More than 200,000 people have died and millions more have been displaced by the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. U.S. President Bush has called the crisis there "genocide." Despite international pressure and the planned deployment of a peacekeeping force, the killing and suffering continues. Former President Jimmy Carter is a frequent visitor to Sudan, and his human rights organization in Atlanta, Georgia is deeply involved in humanitarian work in the country. He spoke to VOA's Kane Farabaugh about the Carter Center, his concerns for upcoming peace negotiations and his hopes for future elections in Sudan.
Former President Jimmy Carter routinely makes headlines in his worldwide campaign to raise awareness about issues in areas of crisis.
His recent trip to the Darfur region of Sudan was no different. There, it was widely reported he engaged in a shouting match with a security official who prevented him from speaking with local villagers.
In an interview with Voice of America, Mr. Carter downplayed the exchange. "He was just doing his duty, but he did it in a non-diplomatic way."
When asked, "If anything else, those kinds of headlines do bring attention to the situation there, even if we're forgetting about it,” he replied, "That's beneficial. It's very important for the world not to forget about Darfur, not to forget about the persecution of a displaced person."
Sudan has long been a focus of the Carter Center.
"We've been involved in Sudan since 1988,” said the former president. “I've known the current President [Omar] al-Bashir when he was a colonel in the army before he became the leader of Sudan in 1989."
Successful efforts by the Carter Center in Sudan include agricultural programs that have increased the production of wheat, and an aggressive campaign to eradicate Guinea Worm disease by 2009.
But bringing peace to the troubled region of Darfur is a far more difficult goal. President Carter says he is concerned about the planned peace negotiations scheduled to take place in Tripoli, Libya later this month.
"...The groups that will be represented at the negotiating table are the armed rebel groups who have earned their way to the negotiating table by the barrel of a gun. One of the main points that we have made was that the peace-loving civilian population needs to be represented at the negotiating table too."
The United Nations is preparing to deploy a peacekeeping force of 20,000 soldiers to Darfur later this month. It will join an African Union force of 7,000 already in the region. As peace talks continue amid the planned deployment, President Carter is looking ahead to future elections in Sudan.
"We hope that we can help to arrange an honest election now scheduled for 2009, including a census that is supposed to begin next February to prepare for the voters list that will be used in the election. So we hope we can break a deadline and prevent future deadlock and open up the way for progress in the future," Mr. Carter said.
Peace agreements require international observers to monitor elections in Sudan. The Sudanese government blocked these efforts in the past, but it has invited the Carter Center to take part in the upcoming election monitoring. It is a move that is also supported by leaders in the south of the country.
So far, the Carter Center has monitored 68 troubled elections throughout the world. President Carter hopes that free and fair elections in Sudan will eventually bring an end to the widespread suffering of the people of Darfur.