Geneva is a small city sitting comfortably and quietly in a flat valley between snow-topped mountains in Switzerland. It is a lush place, with greenery, trees, and fields ringing a central Lake – Lake Geneva – which in one spot features a giant water jet that year-round shoots right out of the lake many feet into the air. In the summer months, the Lake is often filled with swimmers, even though the fresh water is chilly and bracing. Some who have attended Geneva in summer say it looks like Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, particularly with the tall jebels in the middle distance.
Geneva is also home to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, where states meet to discuss the world’s human rights picture, from tentative progress made in some countries, to slides into atrocity and abuse in others. In giant round halls, a busy atrium café, and in small wood-panelled side rooms, diplomats and NGO representatives discuss the rights of hundreds of millions of individuals. And yet the process itself is game-like: the word ‘regime’ is used by those who want to denigrate another state’s authority, and the word is then repelled by those seeking the Council’s legitimacy. In one discussion on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s record of treatment of women and girls, the word was used and rebuffed so many times that the chair had to ask representatives to settle down as he hadn’t yet had his morning coffee.
The tone of the discussions can feel an odd backdrop to the issues actually being discussed. The stakes could not be higher than the human rights abuses states are there to debate, condemn, and seek improvements to. It certainly felt odd to us at Waging Peace, given the horrific testimonies and advocacy wishes we were there to represent on a trip to the Council from Monday 3rd to Thursday 6th July 2023, and during its 53rd session.
We brought with us the voices of those who are stuck in Khartoum and Omdurman, unable to escape SAF airstrikes or RSF predations. We brought tales of bullets flying into homes and between or into the bodies of loved ones; of such bodies littering streets, or sitting in homes, unable to be buried. We brought the stories of those whose families were trapped in cities in Darfur encircled by RSF and Arab militia, of women told while being raped that those raping them wanted to “change the DNA” of the babies they would birth, and of voices asking if they were being left to die by the international community.
There could not be a more important time for the Council to act.
We brought these stories to the ears of decision-makers in ad hoc meetings in the atrium café, in a dedicated unbranded briefing pulled together alongside other NGO partners, but most importantly also in a side event we hosted alongside Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.
In this event, our Archive and Documentation Lead, and Executive Director of the HUDO Centre, Bushra Rahama (pictured 2nd to the left), spoke about abuses across Sudan, and notably in the Darfur area. He spoke about saving lives today, but also about preserving evidence, such as through a project to digitise and categorise the children’s drawings of Darfur.
By coincidence, in Geneva itself, and only a few miles away, several of the children’s drawings of Darfur were actually on display at the International Museum of the Reformation as part of an exhibition titled Déflagrations, featuring children’s drawings and recollections of war spanning a century. Later that day, the Waging Peace team travelled to the Museum to see the drawings. Their placement alongside the images produced by other children from different conflicts was stunning, and a reminder of the true victims of such crimes. The images were collected in 2007, and feature attacks from the earliest days of the genocide. These children will now be adults, given 2023 marks the 20th year since the internationally recognised start of the Darfur atrocities. It was devastating to bear witness to the images and the children’s voices at a time that a whole new generation of Sudan’s young people will again have their childhoods and adolescence interrupted.
We hope the voices of these children, and of those we were in Geneva to represent, reach the ears of decision-makers.
We are so very grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide for facilitating our trip, and for letting us shadow them during our visit, sharing their unparalleled knowledge on the sometimes inscrutable Human Rights Council.