Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 21 September 2007

Why a reality check is needed on Darfur


By Anne Bartlett

September 20, 2007 — Hard on the heels of yet another day of action for Darfur we are no further forward. Yes, there have been a whole series of expensive, symbolic stunts aimed at keeping attention focused on one of the world’s most intractable crises, but the reality is that women are still being raped, civilians bombed, homes destroyed and lives wrecked. In recent weeks, the Government of Sudan has succeeded in its plans to escalate the carnage in the region due - in no more small part - to a widening rhetoric/reality chasm. The time has come for a reality check on Darfur. Darfur needs accountability, practical help and action, not more fancy words.

In saying this I do not mean to denigrate the efforts of those trying to help the people of Darfur, but I do think that questions have to be asked about the current trajectory of activism. For example, while demonstrations on the White House lawn or elsewhere certainly achieve the goal of generating pressure for change, such pressure often remains unfocused. Notably in Abuja before the last set of negotiations, this kind of pressure generated a nebulous atmosphere of crisis. This atmosphere ultimately militated against a systematic exploration of the issues facing Darfur, and instead, for peace at any price.

At this point in time, it is not a question of whether governments or supra-national organizations are aware of what is needed. They are. For the most part, governments salivate at the thought of a foreign policy “win” on Darfur especially in the face of other foreign policy catastrophes elsewhere on the globe. In this respect, pressure for peace is already there and there is little that activism can do to increase that. The spoiler however, is competing geopolitical priorities. How for example, can Darfur be truly prioritized while Sudan remains a partner in the “war on terror” or a potential partner for oil?

Publicity stunts do little to move this impasse. They are usually costly and do more for the people taking the action than for the intended recipients. I have said elsewhere that “Darfur has become a social club where everyone but the Darfurians are invited” and this still holds. With the level of fundraising running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, how much of that money has seen the light of day in Darfur? How many people have been helped by the wearing of green wristbands or fundraising dinners? How many kids have been educated with this money? How many families have been able to eat? The answer is not many.

The time has come for practical action and a refocused advocacy agenda. With the deteriorating humanitarian situation and an impending round of negotiations a number of things are needed:

The first is a specific kind of security. Darfur is the size of France and it is therefore not realistic - at least at this point - to expect blanket security everywhere. But it is also hard to see how parties to the negotiations can be expected to negotiate while their tribes and followers are being attacked. The international community is quick to blame rebel groups for being belligerent and refusing to attend talks, while allowing wholesale hypocrisy on the part of the Government of Sudan. The AU and UN must start taking a hard line approach with the Government of Sudan, ensuring that places of refuge – such as the camps – are what they say. They must also crack down on GoS duplicity, such as painting their planes “UN white” to disguise arms shipments. Without simple measures such as these, it is difficult to see how any kind of talks can get off the ground, still less how peace can be carried over the long term.

The second issue relates to the talks themselves. As a start, the negotiations need to take place in a location where serious engagement can occur and where the sponsor has a benevolent interest in the outcome. Libya, as I have pointed out elsewhere, provides none of these things. It has been a key agitator in this crisis, has a perpetual interest in creating instability across the Sahel and couldn’t care less about the people of Darfur. It also has resource interests throughout the region that will militate against an “honest broker” role in any talks.

Additionally, the key parties involved in the peace talks need to have pre-negotiation training. It is manifestly ridiculous to expect local people from Darfur to face off with the international community and the Government of Sudan without training on how to do this. All of those directly involved in the negotiating process - and I do mean key people, not peripheral figures - need to be trained on how to approach the talks. At a minimum this means training on positions and interests, leadership, conflict resolution, group dynamics and basic negotiating skills before they are expected to enter the fray. This process then needs to be fed directly into the negotiations.

Third, core-periphery issues must be addressed. It is not enough to continue to make ad-hoc agreements with every area of Sudan that is marginalized or that has been subject to the Government of Sudan’s brutality. The CPA is not working because the government of Sudan is not taking seriously their power-sharing duties and is being allowed to renege on implementation. If the CPA can fail - which was a much better crafted document than the DPA - then what chance for the people of Darfur? It is not enough to create another VP position unless that position is also accompanied by a real transfer of power and an implementation schedule that pins the Government of Sudan to the mast. Advocacy should focus on putting pressure on the international community to craft an agreement that will last, rather than being something that the GOS can renege on five minutes later.

Finally, Darfur groups should look at practical measures to help local people. Education is a priority. Many of the kids in Darfur have lost 5 years of schooling due to the war. If they were marginalized to start with, then to what depths have they fallen now? Support those organizations that are building schools now. Raise money for educational scholarships to get young people trained in the US and elsewhere on business and development. The result is then tangible: one can see who has been helped and what fundraising has achieved. Partner with local organizations to provide culturally appropriate forms of counseling for rape and trauma. Over the longer term, partner with local organizations to build basic health centers in the villages and towns that have been affected. All of these things require that organizations work with local people who are doing work on the ground, instead of advocating for Darfurian interests without consulting Darfurian people.

In the final analysis, exhorting the world “not to look away” is one thing. This is an admirable sentiment made by well-intentioned people who feel horrified by this crisis. However, perhaps a more pertinent question is: “If I look towards Darfur, what should I focus on? How can I help?”

Anne Bartlett is a Director of the Darfur Centre for Human Rights and Development based in London. She can be reached at dcfhr@dcfhr.org

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