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Update on the Crisis in Darfur

August 14, 2008

I have posted an update for the “crisis in Darfur” page previously kept up former FCNL legislative assistant Laura Weis, and will continue to provide updates every couple weeks here if anyone is interested. The first update is posted below:

In June, President Bush signed a huge $186.5 billion war spending bill for Iraq that also included funds for the peacekeeping mission in Darfur as well as money for humanitarian, development, and diplomatic efforts in Darfur and South Sudan. In July, the House and Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittees’ marked up their version of the State and Foreign Operations spending bill, which included more funding for U.N. peacekeeping, law enforcement, humanitarian, development and transition assistance for Sudan. However, the foreign operations spending bill will likely not be signed by the President this year. Congressional leaders have said they will not bring any spending bills to the House or Senate floor until the next President takes office in January.

In June, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo filed 10 charges of war crimes against Sudanese President Bashir, which put Darfur back—front and center—in the press. Anticipating a spike in violence, the U.N. and humanitarian agencies scaled back their operations. The U.N.-AU hybrid peacekeeping mission prepared for the worst, yet no large retributive attacks against U.N. personnel or peacekeepers have occurred since the indictment. However, humanitarian groups report, the Sudanese government has tightened its grip, creating further restrictions on travel and obstacles for humanitarian groups. Meanwhile, Sudanese President Bashir went on a “charm offensive” in Darfur. In an attempt to show goodwill, he traveled to Darfur’s historic capital El-Fasher, where he was jeered at by spectators.

On July 31, 2008 the U.N. Security Council voted (14-0) to renew the mandate of the U.N.-AU hybrid peacekeeping mission. In an eleventh hour decision, the U.S. abstained from the vote in protest of language in the resolution, which accepted the possibility of future council debate on suspending the ICC indictment against Sudanese President Bashir. Diplomats from South Africa, Libya and the African Union as well as Africa expert Alex de Waal and former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios claim the charges pose a threat to the peace process. In a Washington Post op-ed in July, De Waal questioned the judicial integrity of the charges, and argued Ocampo risked politicizing the court. Meanwhile, high profile activists like John Prendergast argue the indictments are integral to justice and peace efforts.

ICC judges are expected to decide whether to act on Ocampo’s request for an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir in October or November. Many believe this creates a vital window of opportunity for the international community to conduct diplomacy and bolster the U.N. force in Darfur. If the ICC issues a warrant for Bashir, many expect the situation to get much worse, as the ICC is said to operate on a system much like the Napoleonic code. For instance, once a warrant is issued, it supposedly cannot be dropped as a concession in peace negotiations. If the ICC retreats and doesn’t issue a warrant for Bashir, the Sudanese President may feel emboldened, and free to continue launching attacks against innocent civilians. While the debate has been colored by those for and against an ICC arrest warrant outside of Sudan, lacking from the debate, has been the voices of Sudanese political parties other than the governing National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum.

Yet, this “window of opportunity” certainly creates a lot of pressure for the new U.N. joint chief mediator Djibril Bassole, who began the uphill challenge of reigniting a stalled peace process several weeks ago. “This will be a difficult mission but it’s not impossible,” Bassole told reporters after meeting with Sudan’s foreign minister in late July. Sudanese on all sides of the conflict are reportedly optimistic about having a full-time mediator in Sudan, rather than two part-time mediators who were criticized for jetting into the country for short diplomatic visits every few months.

On August 12, the force Commander of UNAMID, General Agwai, told reporters in New York that unification of the rebel groups is a key pre-requisite to a meaningful peace process. Rebel groups reportedly number around thirty, and the negotiating positions of the various factions were a key obstacle to the peace process in Sirte, Libya last fall. A key goal for the UN mediator, Djibril Bassole, will be coalescing all the rebel groups behind a common platform in a future round of negotiations with the Sudanese government.

Yet, as reported in the Washington Post several months ago, we need to change how we think about the conflict in Darfur. For instance, as the Post reports “While the government and militia attacks on straw-hut villages that defined the earlier years of the conflict continue, Darfur is now home to semi-organized crime and warlordism, with marijuana-smoking rebels, disaffected government militias and anyone else with an AK-47 taking part, according to U.N. officials.”

The solutions to the conflict aren’t that different. A robust peacekeeping mission is needed. Humanitarian aid is needed. A diplomatic process that provides the people of the Darfur region security, autonomy and a large chunk of Sudan’s wealth to rebuild its war-torn society is also still needed. Yet given the localized nature of the conflict today (as well as prior to the beginning of the rebel offensive in 2003), there should be a renewed stress on local reconciliation and management of scare land in any future peace process.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission still has only about 10,000 military and civilian personnel, and hopes to achieve 80% deployment by the end of the year. Yet, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations is still unable to get member countries to commit the personnel and equipment it needs for a robust civilian protection force. To highlight the fact that no country has contributed a single helicopter, the Save Darfur Coalition presented the U.N. security council with a helicopter on the day of the renewal of UNAMID’s mandate.

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