Much is being made of Darfur “peace talks” scheduled to convene in Doha, Qatar on February 10, at least for exploratory discussions. But key elements, and participants, for a true peace process are not in place. Moreover, there is no clear and legitimate ownership of the peace process. The UN/African Union mediator, Djibril Bassol of Burkina Faso, has worked very hard with the various rebel factions to reach some sort of consensus, but is increasingly being sidelined by various parties, especially countries of the Arab League. Bassol should receive from the UN Security Council strong and unequivocal support as the lead mediator, representing both the UN and the African Union. Instead, Qatar has taken advantage of its role as host in attempting to assume a mediating role. But the “Qatar process” has moved as far as it has only because it serves a temporary confluence of interests on the part the Khartoum regime, the Justice and Equality (JEM) rebel movement, and the Arab League. An initiative based on expediency rather than a concern for Darfuri civilians will inevitably collapse once this confluence ends.
Also missing is any significant commitment to the talks on the part of Darfuri civil society; further, two of the major rebel groups have not yet agreed to meet in Doha. Nor is there a clear focus on what must be the first diplomatic goal: securing an immediate cessation of hostilities agreement, followed by a comprehensive and closely monitored formal cease-fire. Monitoring such a cease-fire will require substantial air and ground transport capacity, something that the UN/African Union force (UNAMID) has been lacking since it was created. International commitment to UNAMID must either be powerfully renewed, or the mission will fail entirely, and not just in monitoring a possible cease-fire.
Absent credible and robust implementation of a comprehensive cease-fire, what we will have is another failed “peace” effort, hosted in an Arab country that is suspect in Darfuri eyes. Certainly Darfuris remember the disastrous choice of Sirte, Libya as a venue for talks in fall 2007. Libya’s Muamar Gadaffi, dismayingly the new President of the African Union, has for decades fomented violence on both sides of the Darfur/Chad border. He poisoned the atmosphere at Sirte early on, and gained instant notoriety for suggesting that the Darfur genocide was “a quarrel over a camel.”
Still, reflexive enthusiasm for Darfur peace talks is not hard to understand: a credible peace agreement, with adequate security guarantees and guarantors, as well as provision for compensation and a fair land tenure system, is the only way out of the massive catastrophe in Darfur and Eastern Chad that daily becomes more unstable. There has been no viable Darfur peace process since the failure of the Abuja talks (2005-06), which culminated with the disastrous decision to accept as a “peace agreement” a deeply flawed document signed by only the Khartoum regime and one rebel faction (May 2006). Led by Mini Minawi—a Zaghawa, politically unskilled, dispositionally brutal, and without military experience—this faction (and Minawi in particular) was thoroughly unrepresentative of Darfur’s people. As the only rebel signatory, Minawi guaranteed that divisions within rebel ranks would proliferate, security throughout Darfur would decline, and re-establishing a new and credible peace process would become increasingly difficult. Almost three years after the failure in Abuja, it is perhaps understandable that the “Qatari peace process for Darfur,” despite its conspicuous weaknesses, is being reported as something of a breakthrough.
But just who benefits from participating in the Qatar process—at the present time, and with the current terms of reference so unclear?
The Justice and Equality Movement furthers its strategy of becoming Khartoum’s primary interlocutor in any negotiations—setting the agenda, and furthering what are finally national political goals rather than goals for Darfur. JEM boasts of its military power on the ground, which has indeed become considerable, though not enough to protect the civilians north of el-Geneina (West Darfur) a year ago, or the civilians of Muhajeria in recent weeks. In both cases, irresponsible military advances by JEM into civilian territory that it could neither hold nor protect led to brutal counter-attacks by Khartoum and the Janjaweed; a large number of civilians were killed (especially in the villages north of el-Geneina) and many tens of thousands were displaced, often without access to humanitarian assistance. JEM makes no secret of its desire for primacy, even singularity among the rebel groups in negotiations with Khartoum, failing to heed the fundamental lesson of the Abuja process of 2006: the rebel groups must overcome their political, personality, and ethnic differences in order to forge a common negotiating position (with the exception of JEM’s ambitions, there is little of significance that separates the rebel positions of substance on what is required in any agreement). But for now, by committing to exploratory talks in Qatar, JEM is the only rebel group being reported internationally.
