"Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan", Part VIII, Exclusive Q & A With Adotei Akwei, Senior Advocacy Director For Africa, Amnesty International
Amnesty International’s early impact on the thinking of institutions and individuals regarding Darfur, Sudan is hard to overestimate. Whether journalists, politicians, or activists, the organization’s research, analysis and published reports on Africa in general and the Sudan and Darfur in particular, are relied upon by many. To understand the impact that just one report published by the organization can have; one need look no further than Amnesty International’s "Rape As A Weapon Of War: Sexual Violence and Its Consequences" published July 19, 2004. The report captured the attention of those already investigating the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, adding emphasis on another angle, gender-based violence.
The organization should be no stranger to many. Founded over forty years ago, Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights. Amnesty’s self described mission is "to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights." The organization made headlines in recent years documenting police brutality and racial profiling abuses of Black Americans.
BlackElectorate.com Publisher, Cedric Muhammad, recently visited Amnesty International’s Washington D.C. offices to have a wide-ranging conversation with Amnesty International’s Senior Advocacy Director For Africa, Mr. Adotei Akwei. The interview is part of BlackElectorate.com’s in-depth series, "Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan".
Cedric Muhammad: I wanted to know exactly what it was that inspired Amnesty International’s focus on gender-based violence in a broad context, and then specifically how you have applied that to Africa?
Adotei Akwei: Sure, Amnesty International has been doing work on civil and political rights since 1961. And I think one of the things the organization recognized fairly early on was that there were human rights abuses that were not being acknowledged as seriously as they should be. And it became very clear that human rights violations against women fell into that category. In many instances you would have allies and human rights defenders and even in some cases, governments, who would show very progressive and noteworthy leadership on human rights abuses but then would be completely blank on gender-based violence. They had a blindspot. So, the organization eventually decided, I think, two years ago, that it was going to do a major initiative stopping sexual violence against women. This coincided with a restructuring of the organization’s operations and we began to set up a long-term campaigning theme so there would be four of them at any given time. And gender-violence and women’s violence became the first candidate. Now, in terms of the work in Africa, basically it has focused on trying to stop the issue of rape, both in conflict and non-conflict situations, and that would involve looking at changing laws that facilitated and encouraged this kind of violence by failing to prosecute persons guilty of rape and domestic violence. We also are looking at ways in which we can enhance the performance of the judicial system so that women are empowered to speak up when their rights are being threatened or when they actually stand up and take a case to court, which of course is then linked with the way the police function. Can you improve the ways that police treat women? Can you make them more sensitive and supportive in the issues of violence that women face? In conflict zones we are trying to focus on the Great Lakes region and try to work with the various armed groups and governments that are operational in the area to encourage the word to go down to the actual fighters that rape is not a “de facto right” of conflict. But that is a much larger challenge that is going to take a long time.
Cedric Muhammad: So specifically as it relates to Darfur and this Amnesty International report, "Rape As A Weapon Of War: Sexual Violence and Its Consequences". Could you kind of explain what the process was involved in identifying the individuals, the victims, and in interviewing them?
Adotei Akwei: Amnesty’s operation would usually consist of sending a team of people, three or four people to a specific region to look into an issue. What happened with the preparation for this report was that the first Amnesty mission to the Darfur region was in January 2003 and at that point, we were actually allowed into Darfur itself, and not just in neighboring Chad. And when we were there, there were a number of issues that were identified as ones needing investigation and at that point we were already beginning to see that Darfur was about to get into a very bad situation so we started reporting then. One of those issues was the fact that there was unchecked violence against African sedentary populations, and the African villages. There were no prosecutions against soldiers or militia and a lot of those attacks involved rape. Now, almost a year later as we were trying to go back into Darfur, we were meeting obstacles and opposition from the Sudanese authorities. We then went to Chad where the refugees are, and the idea was to see what the things were that had impacted and caused them to flee, and what are the issues that they speak about the most. And so we sent three people in early May and they went to three refugee camps and they conducted interviews and they decided, before they went that they were going to look at the issue of rape because that seemed to be the pattern in Darfur.
Cedric Muhammad: Now let me ask you this, was the premise of the study and interviews in January 2003 the gender-based violence or was it to look into the broader conflict?
Adotei Akwei: The broader conflict. But what happened was that we identified the fact that the Sudanese government was using special courts that did not meet any standard of law and so they were arresting people – both African villagers who were critical of the government as well as so-called militia leaders, but then they (the militia leaders) were being released. So no one trusted the special courts. Then there were actual cases of attacks and the burning of villages, and that is where the issue of rape began to come in, much more systematically.
