Accommodating Genocide: The International Response to Khartoum’s “New Strategy for Darfur”

ON SEPTEMBER 16, senior ministers in Khartoum’s National Congress Party (NCP) regime officially ratified their “New Strategy for Darfur,” a document that will serve as a blueprint for consolidating the results of more than seven years of genocidal counterinsurgency warfare in Darfur. Although publicly promulgated in August, the document has barely registered in the news media, even as its most insidious features require urgent translation. For there can be little doubt about what the “New Strategy” entails: massive, forced relocation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); denial of the need for a continuing international humanitarian presence in Darfur; refusal to participate seriously in an internationally mediated peace process; and the establishment of a more robust “security” presence that will eventually compel the withdrawal of the current UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur. The New Strategy reads like an attempt to clear the ground for the final solution to the Darfur problem. This harsh translation requires some context, but its accuracy can scarcely be doubted, given recent and past actions in Darfur by the regime.

The most significant context for the policies implicit in the “New Strategy” is a belated rush by the international community to rescue the referenda for South Sudan and the critical border enclave of Abyei. In the eyes of the people of the South, the referenda are the cornerstone of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the North and South in January 2005. Scheduled for January 9, 2011, the referenda appear unlikely to be held in a free, fair, or timely fashion. Although this has been clear for well over a year, the world has done next to nothing as various deadlines and benchmarks established by the CPA have passed by unmet.

Suddenly—with only 100 days until the referenda—attention from the United States, the EU, and the UN has dramatically intensified. President Obama made a personal appearance at the September 24 summit on Sudan at the UN in New York; Secretary of State Clinton has declared Sudan to be a “ticking time bomb”; additional diplomatic resources have been deployed to the region; the UN Secretariat and Security Council have expressed serious concern; a distressed insistence that these elections must occur as scheduled echoes in various European capitals; even the Arab League and African Union now offer more than their usual lip service to the importance of the referenda. Only now do the guarantors of the CPA (chiefly the United States, Great Britain, and Norway, but also the UN and the East African consortium of nations known as IGAD) seem to realize that if Khartoum seeks to abort, delay, or militarily preempt the referenda, there will be catastrophic war.

The result has been an ungainly lurch in diplomatic attention from Darfur to the South. This is a grimly ironic reprise of the decision to ignore Darfur during most of 2004 in the run-up to the January 2005 CPA signing in Nairobi. At the very height of genocidal destruction in Darfur, the international community was successfully blackmailed by Khartoum: “push us too hard on Darfur and you won’t get the North/South peace agreement you so desperately want.” By the time the agreement was signed, the worst of the large-scale, ethnically targeted violence was over.

But that violence never ceased, and a meaningful peace agreement was never reached with the rebel factions. Moreover, Khartoum continues to flout a raft of UN Security Council resolutions: demanding that the brutal Janjaweed militia be disarmed, demanding a halt to offensive military air flights over Darfur, imposing an arms embargo on the region, guaranteeing freedom of movement for UN/African Union peacekeepers, and guaranteeing that humanitarian relief organizations have access to distressed populations. It is simply shocking to look at the sheer physical size of the stack of UN resolutions that have accumulated—meaninglessly—over the past six-and-a-half years. The gap between words and action has created a deep and abiding sense of impunity on the part of Khartoum and its paramilitary allies in Darfur. They simply do not believe that the world is serious about halting what amounts to ongoing genocide by attrition.

It hardly helps that the International Criminal Court has watched helplessly as warrants for crimes against humanity have been issued for a senior Khartoum official in Darfur (Ahmed Haroun, now governor of a key North/South border state) and Ali Kushayb, known as the “colonel of colonels” among the Janjaweed. President Omar al-Bashir has himself been charged by the ICC with crimes against humanity and genocide. None of those identified by human rights groups and UN investigators as bearing responsibility for a wide range of atrocity crimes in Darfur has been brought to justice—not one.

