February 10, 2004
Even as National Islamic Front President Omer el-Beshir has declared that the insurgency groups in Darfur have been militarily “crushed” (BBC, February 9, 2004), his Khartoum regime is nonetheless refusing to attend discussions aimed at increasing desperately needed humanitarian access to the region—humanitarian access that has been virtually halted by Khartoum’s savage military actions. Talks on this critical issue had been agreed to, under the distinguished auspices of the Geneva-based [Henry Dunant] Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, by both major insurgency groups in Darfur—the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The Sudan Federal Alliance party, whose chairman Ahmad Ibrahim Dirayj is from Darfur, had also agreed to participate and help bring about a cease-fire, or at least a pause in fighting for humanitarian purposes.
But the National Islamic Front’s increasingly powerful Mutrif Siddiq, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, declared yesterday that the regime would not attend “because the issue of [humanitarian] access had been ‘politicised’ too much. Issues of humanitarian access should not be ‘subject to manipulations’ and used ‘as a tool for political and military gains,’ he said” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 9, 2004).
This claim could not distort realities more completely: it is precisely Khartoum’s own “militarization” of humanitarian access that is at issue. The regime has for months now manipulated humanitarian access so as to deny relief to the civilian population perceived as supporting the insurgency groups. The “political” response of the international community, limited as it has been, is being driven by Khartoum’s militarily purposeful denial of humanitarian assistance to civilians among the African tribal groups, the Fur, the Masseleit, and the Zaghawa. The decision not to participate in humanitarian access talks is the clearest sign to date that despite recent urgent appeals from the US Agency for International Development, Norway, and Canada, Khartoum will continue to use the denial of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war.
It must also be said that Beshir’s statement that the insurgency in Darfur has been “crushed” is, characteristically, both wrong and expedient. Continuing and highly credible reports of fighting in Northern Darfur state have come in the last few days to this writer. And just this morning (February 10, 2004) there are new reports of fighting west of Zalingei (northwest of Nyala) in Western Darfur state. To be sure, the “fighting” consists mainly of civilian destruction—the burning of villages, the looting of livestock, murder, rape, torture, abduction, and further civilian displacements. But it continues and Beshir can declare the opposite only because there is no news presence or meaningful humanitarian access in Darfur to provide the contradictory evidence.
Why has Beshir made this declaration and why now? Clearly to the degree that there has been an international response to the Darfur catastrophe, the Khartoum regime is discomfited, especially with talks scheduled to resume next week (February 17, 2004, in Naivasha [Kenya]) between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Desperate not to have the brutal realities of Darfur weaken its negotiating position in Naivasha, Khartoum has simply announced victory and offered a wholly meaningless amnesty for insurgency groups that clearly are continuing to resist strenuously. (There continue to be scores of reports of arrest, detention, torture, and the extrajudicial killing of Darfur civilians suspected of supporting the insurgency groups; it takes little imagination to understand the terrible fate of most who might take advantage of this “amnesty.”)
But of course if Khartoum had truly prevailed militarily (an impossible task, if only for reasons of geography) there would no longer be a reason to resist allowing humanitarian access. The refusal of the regime to engage in talks focused on this issue under the auspices of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue can mean only that Khartoum is fully determined to control all access to, and thus first-hand information out of, Darfur. If humanitarian access were allowed, the overwhelming evidence of genocidal destruction by the regime would be far too conspicuous.
In short, Khartoum is, again characteristically, trying to have it both ways: declaring that the insurgency in Darfur has been “crushed,” but at the same time refusing to allow for, or even negotiate, humanitarian access. The shameful transparency of this duplicity is matched only by the apparent international unwillingness to do more than talk about the urgency of the crisis in Darfur. Recent statements on the unfolding catastrophe by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan have been dismayingly inconsequential.
This is the worst signal to be sending to Khartoum as the climactic session of peace talks is set to resume in Naivasha. Here we also see signs that Khartoum is behaving at once expediently and disingenuously, as various members of the National Islamic Front are rejecting the belated but still welcome statement by Colin Powell on the UN peace support operation that will be needed in the wake of any agreement between Khartoum and the SPLM. Powell declared last week that “‘if we get a settlement in Sudan, then there will be another requirement there for 8,000 to 10,000 U.N. monitors,’ Powell told African journalists, according to a transcript provided by the State Department” (Reuters, February 6, 2004).