Cedric Muhammad: O.K. How would you - and please let me know if you are speaking for yourself or Amnesty International – characterize the conflict? Is it primarily guided by racial and ethnic identity? Would you call it genocide, as those are who are seeking that official international definition to be applied?
Adotei Akwei: First, as the organization, we have not called Darfur genocide because we have not been able to ascertain that there was a direct government motive to eliminate the African population in the region. Human Rights Watch and other organization have said that they have documentation showing orders to basically go and attack African villages. Almost all of the groups would have to acknowledge that there have been some villages that have not been targeted. And there have been some “Arab” villages that have been attacked because they have failed to support the Janjaweed. It is very messy. Amnesty feels comfortable that there are crimes against humanity that are war crimes and that these are grievous enough to warrant an intervention of some kind. But we have not called it genocide primarily because we do not have enough data. Myself, personally, I think the organization should have called it genocide and possibly done its correction afterwards. At the same time, I understand that there are some tactical issues that come into play here, where people seem to think that calling Darfur genocide is going to trigger some kind of enhanced response. I think we have seen that is not going to happen for two reasons. One, the U.N. Security Council wasn’t going to call it genocide, the African Union was not going to call it genocide, and certainly the Arab League was not going to call it genocide. So if you have all of these three key players refusing to call it genocide you would have spent the rest of this year arguing to change their minds, and you would have lost 200,000 to 300,000 people while you are fighting. So rather than do that there is a need to respond on the ground by whatever vehicle you have. So there is an argument not to get involved in a debate over genocide now, but rather to focus on people and saving people’s lives.
Cedric Muhammad: Just for the record Joe Madison says its genocide, Salih Booker says it is genocide…I could go down the list of all of the people we have talked to – formally and informally - and I would say that it is running about 60% in favor of it being called genocide and 40% not making that determination. The other point I wanted to question you on regarding genocide is that another problem with it rests in the lack of clear-cut ethnic identity. Are you comfortable with the Arab vs. Black African depiction of all of this? A great many people are not comfortable with this characterization because they all agree that the people of Darfur, by Western standards, would generally be considered Black; and secondly there is an intermingling based upon occupation – whether you are a cattle nomadic farmer etc…and if you are a sedentary farmer and you get to a certain level of size and wealth, you are categorized differently, considered to be in another group and all of this crosses racial lines.
Adotei Akwei: Yes, I think that I would fall into that category. I don’t think this fits into an Arab vs. Bantu African breakdown. And it certainly seems to be manipulated politically – that form of self-identification – for purposes by Khartoum. But within the region itself, it doesn’t play out.
Cedric Muhammad: In a lot of what I see Amnesty advocating...and you have mentioned a few other things, the courts, and finding some mechanism for women to make an accusation, and raise (a charge)that they have been victimized and raped – there is an important dynamic that I want to isolate for a minute. There was a reference in an article, “Sudan’s Reign Of Terror” in Amnesty International’s magazine that I thought was interesting as it applies to a solution. It says that, “over time the groups devised mediation mechanisms to avoid armed conflict” and that these mechanisms are breaking down. And there was another reference to that in the article, that essentially allude to what I would call “home-grown” solutions to conflict. So I am wondering how does Amnesty go about introducing something that may be new or foreign to the local culture of doing things? Now, rape is not acceptable under any circumstances , but there may be a status for women that is germane to a certain belief system or tribal group or ethnic identity, so when you talk about bringing in a judiciary process, and making women be more assertive and identifying rights, in what ways are you worried about this conflicting with indigenous belief systems and social organization systems?
Adotei Akwei: We would use the African charter as a critical document to guide us, and also the United Nations charter. These are standards to which all of these governments are “committed” to. That shouldn’t be considered new. It should be considered as evolving international human rights law. Yes, cultural leadership, cultural sensitivity as well as home-grown solutions are the only things that are going to have impact and take root on the ground. I think the organization (Amnesty International) has certainly changed in the last 10 to 15 years, to acknowledge that in a much more honest way. In other words, the external viewpoint of, ‘this is how it has got to be’ and ‘this is how we see it should and must be done’, doesn’t work anymore and you will find that Amnesty is learning to consult and listen to voices on the ground much more. One example was in Nigeria over the whole issue of Sharia law, and the application of the death penalty to women who were raped, we campaigned very hard on that, but very quickly our lawyers and women’s groups in Nigeria said ‘that is going to create a backlash, that is not how to do it, this is what we suggest’ and we changed our campaign. That is not to say that this is still not being worked out but it does suggest that we are learning that the front line is there. Now, in terms of how we see things evolving in Darfur in terms of rape and “mechanisms to ameliorate conflict”, when the researchers met with village elders who are in the refugee camps, the whole idea was to sort of just listen to their accounts and see just what kinds of things they were talking about because it is going to be the village elders as well as the elderly in society who are going to be suggesting ways in which the women are to be compensated or ways in which the women are to be accepted back, not as inferior citizens. And that is still a major challenge that they have to face because, without saying that the cultural practices are out of date, there are some practices that are discriminatory, they have evolved over time. That means that somewhere along the line they are going to have to figure out how to update them.