Arab League countries also benefit, or at least believe that they have put themselves in a position to do more to shape the outcome of negotiations. We have seen this strategy before, including the “Libyan-Egyptian initiative” of 2000-02, which was little more than a diplomatic ploy to take a self-determination referendum for South Sudan off the negotiating table. Arab countries have consistently taken the side of Khartoum during the Darfur conflict, and have rarely expressed any concern for the primarily non-Arab victims of the regime’s brutal policies.
In fact, the Arab League, especially Egypt, Qatar, Libya, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, are all playing for political advantage with Darfur, even as they are working strenuously against further internationalization of the catastrophe. And there is in-fighting: Egypt resents Qatari involvement at this level in any negotiations about Sudan, whatever Qatar’s putative diplomatic success recently in Lebanon. Egypt retains a strongly hegemonic view of Sudan as a whole, the Nile Rivers in particular, and fiercely opposes South Sudan’s seceding from the North in the self-determination referendum scheduled for 2011. Wanting to keep the “Sudan file” within its grasp, Egypt is muscling up on Qatar in a variety of ways, all designed to remind the small emirate where real power lies in the Arab world. For its part, Qatar is trying to establish itself as a diplomatic “honest broker” in this world and in dealing with Sudan’s issues. But few informed Darfuris have forgotten that during its tenure on the Security Council (2006-07) Qatar unfailingly supported Khartoum and did the bidding of Egypt and the Arab League on all resolutions bearing on Darfur.
Of course it is the Khartoum regime that benefits most decisively from the current format of the Qatar “process.” Hosted by a well-disposed Arab country, observing that rebel divisions prevent a united negotiating front, and prepared to negotiate endlessly in any event, Khartoum sees participation as not only cost-free but of significant benefit in bolstering its international reputation: “We signed an agreement in Abuja; we came to Sirte ready to talk, but the rebels didn’t come; we are willing to engage in Qatar, but only the Justice and Equality Movement will meet with us. We are the ones ready for peace.” And by creating the impression of a serious commitment to the Qatar process, Khartoum wields another threat to hold up as the Pre-Trial Panel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prepares to issue an arrest warrant for NIF President Omar al-Bashir in the coming days. For the regime is certainly willing to declare,
“unless the Security Council halts the ICC process by voting for a yearlong suspension of the prosecution (under Chapter 16 of the Rome Statute), we will end our participation in the peace process.”
Many other threats have been issued by senior officials in Khartoum, though typically with sufficient equivocation, even contradiction, that we cannot know what is real, what is for effect. These men have previously threatened to attack UN operations and personnel, both peacekeeping and humanitarian, in the event an arrest warrant is issued. This particular threat reflects an expedient refusal to recognize (at least consistently) that the UN and the ICC are distinct and independent organizations. Regime officials have also threatened to suspend the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with South Sudan; the collapse of the CPA would plunge Sudan back into broad and intense north/south civil war. Khartoum has also suggested that if an arrest warrant is issued for al-Bashir it will order UNAMID and/or UNMIS (the UN mission in the South) out of the country. This could also spark renewed war in South Sudan (especially Abyei), the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, and other regions
For their part, Darfuris have not forgotten Khartoum’s long history of mendacity, bad faith, and the breaking of signed agreements, including cease-fires. Most recently, on 12 November 2008, al-Bashir received considerable news attention for announcing an “immediate and unconditional ceasefire” throughout Darfur. Fatuously celebrated in some quarters as a sign of significant change on the part of the National Islamic Front regime, the cease-fire was violated by aerial bombing attacks on civilians within 24 hours, attacks confirmed by UNAMID investigators, and which continue to the present. During the early days of the bombing campaign, these UN-authorized investigators were prevented by Khartoum’s security forces on at least one occasion from traveling to a reported bombing site, and have repeatedly been denied access to other key locations, including most recently a survey team bound for the badly bombed town of Muhajeria, which Khartoum’s forces had pounded mercilessly despite an earlier retreat by JEM rebel forces. Dozens of civilians were killed and some 30,000 displaced.
