2015 /Aicha Elbasri
Aicha Elbasri, whistleblower and former spokesperson for the United Nations mission in Darfur (UNAMID), is the 2015 recipient of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. In Foreign Policy magazine last April, Elbasri exposed “a horrible war on civilians” that top UN officials kept “hidden from the world,” compelling action from the highest rungs of the organization.
Through a series of articles, including one with her own byline, Elbasri disclosed secret documents — including thousands of pages of emails, police reports, internal investigations and diplomatic cables — exposing the failure of the UN peacekeeping mission to protect millions of civilians under its care, and the mission’s complicity with the Sudanese government in concealing an ongoing war that thrust non-combatants onto the front lines.
Elbasri, who was posted with UNAMID in 2012 and 2013, likened her initial realization of the “horrors occurring under Darfur’s harsh sun” to “walking out of Plato’s cave,” describing the UN’s vast “web of lies” in the region as “Orwellian doublespeak [that] deliberately disguises reality and distorts words.” The United Nations, she revealed, misleadingly called continuous war “sporadic clashes,” indiscriminate bombing of civilians “air strikes” and systematic rape “sexual and gender-based violence.”
Elbasri documented an attack in Tawila, which forced thousands of civilians to flee their homes, and revealed that peacekeepers waited four days to leave their base to patrol the villages, which were located just 12 miles away. The case “exemplifies how UNAMID lied to the media and failed to protect, or in some cases even make an effort to protect, civilians in the region.”
Elbasri asked Major General Wynjones Kisamba, deputy force commander of UNAMID, why the peacekeepers delayed. “Sometimes we have to behave like diplomats,” he told her. “We can’t say all [of] what we see in Darfur.” His answer, she wrote, “shook me to the core.”
She critically highlighted the Secretary-General’s reaction to another attack, writing:
Even more disturbing in this report is Ban’s attributing the killing of one civilian and the wounding of eight others on Sept. 5 near the town of Kutum to “the crossfire of a firefight between armed Arab militia and Government regular forces.” The truth is that there was no crossfire and no firefight, only defenseless civilians peacefully traveling to Kutum in a truck who were stopped and shot in cold blood in front of UNAMID peacekeepers by “Arab militia.” The peacekeepers looked on and took photos of the assault.
In June, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor urged Ban Ki Moon to set up an independent inquiry investigating UNAMID’s actions in Darfur. The Secretary-General declined, in favor of an internal review that Elbasri blasted as “partial, biased and secretive.”
“The United Nations has answered my requests with deafening silence. Having failed to get the United Nations to investigate the situation, I have decided to put the matter in the hands of the public by sharing documents that show what the United Nations has done and how it has lied. Since the United Nations may never investigate its own wrongdoing, and the African Union is more concerned with shielding war criminals than protecting the people of Darfur, I hope the media and the general public will take up the challenge and call the United Nations, as well as the African Union, to account.”
Elbasri has forcefully argued and shown that the UN’s actions strengthened Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
“United Nations has espoused the Sudanese government’s official line that blames all the atrocities on inter-tribal conflicts and out-of-control ‘militias.’ Nothing could make al-Bashir and his government happier. The United Nations has offered them the perfect pretext to claim they are innocent of the crimes committed by their own forces,” Elbasri wrote. The ICC suspended investigations into al-Bashir in December after a lack of security council support.
After exposing the secret war in Darfur, Elbasri has continued pushing for positive change. She’s worked to halt the withdrawal of UNAMID troops and urged an end to ongoing ethnic cleansing. In Foreign Policy she wrote that she hoped that, by providing the hidden facts, the public would demand justice in Darfur.
In reflecting upon its decision to honor Elbasri, the awards committee said, “In the spirit of Ron Ridenhour, whose 1969 letter to Congress and the Pentagon revealed the horrific events at My Lai — the infamous massacre of the Vietnam War — and exposed the reality of the war to the American public and the world, we are honored to award the 2015 prize to Aicha Elbasri. In awarding her this prize, we add our voices to hers in urging the UN to stop covering up war crimes and hope to support her work to protect the people in Darfur from the horrors of war.”
In accepting the prize, Elbasri said, “Before I decided to speak the truth about the UN cover-up of crimes against humanity in Darfur, I knew my decision would likely cost me my job, my UN career and all the privileges that come with it. I never imagined that my humble action would actually earn me a privileged place in the Ridenhour truth-loving family,” said Elbasri. “I am pleased that this award will help to shine a light on Darfur while the UN quietly walks away amidst rising violence, leaving behind millions of civilians at the mercy of the death squads operating there today. It is my sincere hope that my words of truth will help lead to peace for the people of Sudan.”
