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Tuesday, December 27, 2011
The World's Worst Human Rights Observer
As Arab League monitors work to expose President Bashar al-Assad's
crackdown, the head of the mission is a Sudanese general accused of creating
the fearsome "janjaweed," which was responsible for the worst
atrocities during the Darfur genocide.
BY DAVID KENNER
Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi
the first time in Syria's nine-month-old uprising, there are witnesses to
President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown, which according to the United Nations
has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Arab League observers arrived in the country
on Dec. 26, and traveled to the city of Homs -- the epicenter of the revolt,
where the daily death toll regularly runs into the dozens, according to
activist groups -- on Dec. 27. Thousands of people took to the streets to
protest against Assad upon the observers' arrival, while activists said Syrian
tanks withdrew from the streets only hours before the Arab League team entered
am going to Homs," insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi,
the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the
Assad regime had been "very cooperative."
Dabi may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever
seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is
wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against
humanity for his government's policies in Darfur. And Dabi's own record in the
restive Sudanese region, where he stands accused of presiding over the creation
of the feared Arab militias known as the "janjaweed," is enough to
make any human rights activist blanch.
involvement in Darfur began in 1999, four years before the region would explode
in the violence that Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as
"genocide." Darfur was descending into war between the Arab and
Masalit communities -- the same fault line that would widen into a bloodier
interethnic war in a few years' time. As the situation escalated out of
control, Bashir sent Dabi to Darfur to restore order.
to Julie Flint and Alex De Waal's Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Dabi
arrived in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on Feb. 9, 1999, with two
helicopter gunships and 120 soldiers. He would stay until the end of June.
During this time, he would make an enemy of the Masalit governor of West Sudan.
Flint and De Waal write:
Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the
Janjawiid', with [Arab] militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat
receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search
and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go in. They would
attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By
this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.'
account was supported five years later by a commander of the Sudan Liberation
Army, a rebel organization movement in the region. "[T]hings changed in
1999," he told Flint and De Waal. "The PDF [Popular Defense Forces, a
government militia] ended and the Janjawiid came; the Janjawiid occupied all
provided a different perspective on his time in Darfur, but it's not clear that
he disagrees on the particulars of how he quelled the violence. He told Flint
and De Waal that he provided resources to resolve the tribes' grievances, and
employed a firm hand to force the leaders to reconcile -- "threatening
them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet," in the authors'
words. "I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina," Dabi said.
Waal told FP that Yahya, who would become a senior commander for the rebel
Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), had "an axe to grind" against
the Sudanese military -- but his charge that Dabi spurred the creation of the
janjaweed wasn't far off base.
army command finds the militia useful and fearsome in equal measure," De
Waal said."So al-Dabi's
regularization of the Arab militia served both to rein them in, but also to
legitimize their activities and retain them as a future strike force."
role in Darfur is only one episode in a decades-long career that has been spent
protecting the interests of Bashir's regime. He has regularly been trusted with
authority over the regime's most sensitive portfolios: The day Bashir took
power in a coup in 1989, he was promoted to head of military intelligence. In
August 1995, after protesters at Khartoum University rattled the regime, Dabi
became head of Sudan's foreign intelligence agency -- pushing aside a loyalist
of Hassan al-Turabi, the hard-line Islamist cleric who helped Bashir rise to
power but would be pushed aside several years later. And as civil war ravaged
south Sudan, Dabi was tasked from 1996 to 1999 as chief of Sudan's military
is likely, however, Dabi's more recent career that led to his selection as head
of the Arab League observer mission in Syria. He served as Sudan's ambassador
to Qatar from 1999 to 2004, and would return to Doha after his term ended in a
Darfur-related position -- making him a well-known quantity to the Qatari
government, which has taken the lead among Arab states in pressuring Assad's
2006, Dabi was appointed head of the Darfur Security Arrangements
Implementation Commission (DSAIC) -- according to the peace agreement, De Waal
said, a representative of the former rebels was supposed to get the position,
but Bashir "simply ignored" that provision to tap Dabi. In this new
position, he played a major role in the peace talks, sponsored by Qatar, which
resulted in the government and one rebel group signing the Doha Document for
Peace in Darfur in July 2011.
much of Dabi's activities in recent years have been behind closed doors, his
limited media statements show that he remains a Bashir loyalist par excellence.
In 2006, he slammed U.N. Special Representative Jan Pronk's statement that
Sudan had suffered defeats in Darfur as "false and misleading,"
according to the Sudanese press, urging Pronk to "steer clear" of
military issues and "concentrate on his duties instead." That same
year, his aide suggested there would be a time limit to the African Union
troops in Darfur, saying the peacekeepers could "stay until the crisis is
over, but not indefinitely."
checkered past is only one of the criticisms of the observer mission, which
human rights activists have criticized for falling far short of its promise to
monitor the implementation of an Arab League initiative meant to end Assad's
crackdown. Wissam Tarif, the Arab world coordinator for the human rights group
Avaaz, slammed the mission for being far too small -- at roughly 50 people --
to monitor the situation across Syria, for failing to provide any biographical
information about the observers to human rights organizations, and for relying on
Assad's forces to shepherd them around the country. "I helped set up a
meeting with activists in Homs, and [the observers] arrived with 10 security
officers along with them," Tarif noted -- obviously a huge risk to the
protest organizers' safety.
monitors arrive in Homs, Syrians will no doubt cheer their arrival at the
center of the uprising. But given the stumbles of the Arab League observer
mission, it's clear that Syrians are still very much alone.
-David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 27/12/2011