While Khartoum and its Arab militia allies continue to wreak deadly havoc on the ground in Darfur, for international consumption the regime is attempting to present itself as simultaneously serious about peace—and equally serious, if ambiguous, about its determination to carry out reprisals when the ICC issues its arrest warrant for al-Bashir. Again, these reprisals have been threatened—itself an action without historical precedent—against UN humanitarian personnel and infrastructure, UN/AU peacekeepers, as well as the international humanitarian organizations that are all that stand between 4.7 million conflict-affected civilians and life without any assistance.
With this nominal participation in the Qatar “peace process”—even as it threatens civilians, humanitarians, and peacekeepers—Khartoum is attempting to frame the debate about what to do in Darfur as a choice between “peace or justice,” a false choice that has nonetheless been echoed by the Arab League, the African Union, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and many in the West. Among these international organizations there is little effort to justify their essentially political support for Khartoum, no new assessment of the evidence, no reasoned explanation, indeed little more than repeated versions of the mantra “peace before justice.” On the part of some Western analysts posing the “peace or justice” choice, there is a willful naivet about the record of the NIF regime in keeping its word on peace agreements, or agreements in other forms with Sudanese parties (see my extended critique of the “peace or justice” argument at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article232.htm).
But here the record is all too clear: in its almost 20 years in power, the NIF has never abided by any agreement made with any
Sudanese party—not one, not ever. Parts of an agreement may be honored, for a while; but as the critical north/south Comprehensive Peace Agreement has amply demonstrated, implementation is always compromised and full-scale reneging is a common tactic (as with the Abyei Protocol of the CPA). Much greater international pressure on the regime is required for any just and sustainable peace to be negotiated; for as the men in Khartoum well know and fear, a truly just peace signals the end of the NIF’s stranglehold on Sudanese national wealth and power.
Khartoum’s success in forcing debate into a “peace or justice” choice also has the effect of silencing the voices of Darfuris, whose support for the ICC and its pursuit of justice is overwhelming, yet rarely conveyed effectively. Someone who has given these voices an opportunity to speak to the wider world is Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program:
“Last July , I went to Chad to look into how the International Criminal Court, which has a field office in Abeche and works with refugees in the camps, is performing on the ground. As part of my assessment, I interviewed dozens of refugees. Considering the hardships the refugees faced daily, I was not sure how they would feel talking about a topic as abstract as accountability in an international forum. Thus I was surprised when their reactions to my questions were positive, with even a hint of impatience because the ICC prosecutor had not yet gone after the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. [ ] [ICC Prosecutor] Moreno Ocampo’s actions [of July 14, 2008] will, no doubt, be greeted with joy in the camps [for displaced persons].” (Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2008, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-darehshori15-2008jul15,0,6345632.story)
And Darehshori offers the critical response to those who would frame the ICC announcement as forcing a choice between “peace and justice”:
“Yet some commentators outside Darfur have argued that this ‘moment of jubilation’ can only be a symbolic victory for the long-suffering people of that region. They contend that should the prosecution of top officials—however terrible their crimes—go forward, it will interfere with prospects for peace and security. Sudan’s history makes a strong case for the opposite conclusion: The persistent lack of accountability has instead undermined the prospects for peace and stability. There has been little peace to keep.”
This is the fundamental point: it is the lack of justice and accountability, the complete impunity still reigning in Darfur, that has fueled these terrible years of violence. Until this basic fact is fully appreciated—along with the chronic bad faith of the Khartoum regime—no genuine progress toward peace can be made, in Qatar or anywhere else.