ALL THIS has bred a perverse confidence in Khartoum, and this—along with diplomatic focus on the southern referenda—is what explains the timing and character of the “New Strategy” document. If there is a key proposal in the “New Strategy for Darfur”—and it appears with refrain-like regularity—it is the insistence that “a top priority for the government [is] to re-direct the humanitarian efforts towards rehabilitation and shifting from depending on the relief to development and self-reliance.” The document not only repeats this insistence, but demands the cooperation of UNAMID, the UN/AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur, and humanitarian organizations in Darfur: “The government expects UNAMID and other partners to play [sic] decisive role in this anticipated shifting from relief to development.” In one form or another, this emphasis on “development” appears more than a dozen times in the eight-page document.

What is meant by this language? It is foremost a declaration that the humanitarian crisis is essentially over, and that humanitarian capacity can be shifted to development. The problem is that this is just not true.

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is deepening, not improving. More than 2.7 million people remain internally displaced. Relief capacity has never recovered from Khartoum’s March 2009 expulsion of thirteen of the world’s finest humanitarian organizations, which at the time provided roughly half the humanitarian aid in Darfur. Huge areas are inaccessible to aid workers, either because of insecurity or because Khartoum restricts access; the populous eastern Jebel Marra region, for example, has been without any humanitarian relief since February because the regime denies relief organizations flight and road clearance. Malnutrition has increased dramatically during the current “hunger gap” (the period between spring planting and fall harvest). At the same time, UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Georg Charpentier, now allows his press releases to be vetted by the Sudanese regime and refuses to release data and reports on food insecurity. The reports from the ground that do emerge, especially via Radio Dabanga, give horrifying glimpses into the suffering and destruction that have been endured in the IDP camps this rainy season, which is only now ending.

To move from humanitarian assistance to development at this juncture would also eliminate the raison d’être for a number of key organizations that see themselves as emergency relief responders, like the remaining national sections of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). More humanitarian aid, not less, is required; yet humanitarian crises elsewhere, including in South Sudan, have actually reduced the funds and capacity in Darfur. During this year’s hunger gap, the UN World Food Program further reduced rations for displaced persons, who now receive only 50 percent of the UN’s minimum kilocalorie diet.

Under the leadership of Nigeria’s Ibrahim Gambari, UNAMID—which has proved woefully inadequate in fulfilling its primary mandate to protect civilians and humanitarians—is being pushed to engage in development projects. Indeed, the “New Strategy” speaks explicitly of “the central role of UNAMID in IDPs and refugees return and reconstruction.” But this is not the mandate of UNAMID, despite Gambari’s ambitions. Indeed, development work by UNAMID dangerously confuses the roles of peacekeepers and humanitarians. The central obligation of the mission is to protect civilians and humanitarians. For despite the “New Strategy”’s declaration that the regime “affirms the humanitarian needs for Darfur are fully provided and all gaps are filled,” enormous gaps remain, conditions in many camps have deteriorated badly, and there are critical shortages of food, clean water, and primary medical care. Conditions will improve only when security does—both for civilians and humanitarians.

The “New Strategy” is filled with such patent mendacity in its broad and facile characterization of the humanitarian situation. Here we should recall that for two weeks in August the regime blocked all humanitarian access to Kalma Camp, one of the largest in Darfur, with as many as 100,000 human beings completely dependent on international relief aid. And yet even as the UN was pleading for a lifting of the blockade, Khartoum publicly and adamantly denied it had imposed one. Recent violence and continuing desperation in this tinderbox of human misery have now driven as much as half the camp’s population to other camps or nearby villages; many simply can’t be accounted for.

