The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously three weeks ago to authorize a force of 26,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help end more than four years of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. The U.N. mission would assume authority over a force of about 7,000 African Union peacekeepers who now struggle to support civilians in Darfur. The new force – to be run jointly by the United Nations and the African Union – will be of “predominantly African character,” according to the resolution.
But Richard Cockett, Africa editor of The Economist magazine sees that as a potential problem and says he is not sure it will be able to make a great deal of difference. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Cockett said it is not known when the force might go in, perhaps not until next summer. And Khartoum insists that most of the troops be African, but right now the African Union is struggling to raise 8,000 troops for Somalia.
The violence in Darfur began in 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government of President Omar al-Bashir. Khartoum responded with a counter-insurgency campaign leading to the deaths of about 450,000 people and forcing more than 2 million into camps or across the border. The Arab-led government has armed the region’s nomadic Arab tribes, or janjaweed militias, to carry out attacks against non-Arab African farming communities, which form the popular base of the rebellion.
Richard Cockett says that, in addition to the internally displaced persons still in Darfur, an estimated quarter-of-a-million refugees are now in camps in Chad near the border, which has dragged Chad into the conflict. George Papagiannis of Internews Network, who was in Chad for nearly a year, directed a journalism-training program for Chadians and Darfur refugees. He says the U.N. mandate can make a difference, but only if there is “political will” on the part of the Khartoum government.
In addition, Richard Cockett says, large numbers of refugees from Darfur have fled to Uganda in the south and to Egypt in the north. He adds that Egyptian riot police have shown “minimum tolerance” toward the Sudanese refugees. But he notes, this week the refugees “in the headlines” are those who tried to flee the Egyptian crackdown across the Sinai Desert to Israel, where they were “almost equally unwelcome” and where about 50 have been deported.
Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz newspaper says that Israelis are divided on how best to respond to Darfur’s refugee crisis. Members of the “liberal camp” in Israel, he says, do not like the idea of sending them back to Egypt and recall their own history as “wandering Jews,” who were themselves victims of countries that turned their backs on Jewish refugees during wartime. On the other hand, Mr. Eldar explains, Israelis are acutely sensitive to the problem of “demographic balance” in the world’s only Jewish state, and many say it does not make sense to “open their gates” to refugees from Darfur while closing those same gates to Palestinians. So, “nothing is simple,” as he observes.
Richard Cockett reminds that the Darfur situation has to be evaluated within the context of “several gloomy reports” on the state of North-South peace in Sudan and the slow pace of its implementation. He notes that Khartoum has reneged on its promises to withdraw its troops from southern territory. Nonetheless, he concedes that getting an agreement for a 26,000-member U.N. force in Darfur does represent a “step forward.”
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