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Pressure Builds On China To Break Darfur Deadlock

Human rights groups say they’ll call for a boycott of next year’s Olympic Games in China, unless the country does its best to secure a lasting peace in Darfur. Thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced, since conflict broke out in the region in 2003. The activists blame the government of Sudan for the violence. But their focus is increasingly upon China – a country that has invested heavily in Sudan’s oil industry, builds infrastructure in Sudan, and sells weapons to Khartoum. In so doing, human rights advocates say China is fomenting the Darfur crisis. In the second of a five-part series on the possibility of a worldwide boycott of the Beijing Olympics, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines China’s role in efforts to stop the killings in Darfur.

Stephen Morrison, a senior Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., says it’s essential that China begins to use its leverage within the United Nations Security Council, and within its bilateral relationship with Khartoum, to help implement the core elements of the peace plan that Sudan agreed to in November last year.

“The main elements of that are putting in place this large hybrid peacekeeping force, under a combined African Union-United Nations mantle, and…. getting renewed negotiations under way, that would deliver some kind of durable political compact for Darfur. The settlement of the crisis there is going to be through political means. China can be helpful by keeping the pressure on Sudan, and using its good offices in multiple ways, to try and achieve those two objectives,” Morrison explains.

Khartoum has agreed to a force of international peacekeepers that would be under UN control for Darfur, after continually insisting that the 20,000 to 25,000 troops consist mainly of AU soldiers, and be under AU command. This agreement has opened the way for the UN to directly fund the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, which could result in it being more effective than the cash-strapped, and therefore poorly resourced, operation the AU has so far managed in Darfur.

But activists still doubt that this latest agreement by the Sudanese administration will be fully implemented, given Khartoum’s breaking of agreements in the past.

Advocacy groups are appealing to China to ensure that Sudan sticks to its pledges this time around.

But Morrison warns the activists, and the international community, to be “very cautious in not overestimating how much the Chinese are going to be able to deliver. I do not think they have the power to win immediate compliance from Khartoum for what people are calling for…. I just don’t think that’s ever going to happen. This is a country (Sudan) that has lots of partners, lots of support within the Arab world, and lots of cash coming in, from other sources than China.”

Morrison also doubts that China will heed calls by activists for it to suspend its economic investments in Sudan as a way of adding to the pressure on Khartoum.

“They (the Chinese) can downgrade the investment terms and take Sudan off the preferential lists of trade partners, and slow their investments. But they’re not going to cease buying their oil,” he asserts.

However, Jan Egeland, the former UN aid chief and now special advisor to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, is convinced that China should lead international efforts at a solution in Darfur.

Egeland maintains that the United States doesn’t have the necessary leverage to enable it to “unlock” the crisis. He says public campaigns should focus on countries that have far bigger public profiles in Africa – like China. Without support from countries like the Far Eastern power, says Egeland, any campaigns designed to ensure peace in Darfur have little chance of success.

But John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, disagrees with Egeland.

Prendergast says it’s the US that should continue its leadership of attempts to halt the Darfur tragedy, because it has a “good track record” in “forcing change” in Sudan. As an example, he cites American pressure on Khartoum in the 1990’s to stop harboring al-Qaeda on Sudanese territory. As a result, says Prendergast, Khartoum expelled al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, in 1997, and the terror group was “dismantled” in Sudan. Also in the 1990’s, slavery in Sudan was largely ended when – again as a result of US pressure - Khartoum stopped funding the slave traders. The US also played a key role in ensuring that a peace agreement was signed between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in 2004. This ended more than two decades of war in southern Sudan.

According to Prendergast, it’s imperative that the US ensures, through the UN, that other countries also impose financial sanctions on Sudanese companies and individuals “most responsible for the genocide.”

In addition, says Prendergast, US security agencies should “provide intelligence to the International Criminal Court that can accelerate the (war crimes) indictment process” to allow senior members of the Sudan government and their proxies to be prosecuted for atrocities in Darfur.

He also suggests that the US should begin planning to take military action in Darfur.

“And it can’t just be a no-fly zone – it must be on-the-ground forces; air and ground involvement. Transparent planning will let Sudan know that we are serious,” Prendergast emphasizes.

Anita Sharma, a spokesperson for the Enough Campaign to stop “genocide” in Darfur, is convinced that a “troika” of nations must “seize the initiative” to get peace: the US, China and France.

“All those three countries have special envoys which have been focused on Darfur, and all of them have used leverage with the Sudanese regime or the rebels or both. So we’re suggesting that these three countries join together in France…. That the three countries work together to try to bring an end to the violence.”

The US, China and France have, indeed, agreed to work together to break the Darfur stalemate.

Sharma is encouraged that the Chinese, especially, are “becoming more involved.”

“China has been more engaged in Darfur, with their special envoy; they’ve traveled to Darfur. They do it in a more quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of way. But I think these efforts within the Olympics (the call for a boycott), are going to force them to be a bit more vocal and transparent in their activities in Darfur and within Africa in general.”

Activists are pleased that France is finally entering the fold of parties trying to gain peace in Darfur.

“The French have just elected a new president (Nicolas Sarkozy) who is willing to work with the United States, and who wants to resolve the crisis in Darfur. The French have a huge investment – oil investment – in Sudan, and they have the most leverage of any outside power with the (Darfur) rebels, because they’re the main backer of Chad – where most of the rebels are located,” Prendergast explains.

But central to peace efforts must be China, says Sharma.

“With China on the outside of peace building efforts, Beijing is much more likely to play the role of spoiler. But by bringing them in and having them working to achieve a negotiated settlement, that could help ease the tension between China and other nations that are calling for more punitive action (against Sudan).”

But, even though stepped-up peace efforts have led to advocacy movements expressing cautious optimism, they make no secret of it that they’ll call for a global boycott of the Beijing Olympics should China not play a “positive” role with regard to Darfur.

Former US ambassador, Larry Rossin, of the Save Darfur Coalition, says “what the Chinese can’t do to avoid this growing movement around the Olympics and Darfur” is to simply “wish it away.”

“They can’t get mad; they can’t put people in jail – (because) we’re (the activists are) outside China. What they can do is to in fact play a positive role and a very active role commensurate with their influence with Khartoum.”

Rossin calls on China to immediately recognize the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Darfur - something Beijing has hitherto not being willing to do.

“China has never stated explicitly that there is this displacement and death taking place in Darfur and that it’s mainly the responsibility of Sudan’s government. So I think publicly acknowledging what everybody else has stated would be a first step. But then China could leverage its military relationship, saying it will suspend arms sales to Sudan until the Khartoum government acts to end the conflict.”

Like other activists, Rossin is especially irked by China’s recent promise to Sudan President Omar al-Bashir that it would build a new presidential palace – at the cost of millions of dollars – in Khartoum.

“They (the Chinese) could take the money that they gave for the presidential palace and devote it to humanitarian assistance for people in Darfur. There are a number of steps that they could take, and we’ve actually conveyed those ourselves to the Chinese government and in discussions we’ve had with their officials.”

Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the US, Salah Elguneid, says his government “highly appreciates” China’s increasing role in efforts to get peace in Darfur. He’s especially “glad” that Beijing has appointed a special envoy to Khartoum.

“We think his mission is not…. a matter of pressure. We have a constructive engagement with China. We think the appointment of the Chinese special envoy to Sudan is in a consistent position with these relations. And we think the Chinese are engaged very positively in the direction of achieving peace in Darfur,” says Salah.