January 26, 2004
Despite clear, indeed overwhelming evidence that the human catastrophe in Darfur Province (far western Sudan) continues to accelerate rapidly, the international community—as represented by governments with real power to halt the carnage—is largely silent. And to the extent that countries like the US, the UK, and even normally stalwart Norway have said anything about Darfur, there has been a remarkable quality of understatement, and a lack of sufficient urgency. What explains this?
The transparent diplomatic thinking—indeed so transparent that Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime has had no trouble whatsoever in discerning it—reflects a disastrously expedient logic: “let’s see to conclusion the talks in Naivasha (Kenya) between Khartoum and the SPLM/A, and then we can respond in more robust fashion to the hundreds of thousands of people at acute risk in Darfur,” goes this thinking; “we’re so close to nailing down an agreement that Darfur can wait a little while longer for us to speak in the appropriate moral register.”
Of course there can be no denying that it is essential the Naivasha talks be governed by a sense of relentless urgency, given Khartoum’s clear willingness to let deadlines pass, and to move away from serious engagement with the last outstanding issues. Transparent bad faith and duplicity, of the sort represented by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s sudden and unexplained announcement last week of a need to travel to Mecca for the Islamic Haj, must be confronted and made untenable as a strategy for Khartoum to prevent diplomatic resolution. Most essentially, a clear deadline must be set for those issues which have been exhaustively negotiated over the last year and a half. This is the moment for judgment and decision-making, not further “analysis”—certainly not three-week delays of the sort ominously announced today by IGAD mediators in Naivasha, forced by the absence of chief NIF negotiator Taha.
But the notion that restraint in speaking about the massive crisis in Darfur helps diplomacy in Naivasha is remarkably foolish. For Khartoum, sensing that this restraint presently governs the international response to Darfur, sees only an incentive to prolong the “climactic moment” at Naivasha as long as possible, thereby expanding the window of opportunity in which it can attempt to crush militarily the Darfur insurgency (see comments by NIF President Omer Beshir below).
To be sure, some in Western governments will indignantly declare that much is going on behind the scenes, and that Darfur is of concern, and that the absence of news coverage doesn’t imply a lack of concern. So the expedient language of self-exculpation goes. But very well-placed sources in both Washington and London make clear that a policy of treating Darfur in a low key prior to conclusion of the Naivasha talks does indeed govern. Certainly missing is the urgency and clear resolve to act that should govern any response to Khartoum’s continuing, indeed expanding military actions–actions that have generated what the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs declared over a month ago is probably “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Humanitarian officials in Sudan and Chad are declaring privately that unless Khartoum is confronted by the US and others with real consequences for its actions, the crisis will only deepen.
For all the available evidence (and this expands daily) reveals unambiguously the reality of vast human destruction, relentlessly expanding displacement, as well as the widening military scope of Khartoum’s actions in Darfur. The crisis is clearly accelerating, even as there is no evidence that Khartoum is any more willing to enter into true peace talks, under meaningful international auspices, with the major rebel groups (the Sudan Liberation Army [SLA] and the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM]). Instead, the regime has contrived to make much of absurdly irrelevant “peace talks” with one Ahmed Ibrahim Draij, a politically and militarily inconsequential representative of a small opposition party, the Federal Alliance (see press release of Khartoum Embassy in Washington, DC, January 22, 2004). Such disingenuous diplomatic evasion in dealing with the meaningful actors in Sudan’s conflicts has long been standard practice for the National Islamic Front.
But whatever Khartoum’s obfuscation, and whatever shameful diffidence within the international community—the US, the UK, Norway, IGAD countries, the African Union, the European Union—the basic facts cannot be obscured: the crisis in Darfur is a catastrophe that is clearly worsening on all counts.
Disgracefully, the only voices responding with appropriate urgency are those of the UN and nongovernmental organizations, especially Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International. Their accounts, along with those of a growing number of wire service news reports from the ground, offer a picture of massive human carnage, widespread destruction among hundreds of villages in the region, continuing aerial assaults on civilian targets, and huge streams of refugees fleeing Khartoum’s regular and Arab militia forces (the Janjaweed). The UN reports 30,000 refugees entering Chad from Darfur in December alone, and 18,000 in the last ten days, bringing the estimated total to “well over 110,000” human beings (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, January 23, 2004). The total number of displaced exceeds 700,000, and more than 1 million are now affected by the war.