This key requirement for a sustainable peace in Sudan was almost immediately rejected by Khartoum. State Foreign Minister Najeeb al-Khair Abdel Wahah declared that the National Islamic Front “disagreed with US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assessment” and “‘prefers that the responsibility for keeping the peace shall be confined to the Sudanese'” (Agence France-Presse, February 8, 2004). And just yesterday, in yet another instance of spectacular mendacity on Khartoum’s part, Said Khatib, the regime’s official spokesman, declared that,
“there had been no consultations at any level of the peace process on the need for peacekeepers. ‘This is the first time the peacekeepers issue is arising. It has never come up in the peace process itself that there is any need for peacekeepers in Sudan after the final agreement,’ he said. [ ] ‘This issue [of peacekeepers] did not arise from the IGAD process, from the UN, or from the US observers in the peace process itself.'” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 10, 2004).
Of course Khartoum is well aware that belated but significant UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) planning for a UN peace support operation has been underway since November of 2003. Indeed, Khartoum was consulted on various aspects of the peace support operation, as was the SPLM and other regional actors. These consultations would certainly have included not only Khartoum’s political figures, but military and security authorities as well. The claim by Said Khatib that there “there had been no consultations at any level of the peace process on the need for peacekeepers” is simply and conspicuously a lie.
But this is a lie with very considerable significance on the eve of a meeting between US officials in Khartoum (led by acting US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder) and the NIF regime. The meeting takes place tomorrow, February 11, 2004, and there is no evidence that the Bush administration is contemplating bringing any meaningful additional pressure to bear on Khartoum. It is in this context, and immediately prior to the resumption of peace talks in Naivasha, that Khartoum has lied so shamelessly about peacekeeping operations, and so clearly rejected Colin Powell’s assessment of the need for a UN peace support operation.
This latter response alone should make clear to all that Khartoum is no longer serious about peace talks—it it ever was. For there can be no meaningful peace without a substantial, mobile, logistically well-equipped and well-led UN peace support operation (see analyses by this writer, October 2 and November 14, 2003; available upon request). The notion of leaving peacekeeping to Sudanese forces along is, as all in the international community recognize, a formula for disaster.
Slowly, inexorably the US and its allies are squandering the opportunity for peace in Sudan. By refusing to bring clear and decisive pressure to bear on Khartoum, the Bush administration has acquiesced not only in the ongoing genocidal destruction in Darfur, but is allowing Khartoum to create what loom as insuperable obstacles to a final peace agreement with the south. No southern party—not the SPLM or any other—can possibly sign a peace agreement that does not have a fully adequate UN peace support operation to guarantee what may be signed in Naivasha.
The clear diplomatic logic of the situation, and the transparent threats to the peace process Khartoum is presenting, are either not known to the Bush administration—or are being deliberately overlooked. The former is hardly credible; the latter suggests that this administration is losing interest in Sudan and is preparing to make do in the coming election without what was to have been a signature foreign policy achievement. Instead, the administration gives every sign of being prepared to accept any agreement that might serve as a fig-leaf for its failure to secure a truly just and sustainable peace for Sudan.
The inevitable consequence of a breakdown in the peace process, or of the signing of a merely contrived and expedient agreement, will be resumed wide-scale war in southern Sudan, as soon as Khartoum feels as though the situation in Darfur permits a major redeployment of military assets. But this may not be for a while, and we can expect as a consequence to see Khartoum attempt to string out the peace process as long as possible in Naivasha, thereby extending its still urgently needed window of military opportunity in Darfur. For whatever Khartoum may say about having crushed the insurgency, the evidence points entirely the other way.