Elbasri concluded her Foreign Policy article with a compelling call for the world’s attention to Darfur and an honorable justification for her choice to blow the whistle: “As an Arab-African Muslim, I refuse to remain silent while innocent civilians are being killed in my name. I chose to end my UN career to regain my freedom to speak out. I have only lost a job; countless Darfuris are still losing their lives.”
2015 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches
JOHN PRENDERGAST: Thank you very much, Danielle. It’s an honor to be here and to follow you on this platform. But I have to admit, I am definitely a little uneasy up here with all of you truth tellers in the room. I’m just hoping that the spotlight doesn’t get turned on me today because there’s a whole lot of truth to tell.
Moving right along, now since it turns out, and I didn’t expect this, that there was going to be some hammering of former presidents, ladies and gentlemen, there’s a story that is out there that early in President Bush’s first term in response to the emerging stories that were unfolding in the deserts in Darfur, President Bush’s aides wrote him a memo about lessons from the Rwandan genocide. The next day, his aides received the memo back with a very powerful note attached in block letters saying simply, “Not on my watch.” The aides came to see the President to seek clarification on which policy tools he might wish to utilize to sort of make good on this solemn pledge that he had made in his little handwriting. But the President quickly realized that they had misunderstood his memo. “No, no,” he told them. “What I meant was don’t put memos on top of my watch.” [laughter] Sorry.
There is no such ambiguity with our honoree today, Aicha Elbasri. [applause] During the last dozen years, Darfur’s agonies had few parallels globally though the terminology applying to this particular set of crimes that are unfolding there has been hotly disputed. The fact that massive numbers of people have been targeted for elimination or physical displacement purely on the basis of their identity means that it is highly likely that genocide has been committed in Darfur.
Amazingly, in response to this set of atrocities that have unfolded there half a world away, there was a massive outpouring of citizen solidarity across the world, perhaps unprecedented for a complex African emergency. And after succeeding in garnering the attention of policymakers around the world, this nascent anti-genocide movement helped press successfully for the largest peacekeeping force in the world to be deployed to Darfur. The people in the streets and the churches and the synagogues and campuses trusted that this peacekeeping mission was being sent to protect the people of Darfur. There was a huge demand for this United Nations mission and the belief that the U. N. would uphold some of its central reasons for its existence born in the aftermath of the great war and the holocaust.
But far more importantly, the survivors of Darfur’s atrocities trusted the United Nations to come and at least try to fulfill its mandate and aspirations. The Darfuri peoples put their hope into this U. N. mission to end, or at least ameliorate, their suffering. This hope has melted away into the sands of the Sahara largely in silence. But because of one woman and her whistle, one lone upstander in the U. N. bureaucracy, now the world has been alerted to the U. N.’s complicity in the extinguishing of the hopes of Darfur’s people. This courageous woman with a whistle, of course, has her own story behind why she was so strongly motivated to counter the tragic mendacity of the U. N. mission in Darfur. And we heard a little earlier about how her father was lied to in an earlier war and the impact that had on her.
But over time, Aicha developed an aversion herself to war and a strong desire to serve peace. So she eventually went to work for the United Nations. But sadly, like her father, Aicha was lied to as she joined the United Nations mission in Darfur. She came to recognize the U. N.’s role in a deliberate and a systematic cover up of mass atrocities, a total betrayal of the founding principles of the U. N.
If my dear friend, Samantha Power, were to write a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about upstanders in the face of genocide, A Problem from Hell, I have absolutely no doubt that the most important next chapter would be about the upstander we are honoring today, Aicha Elbasri. [applause]
AICHA ELBASRI: Thank you so much, John, for this very flattering and humbling introduction. And for Fertel Foundation, The Nation Institute and all partners for the privilege of joining you and joining the Ridenhour family. It’s a dream that exceeds my dreams.
I want also to thank two strong NGOs, the Government Accountability Project, and Crisis Action. Without their full support, my voice would not have been heard beyond the diplomatic circles in New York. Today, I receive this honor with deep gratitude and sincere humility and I wish in turn to share it with all U. N. whistleblowers.
These truth tellers often have to sacrifice their well being to serve the public good and speak truth to power in the same spirit of Ridenhour. I want to acknowledge one particular whistleblower, Dr. Mukesh Kapila without whom the world may have never heard of Darfur. He was the top U. N. official in Sudan in 2003 and 2004 when he broke the conspiracy of silence over Darfur. He alerted the press to unspeakable crimes. His testimony drew world’s attention to mass atrocities in Darfur. This led to unprecedented levels of popular support for the region, compelling the U. N. Security Council to act.
Unfortunately, every single action undertaken by the Security Council was tainted by inaction. It amounted to little more than what President Obama once described as the U. N.’s hocus pocus.
