February 12, 2004
On Monday, NIF President Omer Beshir declared that the military forces and militia allies of his regime had “crushed” the insurgency in Darfur, and that the army was in “full control” of the province (BBC and the Associated Press, February 9, 2004). Today, the BBC, Reuters (Cairo) and the Associated Press (Nairobi) are all reporting on claims by the Darfur insurgency military forces that they have mounted an extensive offensive against Khartoum’s positions in the region, have shot down two of the regime’s potent helicopter gunships, and have severed the main road arteries to the regime-controlled towns in Darfur. Associated Press offers a particularly detailed account of the coordinated offensive by the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM):
“Rebels in western Sudan said Thursday they shot down two army helicopters and cut off roads leading to the Darfur region’s main city, disputing the Sudanese president’s claim that the military crushed the yearlong insurgency. The fighting comes after the Sudanese government canceled plans to attend scheduled peace talks in Geneva next week with western rebels. A presidential spokesman said President Omar el-Bashir wanted the peace talks held in Sudan.
“In the days after el-Bashir’s victory claim, the rebels have been launching hit-and-run raids against government positions around el-Fasher, the capital of northern Darfur, said Abdulrahman Zakaria Hassib, a spokesman for Gibril Abdulkarim, a senior commander in the rebel Justice and Equality Movement.
“JEM forces are fighting alongside another rebel group—the Sudan Liberation Army—and about half of the combined 27,000 troops are involved in the current attacks, Hassib told The Associated Press from an unidentified location along the Chad-Sudan border. The rebels are using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. The rebels currently are moving south and east of el-Fasher to cut off the roads linking Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and Nyala, the main city in southern Darfur, Hassib said.
“The army helicopters were shot down Monday near el-Fasher, about 500 miles southwest of Khartoum, he said. Hassib did not know whether there were any government casualties.” (Associated Press, February 12, 2004)
Those attempting to understand the conflict in Darfur, and its overwhelming impact on the civilian populations in the province, must decide whether Beshir and others in the NIF regime are telling the truth when they declare the insurgency “crushed” and the region “fully under military control”—or whether to believe what have to date been the generally reliable reports emanating from spokesmen for the SLA and JEM. To be sure, there have undoubtedly been exaggerations in numbers used in these reports; but in the main they have proved quite accurate, even as Khartoum has been repeatedly caught out in transparent lies about the situation in Darfur—an outgrowth, no doubt, of the habit of prevarication the regime has long cultivated in reporting on military developments in southern Sudan.
This determination of where the truth lies is essential in assessing the prospects for real humanitarian access to Darfur, as well as in assessing the prospects for meaningful peace talks (under international auspices) that advance a negotiated settlement. For if we accept that Beshir and other members of the NIF regime are lying, and in entirely characteristic fashion, then we can see all too well the real meaning of their claim that the rebellion has been “crushed” and, with military “control” of Darfur, that the war is “over”:
 If the war is “over,” there is no need for peace negotiations. What would there be to negotiate? Since Khartoum has made it clear that it has no interest in meaningful peace talks, especially with a serious international observer presence, or even in entering into serious talks with the insurgency groups about humanitarian access or a humanitarian cease-fire, the most expedient means of avoiding these urgent issues is to attempt to pass off the fiction that there is no longer a war. This, in turn, goes a great distance in explaining Khartoum’s refusal to accept mediation by the distinguished Henry Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (Geneva). As Agence France-Presse reported yesterday:
“An attempt to bring together members of rebel groups from western Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region and the Sudanese government for talks this weekend has been called off, the organisers said Wednesday. The meeting, organised by the Swiss-based Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva had been expected to focus on Darfur’s humanitarian needs, rather than aim for mediation in the one year-old conflict. But Sudan’s government eventually refused to take part in the talks with rebels on February 14 and 15, and on Monday called for a conference inside Sudan. ‘We can confirm that talks are not taking place this weekend,’ Andy Andrea, a spokesman for the Dunant Centre said. ‘The government has declined the invitation.'” (Agence France-Presse, February 11, 2004)
 With talks scheduled to resume in Naivasha (Kenya) next Tuesday (February 17, 2004), Khartoum will insist on the irrelevance of any discussion of Darfur, because the war is “over.” To be sure, it has been impracticable for some time to coordinate peace talks between Khartoum and the SPLM/A with peace talks for Darfur—if only because Khartoum could all too easily use the addition of Darfur to the agenda as a means of stringing out indefinitely talks that have already missed too many deadlines. But in simply declaring military “victory” in Darfur, Khartoum is hoping that there will be no diplomatic momentum from the resumed Naivasha talks for parallel, internationally sponsored peace talks on Darfur.