WHAT OF the other side of the coin, “development”? There is not a shred of evidence that Khartoum intends to make a significant commitment to the development or “rehabilitation” of Darfur. Certainly before the rebellion began in 2002-2003 there was no investment in Darfur by the regime—except in paramilitary forces. The justice system had decayed into meaninglessness, infrastructure was left untouched, and the number of schools and hospitals per capita was shockingly low. And so it has continued during the twenty-one years of NCP tyranny. Khartoum declares it has committed $1.9 billion to development projects, but such “commitment” is nothing more than specious words and a signature on another worthless piece of paper, of a sort we have seen countless times in the past. The best measure of the regime’s concern for Darfur is the shameless export of agricultural products for profit (benefiting almost exclusively the regime and its cronies), while people in Darfur live on half-rations from the WFP, which must import at great cost nearly all the food it distributes.

Almost as frequent in the “New Strategy” as the emphasis on “development” is the insistence on the “return” of displaced persons. To be sure, the reference is always to “safe and voluntary returns”—but this is nothing more than a rhetorical gesture. Tellingly, the regime has recently expelled from Darfur key officials of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration (IOM). All would be essential in providing true security to returning displaced persons and ensuring that their returns were voluntary.

The fact is that since summer of 2004 there has been a relentless insistence by Khartoum on the return of these most vulnerable of civilians; on this issue humanitarian organizations and UN agencies have so far drawn a line and succeeded in forestalling such deadly ambition. But with U.S., AU, and UN approval, Khartoum is set to compel the return of displaced persons, even if there is no place for them to return. Many villages—indeed the vast majority—have been partially or completely destroyed, with no means of agricultural livelihood remaining. Arab tribal groups—some from Chad, Niger, and elsewhere in the Sahel—have appropriated the land of many who fled. Even for those with homes remaining, insecurity simply does not permit returns at the present time. And yet the “New Strategy” declares that “the organization of the return [sic] is one of the government [sic] top priorities.” UNAMID and humanitarian organizations are being required to assist in what will be in all too many cases death sentences.

Here U.S. special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration has already signaled in ominous fashion his agreement with the regime’s thinking. In summer 2009 a UN humanitarian relief coordination team convened an emergency meeting to disassociate itself from Gration’s assessment of the political and humanitarian situation in Darfur, particularly the situation of displaced persons. And they made their view publicly known:

Given the message sent by Scott Gration to the humanitarian community and the [Darfuri] beneficiaries, i.e. peace will prevail in Darfur by the end of the year, and returns have to happen, the [UN humanitarian coordination team] felt it has to take a common position.

That “common position” was deep skepticism about the possibility of secure and voluntary returns. This truly extraordinary public rebuke of the U.S. envoy is at once revealing of his ignorance and a signal that the humanitarian community on the ground remains acutely aware of the dangers that still confront displaced persons. Peace did not “prevail in Darfur” by the end of 2009, as Gration foolishly predicted; nor will it “prevail” by the end of 2010. On the contrary, the peace process has largely collapsed, and even Khartoum in its “New Strategy” makes explicitly clear that the peace talks now taking place in Doha, Qatar are a sideshow. Its real intention is to “domesticate” the peace process: “The peace process requires radical re-direction,” we are told, particularly in “shift[ing] the focus of the peace weight [sic] to the inside.”

Caught “inside” are the displaced Darfuris, who reacted sharply to Gration’s remarks about returns in summer 2009, accusing him of taking sides with Khartoum. They know better than anyone just how inadequate the security environment in Darfur remains. And even those not displaced are at acute risk. On September 2, 2010—shortly after Khartoum’s promulgation of the “New Strategy”—the Janjaweed, long the regime’s primary military proxy, savagely attacked the market of Tabarat village in North Darfur. Details are still not fully clear, although the reports from Reuters, the African Center for Peace and Justice, MSF, and Radio Dabanga comport closely with one another. More than fifty people were shot and killed at point-blank range; more than 100 were injured, many with extremely serious gunshot wounds. MSF treated some fifty people at its clinic in the nearby town of Tawilla, all of whom were male, as were the victims who were shot while lying face down in the market. MSF also reports that “hundreds of families fled Tabarat area in fear, leaving everything behind” and now “urgently need basic items for survival.” These people are unlikely to see the benefits of the “New Strategy,” announced just days before. Rather, they join the more than 500,000 Darfuris newly displaced since UNAMID officially took up its mandate on January 1,2008.

