Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 9 August 2004

Sudan’s plight


Editorial, The Financial Times

August 9 2004 — There is no sign of an early end to the plight of more than 1m refugees and displaced people who have fled pillage and persecution in western Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. The onset of the rainy season has not brought traditional relief, because no crops have been planted. It merely disrupts the relief efforts of humanitarian aid agencies by turning the roads to mud, and spreads disease in stagnant pools. Adequate transport and security are in desperately short supply. Starvation and sickness are certain to multiply the death toll from the present 50,000.

The urgency of this human catastrophe is clear. But there can be no quick fix to a situation that has been caused by decades of neglect, drought, and ethnic tensions deliberately stoked by a corrupt and divided regime in Khartoum. The disaster of Darfur is that of a failed region, impoverished and ignored, in a failing state.

The first essential is to get adequate food and medical relief to the refugees. That is under way, but it needs more money, protection and logistical support from western governments. More difficult is to stop the vicious activities of the government-backed Janjaweed militia and end the fighting between the Sudan army and anti-government rebels. Ethnic rivalries have been revived where the lines between nomadic Arabs and settled Africans had been blurred by centuries of intermarriage and a common Muslim heritage. That evil genie cannot easily be put back in its bottle.

Last week’s agreement between the Sudanese government and United Nations officials on a plan of action for Darfur is one small sign of progress. Safe areas for the civilian population where all military operations would be halted are supposed to be established in the next three weeks. The government also agrees to "instruct" the armed militias to halt their activities and lay down their weapons.

The doubt is whether the Sudan government can do what it says, or even wants to. It needs international support and international pressure. Yet "western" intervention, whether by the US or European countries, would most likely prove inflammatory and counter-productive in the post-Iraq climate. If peacekeepers can be inserted, they will have to come from the African Union - with financial and logistical support from the western world.

The rebels in western Sudan must also be persuaded to observe the ceasefire they agreed in April, and not gamble on the intervention of international forces to rescue them. Properly equipped international troops are simply not available for a muscular peace-making effort, even if it were militarily feasible in such a vast region. The answer is to extend the present north-south peace process in Sudan to include the west, providing the prospect of an end to the conflict, and thus persuading enough of the combatants to stop fighting. Only then will the miserable civilians be able to go home in safety. It will take time.

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