Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 18 January 2008

Reframing the Darfur Crisis

By Anne Bartlett

January 17, 2008 — It is small wonder that the people of Darfur enter 2008 with less hope for the future than ever before. From their standpoint, violence continues unabated, an ineffectual UNAMID force of 9,000 personnel is on the ground and militias are able to roam around with apparent impunity. All this while the international community washes its hands of the crisis, carefully reframing the discourse of who is responsible and what is now possible.

It is no secret that that a rhetoric-reality divide has long since hampered efforts to secure peace in the region, but as 2007 came to close it became clear that a more concerted effort to recast the crisis was ongoing. For a start, there was the conference in Sirte and the insistence that Libya was an appropriate venue for talks despite all evidence to the contrary. Instead of consulting key players in the crisis about an appropriate venue and entering into a dialogue about a manageable timescale, Mr. Ban and his aides carried on regardless. Carefully ignoring warnings from all quarters, Ban held a personal meeting with Gadaafi, before handing the mantle to UN Special Envoy, Jan Eliasson, and AU envoy Salim Ahmed Salim to work on the peace process itself. Of course the outcome was entirely predictable: the talks dwindled into an embarrassing show of diplomatic incompetence, leaving the AU and UN with a desperate scramble to remove the egg from their face.

Yet, while the failed talks were going on in Libya, another initiative was being held in the south of Sudan, driven by the SPLA and the rebel groups themselves. The goal of these talks was to reunite 10 of the splintered factions of Darfur’s SLA/M under one heading. While two groups remained at the end of the process, the success of this initiative has been one of the lesser publicized, yet more important steps in recent years, bringing together not just those with different positions, but also adding a structure, constitution and a more disciplined negotiating body from which to restart negotiations.

A logical move in the light of failing peace talks in Libya and the SPLA process in Juba would have been to try to harness this momentum towards reunification and to nurture it in any way possible. Yet this was far from the case. Turning up in Juba when the Sirte talks were in crisis, UN/AU officials tried to lure participants in the Juba initiative back to Libya. When their pleas failed, a full scale diplomatic offensive was launched to re-frame the rebel groups as belligerent and unreceptive to dialogue.

From this point onwards, it was not the regime’s continual duplicity that was responsible for the failure of peace talks; it was not the complete lack of security on the ground in Darfur that was the problem; it was not the almost complete failure to listen to those involved about what they needed that was the problem and it was not the diplomatic shilly-shallying that was the problem. The problem – just to be clear – was a bunch of recalcitrant rebels who wouldn’t play the diplomatic game.

This begs an important question as we start a New Year. Are the participants to the Darfur crisis going to be treated as partners to dialogue by the international community, or are they going to be told that it is the UN/AU’s way, or the highway? If the latter is the case, then there should be no more talk about resolving the Darfur crisis, since “resolving” now appears to imply a hierarchical negotiation process; a process in which everyone else’s geopolitical needs are prioritized over those of Darfur.

If the international community is serious about peace, here are a few points that they might consider:

1. Take the issue of security seriously. This is an ongoing concern from all sides and it should be prioritized. The pathetic number of UNAMID soldiers is no deterrent to anyone, still less a determined and devious government with genocide on its mind. Security is vital for the people of Darfur before anything else is attempted. This means a two-step program. First, there should be an initial attempt to secure the camps and protect the rights of those within them. Second, over time, a robust repatriation program to the villages must be drawn up. For the people of Darfur, return to their homes is essential. Without this, the Government of Sudan has succeeded in its program of land displacement.

2. Instead of wasting time trying to lure rebel leaders here or there, how about looking carefully at their list of priorities and generating a working group in advance of the negotiations to see which requests could be met and how they might be implemented. This does not mean the usual fait accompli diplomatic process in which the groups are handed a ready-made solution and given no input into their future. Instead a serious process of consultation and a reasonable timescale is needed so that groups are able to articulate their needs and are fully prepared to deal with the Government of Sudan at a later date.

3. On a related note, preparation also means training. I have repeatedly urged the international community to train those involved in the negotiations on positions and interests, how to craft red lines and how to negotiate to those lines. Despite calls from many quarters for this training, little has been done. Instead of supporting the SPLA in their efforts, resources have been thrown at a variety of training courses in other locations worldwide, training peripheral people who will have little, if any input into long term solutions in the region. The international community must take this issue seriously. Peace in Darfur means training the key players to the crisis — those who will be doing the talking. Untrained people will only produce an undisciplined negotiation process and we all know where this will lead.

4. A new venue must be selected. To stand with an African driven process, it should be held in a country that has either experience in this issue, or the resources to carry it off. Some possible candidates here are South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, although any country that has a stake in providing a neutral facilitative role would work. Talks outside the continent simply hand an advantage to the Government of Sudan who will undoubtedly allege imperialist interference.

5. The Government of Sudan must be brought to book. The ICC is part of this process, but since only two warrants have been issued, other forms of accountability must be pursued. It bears repeating that the NCP is in a weak position. It is resource weak and will lose its influence as the South becomes stronger and makes a decision whether or not to stay in Sudan. The international community partners of the future will not be the current regime, but instead those seeking democratic governance within Sudan. If the international community continues with its “under the table” support of the regime on account of the war on terror, this will do irreparable damage over the long term to its “buy-in” with African partners. The cost of such intelligence will be economic and diplomatic disadvantage for the West in the future as authoritarian regimes are allowed to strengthen their ties with China.

6. Finally, the Darfur crisis is the story of Sudan as a whole and should be treated as such. The scandalously slow implementation of the CPA yields the biggest clue available as to what might be in store for a future DPA. It is vitally important that the SPLA’s facilitative role in bringing factions together is built upon for any future agreement and that an implementation schedule across both the CPA and DPA is prioritized.

As we enter 2008, Darfur remains a huge crisis, but it is not irresolvable. Reframing the crisis in order to blame those fighting for their rights is destructive and ultimately provides no hope to resolve the violence. Taking an inclusive and consultative approach to dialogue is now vital if the New Year is not to become yet another year of slaughter and inaction. The international community cannot have its cake and eat it where Darfur is concerned. Either they stand on the side of the citizens of Darfur and their fight against a regime that has no respect for human rights or dignity, or they run the risk of being complicit in one of the most scandalous episodes of victim-blaming in recent history. The choice is a stark one and flimsy diplomatic rhetoric is no longer a viable option.

Anne Bartlett is a Director of the Darfur Centre for Human Rights and Development based in London. She is also Asst Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. She can be reached at dcfhr@dcfhr.org