Yet another wave of high-profile attempts to end the atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region is underway. Human rights groups say that since 2003 the government of Sudan has participated in a campaign to “cleanse” Darfur of black ethnic groups, and that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. The government blames rebels for the conflict. South African president Thabo Mbeki recently visited Khartoum to speak with his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir. United States Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is also involved in a bid to secure peace. But observers of the crisis say negotiations are leading nowhere, and are urging that harsh action be taken against Sudan to stop what they’ve branded “genocide.” In the first of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor provides a context to the Darfur conflict and reports on various proposals to end what the United Nations has termed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of people have been killed in Darfur since 2003, when an Arab militia, known as the janjaweed, began attacking the villages of black ethnic groups. Rebel groups retaliated and have since been launching attacks of their own against Sudanese government troops, who are seen as acting in concert with the janjaweed. The chaos is spreading. It has periodically spilled over into Chad and the Central African Republic, where thousands of displaced Darfuris have fled to refugee camps. The janjaweed has also attacked villages and encampments in Chad itself, recently killing up to 400 people, Chadian and Sudanese troops have clashed, and African Union peacekeepers have been killed.
Darfuris, human rights groups and a powerful coalition of international activists accuse the Sudanese state of carrying out a systematic genocide against the black peoples of Darfur. The government denies that genocide is happening and says only 9,000 people have lost their lives in a conflict it blames on rebel groups who have refused to sign a peace agreement.
But, while all the talk is underway, survivors continue to tell their stories of government aircraft strafing their villages, and of janjaweed horsemen - supported by Sudanese soldiers – driving them from their homes, raping women and murdering men and children, before razing Darfuri settlements.
In an interview with VOA, Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the US, Salah Elguneid, insisted that his government was doing its “best” to achieve peace in Darfur. He said the region was calm and only seven areas were “tense” because of “tribal disagreements.”
“Nobody is denying that we have problems in Darfur. There are civil or communal and tribal crises in Darfur. And we are doing our utmost efforts to solve the problem and solve it for definite,” Elguneid said.
He denied that government soldiers had ever cooperated with the janjaweed.
“The janjaweed are bandits and my government does not cooperate with bandits,” Elguneid emphasized.
Although the AU has about 7,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, the force has proved largely ineffectual; it’s stretched across a region the size of France and is also severely under-resourced and under-funded. Al-Bashir has resisted a full-scale UN peacekeeping force into Darfur to stop the violence but has agreed to a hybrid AU-UN force that he insists be staffed mostly by Africans and UN “logistical” personnel.
The terms of the deployment of the peacekeeping force continue to be the subject of heated international debate.
Khalid Musa, political attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C., insisted that his government opposes the deployment of the UN in Darfur on the basis of a “good and practical” reason: “That would not help to resolve the conflict. We have good examples. In Iraq right now; we have hundreds of thousands of troops. But it could not bring peace. We have a good example in Somalia right now (where the deployment of Ethiopian and AU troops has not resulted in peace).”
Susan Rice, former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has repeatedly urged an end to negotiations about the composition of the peacekeeping force for Darfur, and for the international community to agree to impose a force “on its own terms” upon Sudan.
She said the world should no longer allow the Sudanese government to dictate the terms of a solution. Diplomacy, she stressed, had failed, and almost four years of negotiations had run their course.
While all the talk continues, Rice said, the world was allowing “more and more to die and the region to become further inflamed.”
The time had arrived for the international community, and specifically the US, to give the Sudanese government a “very short duration ultimatum in which to accept an effective and robust international force with a mandate to protect civilians - or face the threat of the use of military force,” she said.
According to Rice, this force should take the form of “air strikes, targeted at the aircraft, the airfields (of the Sudanese government). That’s exactly what we (the international community through the UN) did in Kosovo, in a far lesser humanitarian crisis. It’s striking to me that we aren’t even discussing or contemplating that in the context of Darfur.”