Cedric Muhammad: You know what I am interested in? Because at least, nominally, everyone in the region is Muslim. Are you looking at the Qur’an or some Islamic theological approaches to resolving this, because in Islam rape is illegal. I am just wondering, is that an intermediary or acceptable third-party that everybody can consider?
Adotei Akwei: We have done outreach to Muslim associations. I just met with the Muslim Bar Associations and they were talking about just that. Some of them were saying that this is not what is in the Qur’an, and how is it that these things are allowed to go on, (saying to me), ‘Even if you are not involved shouldn’t you be stopping this?’ And I said, ‘That has got to come from your voices’. If it comes from Amnesty that is fine, but that is Amnesty International – a Western organization, you could decide to take it or you could decide to ignore it. But having it come from lawyers who are of the faith, is going to be much harder to ignore. Darfur is becoming very interesting because you are seeing more and more Muslim scholars and Muslim lawyers, and Muslim organizations saying ‘this has gone beyond what is acceptable by any standards, by our own standards, and we need to start leading the charge and changing this’. The problem is that the larger political issues of the world, including the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Middle East are all twisted up in this, and there is a certain amount of solidarity with the government of Sudan based on people’s reaction to the Middle East.
Cedric Muhammad: What about the Organization Of Islamic Conference (OIC)? Have you and Amnesty thought about approaching them or having collaboration with them on this?
Adotei Akwei: Amnesty International has written to them. The organization has really done a lot of outreach and these groups have been making some statements. It is not that they are totally silent but the question is (what are they willing to do on the ground)? The honest truth about Darfur is that there are only two things that can happen right now, one, that you are going to get people to go in over the permission of the Sudanese government and protect people, and two, you are going to get a massive, almost doubling of the humanitarian assistance. That is the only thing that is going to make a difference now. Everything else now is secondary. And until that happens all we are doing is basically trying to save 10,000 lives as opposed to 100,000.
Cedric Muhammad: There is a section in your report that deals with the behavior of “the other side”. And this is interesting because I know from researching this and talking to other people about this that without a doubt Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International get the most references, from others. There is a section here that deals with the rebel groups, the SLA and the JEM and I thought it was pretty honest. It is about three paragraphs. And I will just read the first sentence and you will probably remember the rest, “There have been reports of abuses and torture, including rape, by members of the SLA and JEM but due to the restrictions on access to the area, including those imposed by lack of security, it is difficult to collect more evidence on the human rights abuses reportedly committed by the insurgents”. And later on there is a specific reference to an attack (made by rebel groups) on the Kuala village, where civilians were killed and women were raped.
So, I read that I know how that is not even being addressed by those who are covering the story and referring to this Amnesty report. And so I have heard the same thing, briefly described in what you all published, and I am wondering is Amnesty International going to go back in, can it go back in, or is there another vehicle by which these same rapes and torture reported to have been committed by rebel groups will receive the same scrutiny and investigative attention as those said to have occurred by the other side, the Janjaweed?
Adotei Akwei: Ideally, yes, we have to go in to be objective and to be fair and impartial. The only people who have gone into rebel areas, to my knowledge, are John Prendergast and Samantha Power of ICG (International Crisis Group). They did that because I think they went through Chad and crossed the border. Our organization has a certain operational hang-up of you know, ‘we don’t sneak across borders or anything’. That is not to say that what they (ICG) did was wrong. They got evidence and in fact, they got important evidence. They were the ones who got evidence of these massacres and mass graves. We will have to go back and investigate these things and corroborate the testimony we are getting from the refugee camps. And that is the problem. This lack of access. It is not just that we are not actually getting to the truth. One could argue that it is hurting the Sudanese government itself. If the Sudanese government really wants to, it can say, ‘listen we have nothing to hide, go in and look’. Then we would be even further under pressure to answer the question of , ‘what are the JEM and SLA doing?’ I mean right now, the Sudanese government is its own worst enemy, because they are not allowing access to those regions. Those rebel groups are also not complying because they have attacked humanitarian convoys, they have seized stuff and then let them (people and items) go, but they have disrupted food supplies going in. And we certainly don’t know what is going on in their camps. So the focus on the Janjaweed and the Army and the Khartoum government is all legitimate but that does not mean that there is not a larger problem; and these groups did take up arms to use force to try to make political change. So yes, we are obligated to go back and verify those things. That sometimes happens. You will find that Amnesty groups are still going into Serbia and Bosnia, basically trying to build a much more clear, and delineated chain of events. And that is what we have to do. So I completely accept your questions about having full coverage of the other side.