Indeed, ideally (from Khartoum’s point of view) the Naivasha talks can be prolonged as much as possible to allow for what the regime believes will be eventual military victory in Darfur. Khartoum can fairly smell the growing disarray in US Sudan policy, and a general weariness within the Bush administration over this lengthy and arduous negotiating process. There is growing evidence that Khartoum feels emboldened to the point of believing that it can resume the Naivasha talks without agreeing to any clearly defined deadline—or, at most, with a deadline only for a contrived peace signing ceremony rather that a truly just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace.
 Having declared that the war in Darfur is “over,” Khartoum can promise—indeed to some degree must promise—humanitarian access to the region. With the arrival in Khartoum of a US delegation, pressure from the UN, and pressure even from some European countries (Norway and France, for example), it has been expedient for Khartoum to promise increased access, and to have allowed limited improvement along some corridors in the last couple of weeks (Reuters, February 10, 2004). But again and again, promises from the NIF on humanitarian access have proved hollow in southern Sudan—and it is almost certain that promises made now under belated and still insufficiently forceful international pressure will slowly evaporate with time.
Revealingly, UN officials still are unclear about even the immediate implications of Khartoum’s promises—where and when particular areas of Darfur will become accessible, and whether Khartoum will end the use of its most basic tool in denying access: simply refusing to process travel permits for humanitarian workers. This latter is an issue on which the international community must be unrelentingly focused if humanitarian access is ever truly to be achieved. Moreover, with humanitarian access having been denied so long by Khartoum, relief organizations simply have no idea where most of the approximately 1 million displaced persons are. Indeed, the figures used by the UN for displacement and the number of those “war-affected” have been inconsistent, both publicly and internally. But we can understand this all too well if we bear in mind the immense scale of the humanitarian crisis; figures cited in a press release today from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are staggering:
“Nearly three million people affected by the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region have remained beyond the reach of aid agencies trying to provide essential humanitarian aid. UN aid agencies estimate that they have been able to reach only 15 percent of people in need.”
“Half of Darfur’s six million people are directly affected by the conflict.”
“More than 700,000 people have been internally displaced in the past year.”
(Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Press Release, New York, February 12, 2004)
In addition, the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks reports that the latest UN figure for the number of refugees who have fled to Chad from Darfur has now grown to over 135,000 (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks [IRIN], February 4, 2004). IRIN also reported just yesterday that, “thousands are still fleeing for their lives from [Khartoum-allied] militias and [Khartoum’s] aerial bombardments in the western region of Darfur, despite claims by the government this week that the war is over” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 11, 2004). IRIN cited humanitarian sources, including Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, as well as interviews with fleeing civilians.
Terrifyingly, there is a very good chance that all of these figures are too low: without an understanding of food security in Darfur, and the state of agricultural production, much is only guess-work. For this reason as well, Khartoum is exceedingly unlikely to make good on its promise of improved humanitarian access, including assessment.
But the only way in which the international humanitarian community can respond to these vast numbers of people is with unfettered access, with an ability to conduct unhindered humanitarian assessments of distressed populations, and with an end to hostilities. None of these seems remotely possible at present. Khartoum’s present promises of improved humanitarian access, even in the highly unlikely event that they have been made in good faith, will inevitably prove empty, if only because there is so much of Darfur that is beyond its military control. This is the particular significance of today’s military actions by the SLA and JEM, severing the major road arteries and communications links to towns in Darfur.
To date, Khartoum has not, and all evidence suggests will not, commit to unfettered humanitarian access to “rebel-held areas”; without such full access, it is almost certain that far and away the greatest percentage of those who are “war-affected” will see no relief or aid. Here we must bear in mind that the regime’s refusal to grant access to “rebel-held areas” was decisively clear in early December, as reported at the time by UN Special Envoy to Sudan for Humanitarian Affairs, Tom Eric Vraalsen:
“Delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need is hampered mostly by *systematically denied access* [latter phrase emphasized in text]. While [Khartoum’s] authorities claim unimpeded access, they greatly restrict access to the areas under their control, while *imposing blanket denial to all rebel-held areas* [emphasis added].”
(Ambassador Tom Vraalsen, Note to the Emergency Relief Coordinator; “Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur,” December 8, 2003)
Vraalsen is presently traveling to Sudan. Very considerable attention must be paid to his assessments and other evidence, both in the immediate near term and over the coming weeks. Far and away the most likely scenario to be reported will be a slight improvement in current humanitarian access, mainly to the major towns controlled by Khartoum’s forces (Nyala, Kutum, al-Geneina, Tine), and a gradually tightening restriction on even these improvements in access as soon as international attention has begun to drift away.
