Promoting the Rule of Law in Darfur as a UN Volunteer

James Pearce with paralegals in El Geneina

El Geneina, February 2008: West Darfur is a long way from my home in North Carolina in the southern part of United States of America. But my path to El Geneina makes sense in light of my work in the region.

Prior to serving as a UN Volunteer Rule of Law Officer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I got to know the warmth of the Sudanese people when I worked as a teacher in a refugee school for children in Istanbul, Turkey. A number of my former students came from various parts of Sudan. More recently, I was a legal advisor at Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) in Cairo, Egypt, where I worked closely with a number of Darfurians who had come to Cairo seeking asylum. In Egypt – where I earned a Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo and carried out research on Darfur for my thesis – my concern with the growing displacement in the western part of Sudan led me to apply to work as a UN Volunteer in Darfur.

My volunteer work as a Rule of Law Officer consists of both travel within West Darfur and interaction with a range of Sudanese and international partners. This morning I traveled to one of the eight internally displaced persons (IDP) camps around El Geneina to meet with a group of paralegals, a mix of local villagers and IDPs who have received training in human rights and Sudanese law facilitated by UNDP and our partner, the African Centre for Human Rights. Paralegals patrol the camp, mediate disputes and refer cases on to our office if remedy through the formal judicial system is appropriate.

In the afternoon, I sat with a colleague and a group of Darfurian lawyers to discuss how we can collaborate to provide more effective legal aid to vulnerable and marginalized groups in El Geneina. The two meetings – conducted in Arabic – are representative of UNDP’s enlisting of local actors in an effort to uphold human rights principles and enhance access to justice in the midst of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. More personally, these meetings – and by extension, my work as a Rule of Law Officer – reflect my own commitment to the principles of volunteerism embodied in being a UN Volunteer.

UNDP Staff at the Opening of the Legal Aid Centre in El Geneina

In addition to the provision of legal aid and support to paralegals, a third important component of the Rule of Law program consists of a series of trainings, workshops and seminars that UNDP holds in conjunction with the El Geneina branch of the University of Zalingei. These events allow individuals from all facets of society to come together to discuss issues including the relationship between Shar’ia Islamic Law and human rights principles, strategies for mitigating violent conflict and sustaining livelihoods and the role of armed movements in the reconciliation and reconstruction process in Darfur. Working with a multicultural group of individuals on a such a range of issues – all of them aimed at restoring justice and confidence for the people of Darfur – is one of the most exciting aspects of being a UN Volunteer.

UNDP’s Rule of Law project in West Darfur does not only cover El Geneina. Approximately once a month, one of us from the El Geneina office travels to Zalingei, a town in the eastern part of West Darfur. The flight from El Geneina to Zalingei takes about forty minutes. The helicopter lifts up from El Geneina’s dusty airstrip, hovers momentarily over the Durti and Ardamata IDP camps, before heading east over dry wadi beds and roaming herds of camels to drop down over the mountain ridges onto the no longer arable land that has become Zalingei’s landing pad.

Missions to Zalingei are often hectic, as one only has three or four days to oversee all of UNDP’s Rule of Law activities. Moreover, tensions in Zalingei often run high. UNDP, along with its partner in Zalingei the International Rescue Committee (IRC), is committed to strengthening the rule of law despite an environment of ongoing violence.

Recently, my missions to Zalingei have given rise to ideas for various exciting projects. With the support of IRC and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNDP has begun to address the issue of labor exploitation, which puts IDP children and women at risk. Cases of children put to work making bricks or carting heavy goods around Zalingei in wheelbarrows and reportedly underpaid (if paid at all) for their labor have been reported.

Another initiative aims to engage directly with governmental authorities in Zalingei to explain the mandates and programmatic activities of four UN agencies working in the area: UNDP, UNHCR, the United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) Human Rights Team and UNAMID Police.

Arial View of Hamidiyya IDP Camp, Zalingei

Finally, in a meeting I recently had with members of the Center for Peace and Development Studies at the University of Zalingei, we agreed on going forward with an idea for a two day workshop to discuss the role of the Native Administration in upholding the rule of law in Darfur. The Native Administration, a group of community leaders and local customary authorities tasked with resolving disputes and maintaining a community’s equilibrium, has seen its influence wane amidst the turmoil of fighting in recent years. The workshop will seek to understand how the conflict has changed the functioning of the Native Administration as well as to think creatively about the prospective role of the Native Administration in the peace process in Darfur.

It is always with a mix of excitement and anxiety that I travel to Zalingei. UNDP’s Rule of Law work throughout Darfur deals with sensitive issues centering on the protection of human rights and the provision of legal representation to marginalized groups. The heightened tension in a place like Zalingei makes this type of work more stressful, but the opportunity to engage in it as a UNV makes it ultimately more rewarding as well.

James Pearce
UNDP/UNV Rule of Law officer


For more information on the UNV programme in Sudan you can visit ; and contact Ms. Nota Sarafoudi, UNV Programme Officer :

To learn more about UNDP’s work across Sudan, please visit our website: ; or contact Ms. Aicha Elbasri, Communications Manager,

The United Nations Volunteers is the United Nations focal point for promoting and harnessing volunteerism for effective development. Administered by UNDP, the UNV programme counts currently more than 120 UN Volunteers serving with the UN agencies in Sudan.