Cedric Muhammad: Because what it does – and this is not your fault – but because you all are seen as such a respected expert, people are using your work and saying something your report does not say. You are saying it was not exhaustive, it was the best you could do at a certain time...
Adotei Akwei:..And that does not come across...
Cedric Muhammad:...yes, and my concern is that you cannot get to a lasting solution – you might be able to get the badly needed humanitarian assistance – if the situation is much more complex than is being described.
So, my last question deals with something you all are advocating on the way to a solution – an international commission of inquiry. What would that look like and how would it work?
Adotei Akwei: I think it is important to understand that the organization has a very specialized role to play and our recommendations really do look at one part of the crisis in the Sudan.
There are people who, like John (Prendergast) or someone else, will tell you that they are trying to focus on and talk about trying to rebuild and restructure the entire country, because it is true (that is necessary). If you accept that the conflict in the North and South and the conflict in Darfur are just flashpoints of a larger structural problem based on a repressive government and a flawed political system then you are going to have fighting elsewhere. And that means that the Sudanese people have to figure out a way to build a federal government or a central government that they all have a stake in. And that goes so far beyond our (Amnesty International's) mandate that we can’t be useful in that discussion.
What we have said is that the commission of inquiry needs to identify all of the problems and the abuses that have been historical in that country and in particular, Darfur, so that you can (say definitvely) , ‘Ok this is where we have been and this has caused us 1.2 million displaced, 2.2 million impacted, and God knows, 3 million killed in the North-South. So, we know we cannot go back to that or else we will just kill each other and the rest of the country will be empty.’ So the commission of inquiry would have to be credible, it would have to have Sudanese, it would have to have Africans, it would have to have international lawyers or experts. And then it would also have to have politicians who could craft the message of accountability into something for reconciliation. In other words, ‘these people have been doing this’, ‘these people have been doing that’, ‘here is what the result was’, and ‘these are the underlying problems that Sudan has to face’. And then, with that data, for us, we take that further and we try to get accountability so that people are discouraged from trying to do it again. It has to be permanent. Other people would say no, you take that data and you look at South Africa or you look at a couple of other examples and you basically temper the justice, so that you build the momentum for political reform. Both are legitimate, but the commission is only one part of a larger dialogue that needs to happen...
Cedric Muhammad:...but it is also a basic search for the facts it seems like to me...
Adotei Akwei:...exactly yeah, if this in fact is genocide we have to agree that that is what it was. And then, ideally, people are brought to an account. People think that the Janjaweed militia are this huge exception and they forget that over thirty years there was the Popular Defense forces, the mujahadeen. They were doing stuff on the other side. Militias are not new to Sudan. The problem here with the Janjaweed) is that you see what happens when it is out of control, totally out of control. Or, maybe not. Maybe it is deliberate (coming intentionally from the Sudanese government). If that is the case, then we need to basically build sustained pressure for changing the political situation. The commission of inquiry is not the only thing we are calling for. We are calling for humanitarian aid, and access. We understand that saving lives, at this point, is so desperate. When they are talking about 1,500 deaths a day, spiking to 5,000 by December, you cannot even (fathom) those numbers. It doesn’t make sense. And then some people are saying you are going to lose 50,000, others are saying no, it is 250,000. That is not a small thing, that is a serious difference. So, those are the things that we are going to campaign for.
But I think, with all respect to Amnesty, we are looking at a part of it, an important part of it, but Sudan is all that we have studied about the theory of failed states and nation-building. This is 101, and all of the things that need to happen – reconciliation, new laws, new constitution, maybe all of that needs to happen. And that only happens if the center realizes that it has to compromise.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You Brother, very much for your time.
Adotei Akwei: No, thank you.
Part I: Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey
Part II : Exclusive Q & A With Joe Madison, President, Sudan Campaign
Part III: Exclusive Q & A With Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. United States Air Force (ret.)
Part IV: Exclusive Q & A With Salih Booker, Executive Director, Africa Action
Part V : Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Kwame Akonor, Founder, African Development Institute
Part VI: Exclusive Q & A With Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
Part VII: Part VII, Exclusive Q & A With Bill Fletcher, Jr., President, TransAfrica
Tuesday, August 24, 2004