It's Time to Make the Darfur Arms Embargo Mean Something

10/27/2010 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Julia Fromholz, Director, Crimes Against Humanity Program

Every autumn since 2006, the UN's Panel of Experts on Sudan--a group of experts on arms, finances, aviation, and human rights--has reported to the UN Sudan Sanctions Committee on violations of the arms embargo on Darfur. Media accounts of the past week have indicated that this year's report has caused great consternation on the part of the Chinese delegation to the Committee.

Now the report has been leaked to Reuters, but the big story should be not only the Chinese government's efforts to undermine the work of the embargo monitors, but also the fact that the report seems only to bolster conclusions known for years - that the embargo is honored in the breach, the Sudanese government is the worst violator and the Chinese government enables its actions, and the UN Security Council has largely failed in its responsibility to enforce a tool meant to protect civilians in Darfur.

Past reports have detailed, among other transgressions, the transfer of Chinese fighter jets and Russian attack helicopters from Khartoum to Darfur, in clear violation of the UN embargo, which prohibits the transfer of arms, ammunition, and other military materiel to Darfur without prior authorization by the UN. Sudanese government officials have stated several times over that they will never seek such authorization. Yet the Security Council's only public action to punish violators of the embargo was the 2006 subjection of four people to asset freezes and travel bans. Past reports leave no doubt that China is the leading supplier of arms to the Sudanese government. While selling arms and ammunition to that government in Khartoum technically may not violate the embargo, doing so in the face of abundant evidence that the Khartoum government ships arms and ammunition to its forces and proxies in Darfur does in fact put China - and others like it - at risk of violating international law.

Politically motivated opposition to the work of panels monitoring the enforcement of sanctions in Darfur has been evident for years. Of the six reports presented by successive expert panels to the Sudan Sanctions Committee since early 2006, four were subject to criticism and delayed release: the final reports of January, April, and October 2006, as well as the report of October 2007, ended up being referred by the Chairman of the Sanction Committee to the Security Council without the Committee having reached unanimous consent for their referral. Moves by the Chinese delegation to block the latest report extend this trend and challenge the commitment of other states to stand behind the panel and act against violations of international sanctions.

The row caused by this year's report and the information leaked to Reuters should only strengthen the fortitude of the U.S. and other governments seeking to make the embargo mean something. It should also remind those governments of the need to counter the consistent efforts to undermine the U.N. sanctions monitoring mechanism that has served the international community well in its efforts to thwart those responsible for conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, the DRC, Somalia, and Sudan.

Finally, the international community focused on Sudan has turned most of its attention to South Sudan because of the secession referenda scheduled for January 9, 2011. The U.S. and others involved in the diplomatic negotiations there should not ignore the evidence of the Panel of Experts on the violations of the Darfur embargo. Illegal activities pursued in one unstable area of the country could well be repeated in a region that is at risk of great instability around the upcoming vote.