Indeed, Khartoum’s declaration that the Darfur insurgency has been “crushed” is no less a patent lie than the regime’s statements denying that the issue of UN peacekeeping in southern Sudan had previously been broached. As for the true military situation in Darfur, the insurgency groups themselves are openly disputing Khartoum’s claim:
“Abu Bakr Hamid al-Nur, the JEM’s spokesman and general coordinator, told IRIN on Tuesday that rebel forces had temporarily fled the three main towns of Tine, Karnoi and Ambara, due to heavy government air bombardments, but were fully in control of all of the region’s rural areas and other towns. He said the rebel forces were now surrounding the deserted towns.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 10, 2004)
This is certainly much closer to the truth than Khartoum’s spectacularly implausible claim, as is the assessment offered yesterday by the SLA:
“Rebels from the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) disputed [Beshir’s] words. ‘All of the things Bashir said are totally wrong. We have control of large parts of Darfur,’ SLA Chairman Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur told Reuters. He said government planes had bombed villages near Kebkabiya in Northern Darfur State on Monday.” (Reuters, February 9, 2004)
The latter statement made by the SLA chairman has been confirmed to this writer by an independent source, with direct contacts inside Darfur, including the area of Kebkabiya. Other reports of new fighting and civilian destruction are coming from Western Darfur. A highly reliable human rights source, Arabic-speaking and a Darfur native, reports today that Khartoum’s regular and militia forces attacked villages in area of Derassah and Moornay (approximately 100 kilometers west of Zalingei), killing 40 civilians and destroying eight more villages: Tour, Barkou, Bagoj, Balla, Goss-Bahar, Tollous, Ashmarra, and an eighth village not yet identified by name.
As in southern Sudan, the geography of Darfur is a military nightmare for Khartoum. Logistics are almost impossibly difficult (there is no train line, for example, as there is to Wau [Bahr el-Ghazal]); the terrain is known much better by the insurgency groups than Khartoum’s regular forces, meaning that the “military” campaign is likely to remain what it has been for the past few months: a concerted effort to destroy the civilians who are perceived by the regime as the base of support for the SLA and the JEM. The primary military weapon will necessarily be the unconstrained predations of Khartoum’s Arab militia forces.
As racially- and ethnically-targeted civilian destruction accelerates, the racial animus only increases on both sides in the conflict, with the African tribal groups (the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masseleit, and others) more and more convinced that the destruction is directed at them because of who they are (“as such,” to use the all too appropriate phrase from the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide). In fact, Khartoum encourages that belief with the tactics it encourages in its Arab militia allies (the Janjaweed), whose racially motivated civilian attacks have been so thoroughly chronicled by Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and, with ever greater frequency, news reporters near the Chad-Sudan border.
There is very little time to rescue either the deeply endangered Naivasha peace process—or the many hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Darfur and unable to seek refuge westward in Chad. For what is evident from the recent geography of Khartoum’s attacks on civilians and military resistance is that the regime is attempting to shut down, as much as possible, any westward movement by the 1,000,000 people the UN now estimates have been displaced by conflict inside Darfur. Indeed, Khartoum has shamelessly attempted to encourage refugees in Chad to return to Sudan—the very refugees that the UN has chosen to move further into Chad to insure their safety from further cross-border raids by Khartoum’s militia forces (UN News Centre [New York], February 9, 2004).
These 1,000,000 people are consequently trapped inside Darfur, with exceedingly little humanitarian access. The UN’s IRIN reported yesterday on very substantially increased numbers in some of the large camps for displaced persons to which there is still tenuous access; for example, in Kutum the number has risen from 38,000 in November to over 60,000 at present (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 9, 2004). They are part of the larger number—3.5 million—that the UN now estimates are “war-affected.” With agricultural production coming to a halt in Darfur, the scale of the human catastrophe seems likely to move far beyond even the terrifying dimensions now all too well established.
Even as Khartoum’s bad faith in breaking off the Naivasha talks on January 25, 2004 is mirrored in recent duplicitous statements about the lack of need for UN peacekeepers following an agreement, so the regime’s shameless lies about the military situation in Darfur find their counterpart in the disingenuous refusal to negotiate humanitarian access under the auspices of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (confirmed by the Centre’s Andy Andrea to Reuters, February 9, 2004).
This is the character of the regime that must be confronted tomorrow by US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder and his party in Khartoum. There is no evidence that he and the administration he represents are prepared, morally or politically, for this critical test—prepared to define a clear deadline for the Naivasha peace talks or insist upon humanitarian access to Darfur.
The Bush administration is on the brink of failure in Sudan.
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