And yet at the same time, Khartoum’s duplicity and bad faith in Naivasha are again in high gear. And why not? So long as Khartoum can convey the impression that an agreement is in the offing, and this in turn so clearly restrains the international response to Darfur, why not engineer as prolonged a climax to the talks as possible? Indeed, the bad faith by the National Islamic Front regime has become so conspicuous with Taha’s unexplained and factitious “Haj,” that the very possibility of completing any deal in good faith is clearly in deep jeopardy. The BBC reports today (January 26, 2004) that IGAD mediators have been forced by Khartoum’s actions to announce that talks will be suspended until February 17, 2004, despite the fact that all the very final issues are on the table and sustained negotiations could—if Khartoum really wanted as much—be resolved in the near term.
The evident strategy of dealing first with Naivasha and then Darfur stands revealed as yet another disastrous moment in the history of diplomatic expediency, and the parallels to Munich in 1938—mutatis mutandis—are irresistible.
What is the latest from Darfur? And what has happened in the week since we first learned of Khartoum’s scandalously brazen effort to force suspension of the Naivasha talks until later February, with NIF Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s Haj as pretext?
There has been, it must be noted first, some embarrassed and expedient scrambling in Naivasha. The deeply ominous suspension of the talks today has been partially papered over with a highlighting of the previously announced general agreement on two of the three disputed areas (the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile). But Abyei remains an impasse—the means by which Khartoum can artificially forestall final agreement for as long as it seems diplomatically tenable. And the developments in and around Abyei, with very significant military implications, leave open the possibility that Khartoum’s “negotiating” position on Abyei may become a final and fatal obstacle in the talks—and a military fait accompli on the ground. Nothing can paper over the fact that adjournment of negotiations now is a terribly threatening development.
But it is in Darfur that news continues to accumulate in the most urgent and intensely distressing fashion. The UN High Commission for Refugees reports that “a further 18,000 Sudanese refugees flooded into eastern Chad over the past week following further heavy fighting in Sudan’s western Darfur region” (UN Integrated Regional Information Network, January 23, 2004).
The UN also gives some sense of what has caused this massive influx of refugees:
“A UN [High Commission for Refugees] spokesman, Kris Janowski, said today that the refugees told local agency staff that Sudanese forces attacked 10 villages in Darfur early in the morning last Friday, burning houses and dynamiting wells. Many people fled immediately and told the UNHCR they fear for their lives if they return to Darfur.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Network, January 23, 2004)
The extraordinarily harsh conditions facing these refugees is also highlighted by the UN:
“[UNHCR spokesman] Janowski said most of the new arrivals were now camped in the open in the harsh semi-desert of eastern Chad, with little in the way of food, water or shelter, exposed to the hot sun by day and temperatures that dropped to near freezing at night.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Network, January 23, 2004)
Reuters reports yesterday from the Chad-Sudan border area that:
“Time is running out to help 100,000 Sudanese refugees trapped on the plains of Chad before food stocks dwindle and hotter weather blasts the already parched land, aid workers warned on Sunday.
“Thousands more refugees fleeing attacks by government forces in western Sudan poured across the border in the past week, joining the hunt for food and water in a region where survival is perilous at the best of times. Many of the refugees are from the Zaghawa ethnic group which overlaps Chad and Sudan and have found assistance from kinsmen offering what little they have to spare, but the resources of their hosts are wearing thin.
“Aid workers say they are battling to overcome logistical problems posed by the harsh terrain to move refugees away from shelters of sticks and cloth on the border to camps where they can provide food and water. ‘The people helping the refugees to cope with the situation will not be able to help them again,’ said Yvan Sturm, senior emergency officer with the U.N. refugee agency. ‘The situation will deteriorate definitely.'” (Reuters, Abeche [Chad], January 25, 2004)
And just today Reuters reports from the Chad-Sudan border that Khartoum’s bombing attacks are actually violating Chad’s airspace:
“a Sudanese plane has bombed a border settlement in the latest in an intensifying series of attacks on villages forcing thousands of refugees to flood into neighbouring Chad, witnesses say.
