When I spent time earlier this year in a desolate refugee camp in Kenya, I was given one clear message by many of the Darfurian refugees I met there: 'Tell the international community to end the bloodshed in Darfur!' Today is the fourth international Day for Darfur. So I felt that the very least I could do was to join a couple of thousand others outside the Sudanese Embassy in London, to march to Downing Street and demand action. Exactly what that action should be, however, proved controversial…
The spirited crowd, nearly half of whom were Darfurians or from elsewhere in Sudan, chanted their way past bemused tourists on Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square: 'Stop the war in Darfur!'; 'All criminals to ICC (International Criminal Court)!'; 'UN troops to Darfur now!'; before gathering opposite prime minister Gordon Brown's house in the bright sunlight for a series of speeches.
At least one speaker referred to the fact that he had done this before, and it's true that you need a certain degree of stoicism to get involved in advocacy for Darfur. Any progress made over the past 4 1/2 years has been painstakingly eked out at the pace of a lazy snail, whilst on the ground 'the world's worst humanitarian crisis' just keeps on getting even worse.
At the moment, the main game in town is the ongoing international effort to get a strengthened peacekeeping force into the region. A UN Security Council resolution to replace the current African Union force with a UN force, passed in August 2006, was uncompromisingly blocked by Khartoum. So now the plan, backed up by Security Council resolution 1769 passed last July, is to deploy a joint UN-AU mission before the end of the year, including 26,000 troops and civilian police.
Lord Mark Malloch Brown, formerly Kofi Annan's deputy and now newly-appointed British Minister for Africa and Human Rights, turned up at the rally, apparently eager to give us a progress report. 'Gordon Brown is determined', he announced proudly, 'that on his watch there will be a solution to Darfur.' In order to achieve this, Lord Malloch Brown himself has been to talk to leaders in Beijing, Europe and Africa, to build consensus around international action.
'I've just returned from Khartoum,' he announced, Chamberlain-like, with a flourish, 'where I met President al Bashir. He said he accepted that there needs to be peace, and a negotiated settlement. I said we'd trust him, but test him every step of the way.'
Members of the Darfurian community, who until now had been listening with silent approval, immediately erupted in shouts of protest at the suggestion that al Bashir, orchestrator of ethnic violence against their people and master of the broken promise, should be trusted. Malloch Brown hastily qualified his words: 'Of course, we can't take his word on trust alone. I told him we'd press for the urgent deployment of peacekeepers, but we're not putting away the threat of sanctions and other actions if there isn't immediate progress'. But he had laid bare the fundamental problem that continues to dog all attempts, local, national and international, to bring peace to Darfur: the nature of the Sudanese regime.
'The received wisdom is that the Sudanese government is now co-operating on Darfur' rejoindered the final speaker. But, he explained, the regime has appointed Ahmed Haroun, architect of numerous massacres in western Darfur and one of two men recently indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, as – of all things – Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, and has just nominated him to co-chair a national committee investigating human rights abuses in Darfur. 'If that's co-operation, I'm a donkey!' he concluded, to cheers.
This situation is nothing new. Brutal and wily, the Sudanese regime unleashed the violence in Darfur for their own political ends. Peace is not in their interests – indeed, it could ultimately result in many of the ruling elite being prosecuted for war crimes. They will continue to claim to co-operate whilst doing what they can to block a resolution to the crisis. But Khartoum's intransigence does raise some major concerns about the imminent deployment of an international peacekeeping force in the region.
Mahmood Mamdani has recently pointed out a worrying contradiction at the heart of the UN resolution: 'It aims to enforce a ceasefire that does not exist…Trying to keep the peace in the absence of a peace agreement made the AU ‘part of the conflict’. There is no reason to believe that the fate of the UN will be any different. To strengthen the mandate in the absence of a political agreement is more likely to deepen than to solve the dilemma. To enforce the ceasefire will mean taking on the role of an invading – and not a peacekeeping – force.’
Yet perhaps just as worrying as the prospect of this new force being treated as an ‘invasion’ and catalysing further violence is the prospect of nothing happening at all.
Eric Reeves – himself a strident advocate for Western military intervention – reports a series of disturbing developments over the last few weeks in the region: up to 30,000 Arabs from Chad have apparently crossed into Darfur, aided by the government, and begun settling in empty villages cleared by government and janjaweed forces, making the prospects of a peaceful return for refugees even more remote; government forces have attacked Kalma camp –one of the largest in South Darfur – ostensibly because the camps are becoming increasingly militarised with a growing rebel presence; and malnutrition and mortality rates are soaring.
Clearly, we cannot look away from Darfur now, but we should be very
careful to ensure that any kind of foreign intervention isn’t
counterproductive. Top priority needs to be a political settlement, one
that involves all the rebel factions (themselves responsible for a lot
of recent military attacks in the region), and, crucially, local
community representatives and NGOs. The international community has a
role to play in arm-twisting and cajoling the various players to get
round the table. China’s influence over Khartoum will be crucial here.
But the danger of all this high-level involvement is that the voices and interests of Darfurians themselves get drowned out in the hullabaloo. This is certainly what happened during the first, ill-fated Darfur Peace Agreement process. It seems to be happening still, and until their rights and interests are put at the centre of this increasingly crowded stage, lasting peace will surely remain elusive.