Darfur: putting people first – The Voice

While the United Nations’ Security Council ponder options for a UN-led force to take over from the African Union in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, from the comfort of their New York Plaza headquarters, as many as 5,000 people in Darfur are dying every month.

Readying rations for people made homeless by Darfur fighting (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Almost three years to the day since the Darfur conflict began, 2 million people remain displaced, driven from their homes and farms by a government-backed militia known as the Janjawid, and caught in the crossfire between government troops and Darfurian rebel groups. And their plight looks set to worsen with recent fighting forcing aid agencies to suspend their operations on security grounds. The international aid agency GOAL was among the most recent casualties, forced to suspend part of their work in the wake of the tragic death of their nutritionist, Sudanese Hadja Hamid, who was killed in a helicopter crash during an evacuation from the fighting.

And worse, between 200,000-400,000 people are thought to have been killed. Various news, TV, NGO and UN reports and ample anecdotal evidence suggest that rape is commonplace, with hundreds of thousands of Darfur’s women having suffered.

One thing Darfur illustrates is that humanitarian relief cannot be divorced from security and politics. And irrespective of the bigger picture considerations of all actors, on the ground, and internationally, the first consideration for all concerned should be the Darfurian people, upon whom this conflict has exacted a terrible toll.

Naïve as this may sound – given the scale of the human loss so far – putting civilian protection first could potentially provide at least a spring-board for effective dialogue on the politically-divisive issues. If better co-operation could emerge – on the ground and internationally – then a sounder relational platform might be in place for an effective conflict resolution process.

The rebellion began after years of localised Arab-African clashes over land use amid a context of diminishing resources. The Darfurians accuse the Khartoum government of socio-economic marginalisation and of favouring the encroachment of nomadic Arabs into settled African farmland in Darfur.

The Darfurian rebels – the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are comprised of Muslim African ethnic groups – the Fur, Zaghawa and Massaleit – from the western region of Darfur in Sudan.

The situation is complicated by cross-border ethnic ties with Chad, where the ruling Zaghawa tribe speaks the same language as the Zaghawa in Darfur. In addition, Chadian rebels are operating from Darfur and in eastern Chad, threatening to undermine the government in N’djamena.

Sudan and Chad have accused each other of backing each others’ rebels. And the international dimension does not end there. Libya and Eritrea have been accused of providing logistical assistance to the rebel groups.

For at least a year after the conflict broke out, the world failed to notice or acknowledge that something was wrong. Not until summer 2004, when the then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the region, did anything of consequence happen diplomatically. But even then, the will was not there to maintain this momentum.

In the meantime people were being killed, raped and displaced – mostly by the Janjawid, to the point where Powell went on to term what was happening in Darfur as “genocide”.

Since 1983, a larger civil conflict between the government and the south Sudanese rebel movement has caught international attention intermittently – 2 million people died and at least 4 million remain displaced. As Darfur was being destroyed by a new war , regional and global actors were struggling to put together a north-south peace deal to end an older war. The agreement was finally signed in January 2005.

Peace talks on Darfur have taken place in Abuja in Nigeria, but have been slow to produce any progress and the rebel groups disagree among themselves about how to proceed.

The African Union (AU) has a peacekeeping force on the ground. However the organisation lacks the money, materials, and mandate needed to effectively protect civilians.

The UN is seeking a western-equipped and manned force with an effective mandate to protect civilians and help bring peace. No-one knows whether or not this will happen, and to the extent necessary. In any case it won’t happen soon.

A decisive move now by the international community – particularly the US – but including major Arab and Muslim states – is needed. Otherwise nothing is likely to happen either politically or in terms of assuring all Darfurians that they will be fed, given adequate shelter and healthcare, and protected from Arab militias or from military confrontation between rebels and government.

Recently the US has adopted a Janus-faced public stance on Darfur. Senior State Department officials stated that even if genocide had taken place some time in the past, it does not mean it continues to be the rule there. But then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice restated the old position that, in the US view, genocide had occurred. Now Presidetn Bush is pushing for some NATO involvement in the region, either as back-up to the current African Union force, or as part of a future UN peacekeeping operation.

In the meantime, Darfur’s people will remain at the mercy of a volatile security situation. If it becomes apparent that a UN force will take over from the AU, all sides may seek to gain as much ground militarily as possible in advance.

More fighting will mean more displacement, more death. And more and more of Darfur’s 8,000 aid workers will be unable to work, unable to deliver supplies, and be pushed away from the people who need assistance most.

Securing access to the vulnerable and getting assurances about their rights is a recurring problem in conflict zones. And clearly nothing sustainable for Darfur, in long-term, is possible without ending the fighting, procuring a settlement, and transforming the conflict.

But for now the focus must be on protecting people and at least providing their basic needs in terms of shelter, food, healthcare, sanitation. All protagonists must agree on whatever mechanisms are necessary to ensure this. This means the west should provide more money and military material, and men if necessary, and that Sudan’s government and rebel groups agree to more foreign troops in their midst– if they cannot ensure Sudanese civilians are protected.

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