“The attack, visible from the Chadian section of the town [Tine], was about 500 metres (yards) from the frontier and about three km (two miles) from a field hospital where doctors from international aid organisations tend to the victims of previous attacks. Aid workers said it was a Sudanese government plane and that local officials had told them it had violated Chadian airspace.
“‘The local officials said it was a Sudanese plane,’ one of the aid workers said in Tine, which hosts about 5,000 Sudanese refugees. ‘They were complaining because it flew over their airspace to turn around before the bombing raid.’
“Rebels say Sudanese warplanes are bombing 15 to 25 villages a day in a sharp escalation of the war in the past month.” (Reuters, January 26, 2004)
Given the vast and largely inaccessible nature of the population swept up in this brutal conflict, we must hear in single voices the suffering of hundreds of thousands. Associated Press also reports today on Khartoum’s bombing attacks, again from the vantage of the Chad-Sudan border:
“Sudanese [government] planes dropped bombs in western Sudan on Monday [January 26, 2004], sending hundreds of civilians across the border into Chad where aid workers scrambled to set up camps to provide them food and shelter in the barren desert. Loud explosions echoed across the desert frontier between Chad and Sudan, and terrified refugees described how government planes bombed their homes and Arab militia raided their villages.
“‘It is terrible, they are slaughtering us,” schoolteacher Ishmael Haggar, 30, said in broken English. ‘I need to tell somebody.” (AP, January 26, 2004)
In addition to orchestrating the massive military assaults that have created the refugee flow out of Darfur, Khartoum is also deliberately interfering with critical humanitarian efforts inside Darfur. Not only is extremely limited humanitarian access deteriorating further in much of the region, but there are extremely disturbing reports from the humanitarian organizations that have tried to maintain a tenuous presence in the few larger urban areas that have served as partial refuge for fleeing civilians. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres reported on January 15, 2004:
“Today the Sudanese [government] authorities closed camps in Nyala, western Sudan, following the attempt yesterday to transfer displaced persons without their consent to new camps located some 20 kilometers from the city. The new camp is in an area considered unsafe and where assistance is insufficient for this already vulnerable population. Some 10,000 people were living in the camps.
“This relocation started yesterday, January 14, when Sudanese authorities arrived at the camps and began the forced transfer of people by trucks to the new sites. This operation was suspended later in the day when, to escape the intended relocation, a number of the displaced fled in panic. Amongst those who fled were families with severely malnourished children who had been under the care of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and did not arrive for their treatment. MSF was treating nearly 30 children from these two camps for malnutrition.
“This morning, when Sudanese police and other authorities arrived, the camps were up to 90% empty, the population having already fled. MSF teams were prevented from distributing drinking water to the people who remained. For the second consecutive day, some malnourished children have not been able to receive the vital care their condition demands.” (Doctors Without Borders. Medecins Sans Frontieres, Paris/New York, January 15, 2004)
Grotesquely, Khartoum’s response to all this is to blame the United Nations, which has in fact taken the lead in highlighting the lack of humanitarian access and responding to the crisis from within Chad. The (Khartoum-controlled) Al-Anbaa newspaper (January 25, 2004) quotes the governor of Northern Darfur State, Osman Kuber as “accus[ing] the United Nations agencies of delaying delivery of humanitarian assistance to the displaced and war-affected people in the State” (Reported in the UN Daily Press Review for Sudan, January 26, 2004).
Just as grotesque are very recent comments by NIF President Omer Beshir. Though they are obviously primarily for domestic consumption, they are also too revealing of Khartoum’s thinking about the Darfur crisis (and the Naivasha negotiations) to be ignored:
“‘The war in Darfur will stop in days and by then peace will be restored and life will return to normal,’ President Omar al-Beshir predicted late Wednesday, the official Al-Anbaa daily reported.” (Agence France-Presse, January 22, 2004)
The lack of full-throated international condemnation of Khartoum’s war of massive human destruction and displacement, humanitarian aid denial and intimidation, and aerial assault on civilian targets in Darfur is utterly inexcusable; and as Beshir’s outrageous mendacity demonstrates, the lack of an appropriately forceful international response insures that Khartoum feels no need to change its present course of action in time to avert the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings.
Nor is there any evidence to suggest that international quiescence is aiding the negotiations in Naivasha. On the contrary, as the Taha Haj makes inescapably clear, expediency now only encourages a prolonging of final “agreement.”
This is both diplomatic and moral madness.
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