Reacting to Rice’s comments, Salah told VOA: “We think such statements of violence will not lead to peace. Only a political solution to the crisis can be viable and sustainable and lasting.”
Musa said Rice seemed bent on adopting the “same failed policy” that she had used when in charge of African affairs for the US government in the late 1990s: A policy of “containment, and regional war, and isolation. This was the same policy that prolonged the civil war in southern Sudan for more than 21 years,” Musa claimed.
Rice responded that the Bush administration had been following a policy of negotiation with regard to Darfur “for a long time,” but that it had failed.
“How long are we supposed to be fooled by the notion that the government of Sudan will change its approach of perpetrating genocide in Darfur through negotiations?” she asked.
Salah said the achievement of peace in Darfur was not “a matter of time” and that his government was willing to negotiate for peace, but that rebel groups were refusing to engage with the state.
“The only obstacle to peace now in Sudan is the rebels,” Salah maintained.
Activists had also hoped that the war crimes indictments issued recently by the International Criminal Court, against several senior Sudanese officials would pressure al-Bashir to hasten efforts to achieve peace.
But Salah said they would not: “Sudan, like the US, is not a signatory to the Rome Statute (the treaty which brought the ICC into being). We do not recognize the court’s legitimacy.”
The Bush administration has also opposed the ICC; US officials have previously declared fears that it could be used as a vehicle to indict US personnel involved in counter-terrorism.
This stance has disappointed Gayle Smith, former special assistant to the US president on African Affairs: “This is something that, in the…case of Darfur, hurts us, because this (the ICC) is one of the instruments that can be used to put pressure on the Sudanese government and cause them to understand something which is not evident now: that there’s a cost for their actions, or some price to be paid.”
There’s also a growing divestiture movement among activists and politicians in America urging local and international companies not to do business with Sudan because of its actions in Darfur.
“Divestment has actually proven a very, very effective tool,” said Smith. “It gets more public attention from the private sector and corporate community, which is really important, because those are all people who have a voice with policymakers and decision makers.”
President Bush has also threatened to impose “Plan B” – a package of economic sanctions – on Sudan because of Darfur. Rice has urged its imposition, even while questioning its efficacy.
“It may or may not be effective depending on what they put in the package. It’ll be less effective to the extent that they’ve leaked elements of it,” she said.
But according to Salah, further economic sanctions on his country “would only hurt all Sudanese people. We think there should be further dialogue between interested parties, not calls for disinvestment and military actions against Sudan.”
In the US, advocacy movements are mounting a campaign to boycott next year’s Olympics in Beijing as a consequence of China’s apparent support of Sudan – this while senior Chinese officials become more vociferous in urging al-Bashir to intensify peace efforts.
China continues to make significant investments in Sudan, most notably in the country’s oil industry, and has sold weapons to Sudan and offered to build an expensive presidential residence in Khartoum. With regard to China, said Smith, the US had some important decisions to make.
“If we’re going to be at loggerheads with China about Darfur, then are we also going to be at loggerheads about Zimbabwe? China has been a very strong supporter of (Zimbabwe President Robert) Mugabe),” she said.
Rice did not foresee the US government joining the calls for a boycott on the Chinese Olympics.
“It’s not as if China doesn’t hold a few cards of its own with respect to the United States – like our economy. I think as a practical matter, it (the Olympics boycott) is not a great lever. It’s way down the road – and if we’re still talking about this (Darfur) in 2008, we’ll have a lot more to worry about than the Olympics.”
In addition to the short-term measures to stop the killings in Darfur, Smith called for a long-term strategy to ensure a lasting peace for the region.
“Part of what we need in addition to moving swiftly to ensure that civilians are protected…is a set of instruments that will ensure that ultimately what we see in Sudan is a government that represents the diversity of all the Sudanese people.”
Smith warned that if this did not happen, the potential existed for other conflicts to flare up in Sudan, where groups representing ethnic minorities were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their marginalization from politics and other spheres of Sudanese life.