UN guilty of 'sins of omission' yet again

You would think that the United Nations would be galvanised by a report from its own team accusing a government of committing atrocities that may amount to crimes against humanity.

"This is a matter of concern to all of us," said the Pakistani ambassador, Shaukat Umer, yesterday in Geneva, where the UN High Commission for Human Rights is holding its annual session. But Mr Umer was not referring to the allegations in the report, he was fulminating about the leaking to the press of the UN team's report on "ethnic cleansing" in western Sudan.

Thus these bloody events may end up joining the list of human rights atrocities that the UN has been alerted to, but failed to act on. In Rwanda in 1994 as the genocide broke out, appeals for reinforcements from the commander of the peacekeepers in Kigali went unheeded. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, admitted last month "the international community is guilty of sins of omission". The UN had to admit similar sins of omission after the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the "UN-protected" enclave of Srebrenica in 1995.

Part of the problem lies in the UN system, which only allows its investigators to investigate alleged atrocities with the consent of the country involved. In the case of Sudan, the Khartoum government first barred the UN team from travelling to Darfur, which led to its members interviewing refugees in Chad. The government has now agreed to admit the UN team - but not in time for it to report back to the commission this week, delaying any action until next year.

A UN team dispatched to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to investigate human rights abuses by the then government of Laurent Kabila met a similar fate in 1998. Despite being barred from entering the country, the rapporteur concluded the atrocities constituted crimes against humanity. With an estimated three million dead during the civil war, only now is the International Criminal Court deciding whether to follow up accusations of genocide.