The UN’s human rights investigator for Sudan, Chande Othman of Tanzania, has called for an “urgent” investigation by Khartoum into the attack. But this will never occur. The same regime that blocked UNAMID forces from witnessing the aftermath of the Tabarat massacre is hardly likely to conduct the “thorough and transparent investigation” that Othman called for. The impotence of UNAMID has once again been highlighted, along with Khartoum’s contemptuous regard for the mission’s mandate. To complicate matters, India has recently announced that it will go forward with its previously proposed draw-down of helicopters presently serving a critical role in UNAMID—and this is likely only the first of many such actions. As one seasoned UN observer of Darfur remarked to me, “The question is not if but when UNAMID withdraws.” And growing pressure from Khartoum’s military and security forces may very well accelerate that withdrawal.

The African Union’s Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, is recently reported to have said that “there are many displaced people who expressed to him their desire to return to their places of origin.” But this is a dangerous half-truth, as Darfuris were quick to point out. Virtually all Darfuris want to return to their homes and land, if possible; but widespread and deeply threatening insecurity are precisely what makes this impossible. Moreover, with Khartoum’s recent expulsion of officials from UNHCR, the ICRC, and IOM, there is much less capacity to oversee such returns, ensuring that they are safe and voluntary. “Security,” despite being another “axis” of the “New Strategy,” is nowhere discussed in specific terms: there is nothing about disarming the Janjaweed, nothing about cease-fire monitoring, nothing about how opportunistic violence will be brought under control. Indeed, humanitarians report that the regime has condoned or even orchestrated much of this violence as a means of controlling the movement of aid workers. On the issue of security, the “New Strategy” seems intent mainly on reminding UNAMID that it may not act in ways that infringe upon “the Government of Sudan [sic] sovereign obligations.”

In short, the “New Strategy” offers not a single concrete proposal for reducing the insecurity that is the greatest obstacle to a return to normalcy in Darfur. Instead, this “strategy” ominously threatens unspecified “unilateral action to improve security”—a phrase that can be used to justify virtually any military action by the regime. A September overview of the Darfur peace process from the authoritative Small Arms Survey notes that the rebel movements in particular believe this language is “a cover for a return to military offensives to crush the movements while the international community is focused on Southern Sudan’s January 2011 self-determination referendum.”

Finally, the “New Strategy” speaks repetitively and redundantly about a “Darfur Consultative Forum.” But this is merely a gesture to Darfuri civil society, which has been relentlessly excluded from the peace process. What goes unmentioned is how fully Khartoum has controlled representation of Darfuri civil society to date, and how deliberately it has undermined some of the key efforts to create a truly representative civil society forum. The regime collapsed an ambitious effort by civil society groups to hold a meeting in May 2009 in Addis Ababa, refusing to allow key participants to leave Sudan. Subsequently, Darfuri civil society representatives organized a series of symposia in Heidelberg, Germany with the assistance of the Max Planck Institute and funding from the German foreign ministry. In the last of the Heidelberg symposia (in February and March 2010) the representatives agreed on a final Outcome Document containing draft proposals to guide a possible Darfur peace agreement. The Outcome Document, supported by the only rebel group attending the Doha talks, was peremptorily dismissed by Khartoum; indeed, the regime’s negotiators refused even to accept the document and protested the presence of a delegation from the Heidelberg Committee.

There is no reason to believe that what Khartoum touts as a “Darfur Consultative Forum” will be anything more than a carefully orchestrated public relations effort. Dissident voices may be allowed to speak, but their views will be ignored, and it is more than likely that the regime’s ruthlessly efficient security services will use this forum as a means of arresting, detaining, or even murdering those who speak critically of Khartoum. There are already strong suspicions that the regime is behind a series of recent murders in camps near Zalingei (West Darfur)—murders that appear to be political assassinations, with camp leaders opposed to Khartoum’s plans as the targets. Notable among these is the September 3 murder of Adam Ismail Bush, a humanitarian coordinator for the Zalingei camps.

