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UN’s Protection of Civilians Comes Under Questioning at ICC

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UN’s Protection of Civilians Comes Under Questioning at ICC

Posted by Amanda Hsiao on October 28, 2009

A preliminary hearing at the International Criminal Court for Darfur rebel leader Bahr Idriss Abu Garda is nearing its end. Judges will soon decide whether enough evidence exists to bring Garda to trial over charges that he staged an attack on an African Union peacekeeping base in 2007 that killed 12 peacekeepers.

A piece today from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting provided details on the latest developments in the preliminary hearing, reporting that questions about the viability of the case now center on the neutrality of the base.

According to the prosecution, a case exists because peacekeepers are protected by international law that says attacking non-combatant peace forces is illegal. The defense argues that this protected status does not apply because the neutrality of the peacekeeping base is questionable.

Garda’s lawyer Karim Khan argues that because a Sudanese government representative was present at the peacekeeping base, it is possible the government was benefiting from information available to the peacekeepers. He suggested that the Sudanese official used the information to facilitate the government’s airstrikes on civilians and rebels in the area.

Under a peace agreement, the Sudan Liberation Army, the Justice and Equality Movement, and the Sudanese government were allowed to have a representative at the base.

Witnesses testified to the local suspicions felt toward the base. Rebels, alarmed by the presence of a Sudanese government official, prevented peacekeepers from patrolling and helicopters from landing. They also demanded the removal of the government representative.

Garda led the attack on the base after the Sudanese government bombed rebels in the area. The defense argued that the peacekeepers also failed to protect civilians during this bombing.

Under questioning by the defense, a Gambian peacekeeper said that no peacekeepers left the base to check what was going on when the bombing took place. Another witness testified that thousands of women and children demonstrated in front of the base to express their disappointment with the lack of protection the peacekeepers were providing.

The prosecution argued that even if the government representative was present, the peacekeepers were still entitled to civilian protection because they were not a party to the Darfur conflict, their mandate did not allow them to participate in hostilities, and they could only use force for self-defense.

A statement from peacekeepers read aloud in the courtroom noted: "Our mission was to establish peace. The AU had to bring the belligerent parties together through dialogue. Our role was to encourage dialogue. AMIS [African Union Mission in Sudan] was not mandated to intervene militarily."

Whether the defense will get to make this argument in court remains to be seen; the judges have 60 days to decide whether Garda’s case will go to trial.  But for now, this initial hearing sheds light on the local dynamic between civilians, rebels, and peacekeepers and acts as a reminder of the limitations of peacekeepers in Darfur, especially in the eyes of a population that still feels insecure, despite their presence.