The United States on Monday announced that it will organise an "eminent persons group" to address the issue of slavery, abductions and forced servitude in Sudan.
Penn Kemble, senior scholar at Freedom House, has been asked to organise the group, study the issue and "recommend steps that can be taken by the parties to the conflict, and the international community, to end such abuses", according to US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The move followed an agreement secured by the US peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, with the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in December, he said.
An end to slavery and the abduction of civilians was one of four proposals Danforth put to the government and SPLM/A in November, saying these were confidence-building measures which could be positive factors for achieving peace. The other proposals involved: improved humanitarian access in conflict areas; zones and periods of tranquillity, in which immunisation efforts and other humanitarian activities could proceed; and an end to bombing and military attacks on civilians.
Freedom House, for which Kemble works, describes itself as a non-profit making, nonpartisan organisation which offers "a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world", and which is convinced that American leadership in international affairs is essential to the cause of human rights and freedom. [see http://www.freedomhouse.org/]
The eminent persons group he is to lead will include experts on Sudan from several European countries, including Norway, Britain, Italy, France and the Netherlands, Boucher added.
In addition to Kemble, the group will include George Moose, a former US assistant secretary of state for Africa; British members John Lyle and Sarah Uppard; Norwegians Leif Manger and Lars Kvalvaag; and Italian Elena Scisco, the Associated Press agency reported on Monday.
The group, supported by research teams, is expected to make two trips to northern and southern Sudan between now and the late-spring rainy season, according to a US press statement. "Upon completion of their travel and research, the group will draft a report and a series of recommendations," it added.
While recognising that some positive steps had been taken with respect to abductions - notably the establishment of the government-supported Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) - UN Special Rapporteur of the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan Gerhart Baum reported in November that "there continues to be a need for a massive advocacy campaign" and a strong government stand on the issue.
[for related stories, go to http://www.irinnews.org]
Baum expressed concern over the slow progress achieved by CEAWC, and said the Khartoum government, while distancing itself from the phenomenon, had "not yet taken concrete measures to prevent new abductions". Its inaction, he said, had the effect of encouraging their occurrence.
The Special Rapporteur referred particularly to the negative role of the nomadic Arab tribes (mainly the Baqqarah, Zaghawah and Misariyyah) from which government formed Murahilin militias, which were deeply implicated in abductions and the targeting of civilians in war.
Baum's report also referred to information he had received that forcible recruitment by the SPLA was continuing, despite an SPLM/A programme for demobilising child soldiers.
The Sudanese government has repeatedly stated that there is no slavery practised in Sudan, while admitting that there is a problem of some tribal militias abducting civilians.
"We know there is still a lot we can improve on, and we think that there is a lot of goodwill within the government to make improvements," Muhammad Ahmad Dirdiery, charge d'affaires at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, told IRIN in January.
"We think the antidote to all the human rights ills in Sudan is to have a comprehensive ceasefire to create a conducive atmosphere [for peace negotiations]."