah tribes), using them as auxiliary armed forces and allowing members of such forces to enjoy impunity for abductions and other serious crimes, according to the report. Militias drawn from the Rizayqat and Masariyyah Humr Baggara of South Darfur and West Kordofan had been most involved, it said.

However, both government and rebel parties, to one degree or another, had engaged in abuses in connection with Sudan's 19-year civil war, the report added.

The expert group noted that intentional attacks on civilians, abductions, forcible recruitment of children and other civilians as soldiers and forced labourers, hostage taking, rape, looting, destruction of food supplies and the denial of access to humanitarian assistance had all occurred in Sudan.

"All these are prohibited by international covenants and conventions," the experts' report stated.

The group criticised both the government and the SPLM/A for obstructing efforts by independent organisations to investigate the problem of contemporary slavery. Partly as a result, the Commission had not been able to establish the number of persons who had been abducted and/or enslaved, there being "vast divergences among available estimates," it said.

The government in Khartoum has repeatedly denied that slavery exists in Sudan, while admitting that there is a problem of some tribal militias abducting civilians.

In a letter dated 15 April, to Penn Kemble, head of the experts group, Sudanese Presidential Adviser on Peace Affairs Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani called abduction a "serious and hideous practice" that had been exacerbated by the ongoing war.

Atabani said the phenomenon of women and children being abducted by raiders was "an ancient practice... sometimes used as a kind of exchange, where one tribe exacts punishment on the other for some wrongdoing."

"There is no proven benefit in applying a generic term like slavery to this practice," Atabani said.

The experts group concluded that in a significant number of cases, abduction was the first stage in a pattern of abuse that fell under the definition of slavery in both the International Slavery Convention of 1926 and the Supplementary Convention of 1956, both ratified by Sudan.

Under Article 20 of the Sudan constitution of 1998, "Every human being shall have the right to life... and he is free of subjection to slavery, forced labour, humiliation or torture," according to the report.

The Sudan Penal Code defines as illegal the acts of abduction, forced labour, unlawful confinement, and unlawful detention, it said. Slavery was officially abolished in Sudan in 1924.

Although use of the term abduction instead of slavery was controversial, it had allowed international agencies to engage the government in discussions about how to address the problem, according to the expert panel.

Use of 'abduction' rather than 'slavery' had also helped lead to the creation of the government's Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) in May 1999, which has been charged with efforts in northern Sudan to identify, retrieve and return abducted persons, it said.

While the formation of CEAWC was a "clear public acknowledgement by the government of the problem of abduction", the government's stated commitment to the work of the Committee had not been matched by an adequate resourcing, and the body had suffered from a lack of transparency and slack financial management, the panel said.

According to Atabani, CEAWC was the "best formula" for the eradication of abductions but required external support in the form of financing and capacity building.

For its part, the SPLM/A had recently established the Foundation for Rehabilitation, Education and Development of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (FREDCAC), which could help facilitate tracing and monitoring of abductions, according to the panel of experts.

A particular problem existed in relation to the seasonal movement of the government's military supply train from Babanusa, via Aweil, through SPLM/A territory to the strategic garrison town of Wau, Bahr al-Ghazal, they said.

The purpose of the train is two-fold: to supply government garrison towns along the railway line, and to destabilise northern Bahr al-Ghazal, according to the report. The government recruits murahilin in South Darfur and West Kordofan to protect the train, and they create a security cordon several kilometres wide on either side of the railway line by raiding, burning and looting nearby villages.

"The raids are brutal, with killing, rape and amputations reported in addition to the looting of cattle and other property and the abduction of civilians," the panel said.

In September 2000, CEAWC established a "train committee" to monitor any abductions that may occur on the military train. However, the report of the train committee has been challenged by many as failing to report adequately, the experts added.

According to Atabani, some individuals voluntarily boarded the Babanusa-Wau train, or chose to join the nomadic Arab tribes when they moved northwards.

US State Department Deputy Spokesman Philip Reeker said the US was pleased with the findings of the experts panel.

"Slavery exists in Sudan, and this report points the way toward ending it," he said.

The US called on the Sudanese government civilian authorities to "control militias and armed forces that are responsible for slave raids, and for the elimination of the infamous supply train that supports government outposts in the south and from which raiding parties originate," Reeker added.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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