/ 14 February 2007

Visa row: UN team cancels Darfur visit

United Nations human rights investigators on Wednesday called off a visit to Darfur after Sudanese officials demanded the removal of the UN’s former top rights official from the group.

The six-member team, set up last December by the UN Human Rights Council after fierce debate between countries defending Khartoum and others accusing Sudan of war crimes in Darfur, said it would pursue its work without entering the country.

The group had been due to arrive in Sudan on Tuesday on the second stage of a two-month mission to look into alleged abuses against civilians in the vast, arid region where experts estimate that 200 000 have been killed and 2,5-million driven from their homes in four years of conflict.

The Sudanese government, which has been accused of arming Arab militia groups, disputes the death toll and blames continuing violence on rebels who have refused a peace deal.

Earlier this week, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said it would not let the new UN team — headed by 1997 Nobel Peace co-laureate Jody Williams — into the country unless it dropped one member.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry sources said the objection was to Bertrand Ramcharan, a Guyanan who was the UN’s Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2003/2004 and sent the world body’s first rights team to Darfur.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the team made no direct reference to Ramcharan, saying only it ”can no longer allow the continued uncertainty regarding visas from Sudan to impede the continuance of the mission”.

The group, in Addis Ababa where it held talks with African Union and UN representatives and regional human rights bodies, would continue its work ”and collect all relevant information from locations outside the country [Sudan]”.

Ramcharan, a retired career UN official who has written several books on human rights and was Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights for 5 years, is now a professor at Geneva University.

A Sudanese Foreign Ministry source told Reuters in Khartoum this week that Ramcharan had made comments after he was named to the team ”referring to genocide and saying that the government needed to do more”.

The row over the latest mission underlines the tense state of relations between Sudan and the United Nations as UN envoy for Darfur Jan Eliasson and his AU counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim began their first joint visit to Sudan.

They are aiming to reinvigorate a shattered peace process and end fighting between Sudanese government forces and militias backing them, and rebels in Darfur.

Last year, Sudan expelled the top-ranking U.N. official in Sudan, Jan Pronk, and it has hindered visits by other senior representatives of the world body, notably former humanitarian chief Jan Egeland. — Reuters