Sudan rebuffs attempts to send UN peacekeepers to Darfur amid a renewed military offensive against rebels.
By Simon Roughneen
Not only has the Sudanese government refused to give consent to a UN mission in Darfur and threatened to expel African Union (AU) peacekeepers, it has also renewed its military offensive in northern Darfur, apparently in alliance with the Janjaweed militia and the rebel faction that signed the May Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) – a peace agreement that is now basically defunct.
The developments come on the heels of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution passed last week to deploy over 20,000 UN peacekeepers to Sudan’s Darfur region to bolster the dying peace agreement and forestall an even greater humanitarian catastrophe.
Reports from the AU and non-governmental organizations on the ground in Darfur tell of an explicit military build-up in El-Fasher, the capital of northern Darfur, with government aircraft bring troops to the region and carrying out air raids on nearby anti-towns held by rebels who did not sign the peace agreement.
Thousands of troops and militias reportedly are backed by fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships. The military is also believed to be massing more ground forces in the region.
The resumption of the offensive contravenes the DPA, which the Sudanese government signed on 5 May in Nigeria.
In the months since the agreement was signed, numerous commitments have slipped, been ignored or been overtaken by events.
Further complicating matters, the DPA made no mention of a UN peacekeeping force to replace the over-extended AU.
The AU’s General Collins Ihekire of Nigeria told The Associated Press that the latest offensive would cripple the civilian population in a region marked by humanitarian destruction.
“The government is not making a secret of their desire to flush out the remains of the rebels. […] Whenever there is an upsurge in violence, there is always more collateral damage, more banditry, more rapes.”
Rebel commander Abubakar Hamid Elnur told AP by satellite telephone from northern Darfur that there had been no armed clashes with government forces and their Janjaweed allies for three days, but that bombing raids on rebel-held areas were continuing north of El Fasher.
“They are bringing in more troops and blocking off the roads. We believe the government is preparing for another major assault,” he was quoted as saying. Civilians were unable to flee the area but had left their homes for the valleys and hills, he added.
The international geopolitical weather could hardly be more favourable for Khartoum than right now. With negotiations continuing over a UN peacekeeping force for Lebanon, and the Iranian nuclear crisis unresolved, the Sudanese government has room to maneuver in confronting any international intervention in Darfur.
Even if a UN force was agreed to by the Sudanese, it remains unclear where troops would come from for such a remote and difficult region. In recent months, statements attributed to Osama bin Laden have cited Darfur as a location for jihad should western troops be deployed as UN peacekeepers. With a renewed Taliban offensive in southern Afghanistan and the Pentagon releasing a report last week speculating on an Iraqi civil war, Darfur remains low on the international crisis pecking order.
Despite the statement from then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell in September 2004 that genocide had taken place in Darfur, a UN commission that reported in January 2005 concluded that while there had been crimes against humanity and war crimes, the government of Sudan “had not pursued a policy of genocide.” A finding of genocide would have perhaps forced the UN to intervene more strongly.
The Sudanese are backed at the UN by permanent Security Council members Russia and China, prominent investors in the Sudanese oil sector, who abstained from the vote on Resolution 1706.
A British official told the BBC that “we are looking again at our policy, trying to see what levers there are. We have few. Russia and China have more in that they buy raw materials there. So the issue is how can we persuade them to get the government of Sudan to agree to the force while also allaying the government’s own fears.”
Khartoum is actively considering its military options should a UN force be put together. But as Resolution 1706 outlines, no UN force will enter Darfur without Khartoum’s consent, and the political will to pressure Khartoum further may get lost in an array of international crises and impending mid-term elections in the US. As such, Khartoum can decorate its refusal to countenance a UN presence in Darfur with belligerent rhetoric, in a charade as meaningless as the talk is hostile.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters in Alexandria on Tuesday that Sudan’s decision was not “entirely positive,” and he expressed concern about the security gap in the AU troops’ wake. “The international community has been helping about three million people in camps and elsewhere and if we have to leave because of lack of security, lack of access to the people, then what happens?” Annan asked.
It is widely acknowledged that Sudanese troops and paramilitary units either arm or dovetail with the Janjaweed militia.
Meanwhile, Washington – one of the chief international brokers of the DPA and the source of most pressure on Khartoum – appeared to have relaxed its stance since the passing of Resolution 1706 last week.
At a press briefing in Washington on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: “Certainly the situation is troubling. My understanding is that this refusal to allow in a UN force, as well as asking the [AU] force to leave, has not been officially conveyed to any of the international partners. So we would hope that that is not, in fact, the position of the Sudan government.”
In any case, the AU mission is on its last legs, having run out of money after two years of failing to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access in Darfur.
On 4 September, the AU announced it would withdraw its troops by the end of the month if Sudan failed to drop its opposition to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.
“We are ready to review the mandate in the event that Sudan and the UN agree on the transition to a UN peacekeeping force,” AU spokesman Nouredinne Mezni said in a statement.
On Monday, Sudan gave AU troops a one-week deadline to accept a deal that would block the proposed 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Darfur or else leave the region – a step that would likely worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
The international ramifications of a further decline in Darfur may be far-reaching.
Speaking on Irish radio on 5 September, Richard Dowden, head of the UK Royal Africa Society, warned of “regional destabilization” if Darfur’s insecurity deteriorated, citing implications for Chad, Central African Republic and even northern Nigeria.
Despite a recent rapprochement, Sudan and Chad have a history of mutual destabilization, and an April coup attempt in Chad was believed to have had Khartoum’s support. In any case, cross-border ethnic affiliations between the Zaghawa tribe, which makes up 8 percent of Darfur’s population and also supplies the political elites in N’djamena, does not mean that the mutual recriminations between the two governments have ceased. Minni Minawi, the rebel leader who signed the DPA and is now the fourth highest ranking official in Sudan, is Zaghawa. However, Janjaweed fighters continue to cross into Chad and raid villages, where over 300,000 Darfurians have fled as refugees.
Sudan has accused the US of using the UN and the peacekeeper issue as a means to destabilize the government in Khartoum and of attempting to access Sudanese oil. Since last March, Khartoum has repeatedly referred to “colonialism” as a the real agenda behind a UN force in Darfur, irrespective of the reality that few if any Western troops would join a UN force, which would be a rehatted AU contingent supplemented by UN peacekeeper stalwarts such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia – all majority Muslim states, as well as perhaps Nepal and India.
Many pundits refer to Rwanda’s genocide and the failure of the UN and the world to intervene there as an example to be avoided. However, in terms in international law and changes in recent geopolitical norms, the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo makes for a better precedent, as Yugoslav sovereignty was deemed less significant than the need to protect Kosovar Albanians.
However, Sudan will dictate how peace will return to Darfur, with troops being deployed across an ever-growing swathe of the region.Show