What should the international community be doing in present circumstances? Presuming, against the preponderance of evidence, that there is the will to act decisively, there are several urgent steps that will be immediately effective.
 Those truly interested in peace and justice in Sudan must declare first that the notion Khartoum has militarily prevailed in Darfur, and actually controls all areas of the province, is an absurd and expedient fiction. It could not be clearer that this fiction has been promulgated by Khartoum with the desperate hope of somehow diminishing pressure for meaningful peace talks. But Darfur remains very much in the throes of violent civil conflict, in which the victims are overwhelmingly civilians, and indeed the primary military targets of Khartoum’s regular and Arab militia forces. This civilian focus of Khartoum’s military actions has been established far beyond any reasonable doubt by Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and news reports from the ground. The basic reality of this war should be declared unambiguously by the international community.
 Since this civil conflict is the source of what the UN describes as probably “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” (UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland; “The World,” BBC/Radio International, December 18, 2003), there is an overwhelming imperative to secure not merely promises of humanitarian access, but the means to enforce such access if Khartoum reneges. And the planning for such humanitarian intervention must begin now, or the belatedness of future efforts will surely result in many thousands of gratuitous civilian casualties. Recent and very well-researched figures from Sudan Focal Point/South Africa (January 2004) suggest that in all likelihood, civilians are presently dying at a rate of more than 1,000 per week (see analysis of casualty figures from this source, February 8, 2004; available upon request).
Full humanitarian access, without restrictions in the form of Khartoum’s expediently tardy travel permits, must be demanded unconditionally and immediately. If this is not immediately granted by Khartoum, the resources for a humanitarian intervention should be deployed forthwith (it must be acknowledged this will require that France now use its diplomatic leverage with Chad in order to secure permission for such an operation). The UN’s Jan Egeland has made a serious diplomatic mistake in accepting in such unqualified fashion Khartoum’s promises of access (UN News Centre, February 10, 2004); for having pocketed this prematurely praising statement, the regime will now feel emboldened to begin reneging on what earned the praise in the first place. Khartoum, with its extraordinary record of prevarication, duplicity and bad faith, cannot be trusted further than the realities we see fully realized on the ground in Darfur.
 It is critical that security assessments for humanitarian relief efforts must be made by the UN or by those organizations that are working with the UN; such assessments simply cannot be made by Khartoum or this will become (as it has for years in southern Sudan) the easy means of humanitarian aid manipulation for military purposes—or the means of obscuring the terrible realities of deliberate, racially-animated attacks on civilians throughout the province. Certainly many parts of Darfur are too insecure for humanitarian operations; but this determination must be made by aid officials, not Khartoum.
In sum, Khartoum’s willingness to deal with the deeply interrelated issues of peace and desperate humanitarian need in Darfur must be immediately subjected to the test posed by UN Special Envoy John Danforth over two years ago, in attempting to assess the willingness of Khartoum and the SPLM/A to make a just peace: unfettered humanitarian access. But there can be no delay in Darfur as, unconscionably, there was in southern Sudan. The “Danforth test” must be administered, with a clear threat of humanitarian intervention if Khartoum fails in its response. An unwillingness here on the part of the US will be deeply, immorally hypocritical.
The international community seems finally, if shamefully belatedly, awakening to the catastrophe in Darfur. And any secured improvement in humanitarian access, however incremental, is deserving of unstinting praise. But this praise will turn to ashes if Khartoum proceeds along an all too predictable course of action: promise much now; deliver just enough to suggest some change in the presently appalling situation; and then slowly whittle away at those changes. In all likelihood, without considerably more international pressure than is yet in evidence, the Vraalsen assessment of early December will be all too accurate in March.
 Greater pressure yet on Khartoum could be rapidly generated if the international community were to find the moral resolve to speak honestly about the regime’s racially- and ethnically-motivated military attacks on the civilian populations of Darfur. Certainly there is no excuse for not declaring that, henceforth, all war crimes, violations of international law (including humanitarian law), and crimes against humanity will be prosecuted, without exception and without possibility of immunity. It must be made unambiguously clear that all in the Khartoum military and political leadership who are complicit in the deliberate destruction of the Fur, Masseleit, Zaghawa and other peoples of Darfur, will be held fully accountable.
Partial measures and partial successes are simply not enough, either in bringing about good faith negotiations in Naivasha or in responding to the human catastrophe in Darfur. To be content with partial humanitarian access, or an expedient peace agreement in Naivasha that is not truly just and sustainable, may very well be less than worthless—it may accelerate the larger movement toward disaster and intensified war in both Darfur and southern Sudan.
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