Truth-Telling Prize Recipient, 2015

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.”

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