WHAT IS astonishing is the degree to which international actors of consequence have not simply acquiesced in but applauded this “strategy.” While Arab League approval was predictable, given the obdurate refusal of Arab countries to respond seriously to Darfur’s realities, enthusiastic approval from the African Union under Mbeki is another matter. Mbeki led the “AU Panel on Darfur” (AUPD) and spent a great deal of time on the ground last year; he now heads the “AU High Level Implementation Panel” (AUHIP), a follow-up effort that works from a putative roadmap for peace and rehabilitation contained within the document produced by the AUPD. But the AU report offers no such “roadmap.” It is chiefly an uninspired rehash of previous human rights and humanitarian reports, though there is not a single footnote or reference in its 125 pages of text.

Mbeki has tried to leverage his role as head of AUHIP into a means for displacing and upstaging the ineffective UN mediator in the Darfur peace process, Djibril Bassolé of Burkina Faso. Mbeki also seeks to diminish the diplomatic role of Gambari, a ruthless UN careerist whose tenure in Burma a few years ago proved both his incompetence and his callousness. Although Gambari nominally heads UNAMID, he is pushing to displace Mbeki and take the diplomatic lead himself, even as his leadership of UNAMID has been disastrous. An observer close to the Darfur peace talks in Doha recently wrote to me describing the dispiriting sight of Gambari, Mbeki, and Bassolé fighting among themselves, working at cross-purposes, and indeed at times actively seeking to undermine one another.

Only one rebel group, the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), has attended the peace talks. Everyone in Doha is well aware that the LJM—a factitious organization created out of expedient diplomacy by the United States and Libya—cannot possibly bring peace to Darfur. They are neither representative of Darfuri civil society nor do they have any military muscle on the ground. Mbeki sees their weakness—and the “New Strategy”—as creating his moment of opportunity.

But even more alarming than Mbeki’s support for the “New Strategy” are the approving remarks of U.S. special envoy Gration. Following a meeting with Ghazi Salah Eddin Attabani, the regime’s point man on Darfur, Mbeki declared—representing himself, Gambari, and Gration—that “We strongly support this strategy to resolve the conflict in Darfur.” This is at once astonishing and profoundly dismaying. Gration himself would go on to “hail the transparency of the new strategy” and “praise the developmental approach adopted by the government [in Khartoum] to resolve the conflict.” The regime’s “New Strategy for Darfur,” will “bring development…infrastructure…and security to that region and then the rest of the region.”

Gration is either appallingly ignorant or chillingly cynical; even after a year-and-a-half as special envoy, he remains peculiarly opaque. Certainly it’s no secret that U.S. policy toward Sudan has deemphasized Darfur. But to embrace “enthusiastically” the plan, the “strategy” of a regime that has violated every commitment it has ever made, that has reneged on every agreement it has ever signed with a Sudanese party—every one—is a decision that deserves serious scrutiny, particularly since Gration’s remarks were reported only in the Sudan Tribune.

The “New Strategy” has been vehemently rejected by all the rebel groups (one of the few things that unites them), by Darfuri civil society, and notably by the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, nominally part of the “Government of National Unity” in Khartoum (the SPLM was of course never consulted about the “strategy”). The enthusiastic embrace of this plan by the AU, the UN, and the United States is a measure of how fully Darfur has been abandoned, how little the words of outrage from President Obama really mean, and how attenuated the chances are for any sort of peace agreement. The world has signaled to Khartoum’s génocidaires that they are free to go about their business in Darfur; and as the killings in Tabarat demonstrate, business is brisk.

A version of this article with references is available upon request. Email editors [at] dissentmagazine [dot] org.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.

Homepage Image: IDP camp near Nyala, South Darfur (USAID/Wikimedia Commons/2005)

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