This includes the U. N.’s alliance with the African Union organization. Together, they deployed Unamid, the African Union/United Nations mission in Darfur. Unamid was set up as a peacekeeping force without peace to keep without the necessary force to use and without a clear mandate to fight the government forces. But what the mission lacked more, or most, was the willingness to tell the truth about the government’s war on the civilians under its care and on its own troops.
So, when accepted to serve as the spokesperson for this peacekeeping mission, little did I know what I was getting into. I had religiously read U. N. Security General Ban Ki-moon’s reports which spoke of the promising Doha Peace Agreement, the massive return of refugees and the improvement of security situation. Like many people, I sincerely believed him. I believed that the war was over and I believed that the worst was far behind the people of Darfur. I was wrong.
But soon after I set foot in Darfur, I started receiving internal reports that were telling a different story. They were painting a picture of a raging war that spared no ethnic group, no tribe, no one, a war that had expanded and spilled over into neighboring Nuba Mountains. The reports indicated that the Sudanese regime had clearly embarked on a second phase of its ethnic cleansing campaign targeting Zahawa population this time around. Its weapons of mass destruction were still the infamous Janjaweed militias, but they became much deadlier. Despite a U. N. Security Council resolution demanding that Sudan disarm the Janjaweed, the government had integrated them into these death squads into its army, provided them with heavier weapons and an absolute immunity to kill, rape, loot and burn everything to the ground. And that’s what they were doing in Darfur while I was there.
The internal reports I was receiving described the intensified bombing of civilians, mass and systematic rape, scorched earth campaign, and many other crimes predominantly committed by the government forces. They also included deliberate attacks on African peacekeepers. But most of this information wasn’t making it to Ban Ki-moon reports, keeping the council members, the media, and the public in the dark.
Week after week, I pushed a mission leadership hard to answer the media’s questions and to report the truth about Darfur, but I failed. After eight months, I reached a conclusion that a deliberate and a major cover-up was taking place. I resigned, alerted the U. N. peacekeeping department and asked for an investigation, which the U. N. refused, and still refuses to undertake. [applause]
Silence was never an option. It simply meant complicity in crimes against humanity. This is how I became a whistleblower. With the great help of foreign policy senior diplomatic reporter, Colum Lynch, Colum’s outstanding reports made waves at the U. N. and beyond which ultimately admitted that the mission concealed critical information and evidence showing the responsibility of government forces for the attacks on blue helmets and civilians, including the massacre of up to 100 women, men and children in Hashaba.
Despite this, despite this, the full scope of the cover-up has yet to be revealed and no independent investigation has taken place again.
However, I want to acknowledge that recently, the U. N. has been trying to improve its reporting in Darfur. I confirmed that, the region is now seeing the highest levels of violence and displacement since the start of the war 11 years ago. It started naming and shaming the crimes committed by the government forces including the bombing of civilians. and as expected, Khartoum is raging about the increased attention Darfur is getting these days because it simply wants the entire mission out of the country, and now.
The regime is demanding that 15,000 peacekeepers serving in Darfur leave the country at least by the end of this year. The struggle within the council is at its height. Russia and China are backing Khartoum’s demand while the United States, Britain and France seem to oppose it. They are in a rock and a hard place. But if they surrender to Khartoum’s orders, then the worst might still lie ahead for civilians in Darfur. For despite being disempowered, outgunned and sometimes ill trained, these peacekeepers have been saving lives in Darfur. By simply having their bases near local villages and towns, they have de facto become a safe zone. For years, defenseless civilians have been rushing to these safe areas whenever they came under attack. They are now wondering where they can run for safety if Unamid leaves. And if the U. N. goes, it is only a matter of time before the humanitarian organizations who are feeding and housing 2 ½ million displaced people in Darfur will have to follow suit. Without military backup, they clearly cannot risk the lives of the humanitarian workers.
So, I refuse to think of this worst case scenario because I strongly believe that it’s not too late to stand up to the Sudanese regime and demand that it stop its attacks on unarmed people, as well on peacekeepers; keep the peacekeepers on the ground and move them closer to the population under attack. But these measures are, of course, only a Band-Aid. The real medicine is a genuine peace in Darfur and the rest of Sudan. I believe there is still hope. There’s hope because the people of Sudan have decided it’s not only Darfur that they need to save, but it’s only the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, eastern Sudan and Khartoum. It is the entire country they want to save from decades of destruction inflicted on them by an illegitimate regime.
Women and youth organizations are leading the way, and they seem committed to a soft and peaceful transition to democracy and peace. There is hope also because the very fact that we’re here today means that Darfur and Sudan are not a lost cause. They do matter because black lives matter in Africa, too. Thank you. [applause]