Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 11 February 2009

The Qatar “Peace Process”: Less Than Meets the Eye


By Eric Reeves

February 9, 2009 — 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 Bassolé 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. Bassolé 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 UNAMID has
been lacking since it was created. International commitment to the
UN/African Union force (UNAMID) must either be powerfully renewed, or
the mission will fail entirely, and not just in monitoring a possible

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


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 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

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 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 naiveté 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 Sudanesof 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 [2007], 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,

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.

* Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide. He can be reached at ereeves@smith.edu. www.sudanreeves.org

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