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On Darfur, Impasse or Progress?

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
April 19, 2007

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As the one-year anniversary of the Darfur peace agreement approaches, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir seems, once again, to have agreed to some form of UN peacekeeping presence in the region. This week he approved the deployment of a “heavy-support package” (AP) that will include roughly two thousand troops and six helicopter gunships. Given Bashir’s history with such agreements (two last year, one earlier this year), as well as new evidence that Sudan is flying arms to Darfur (NYT) in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, many officials say this is likely just another diplomatic feint. But some, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, express optimism that UN troops will actually hit the ground.

In a speech on April 18 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Bush made his most extensive remarks on Darfur in nearly a year, describing the situation as “genocide” and outlining a concrete plan of sanctions to be implemented “in a short period of time” if Bashir does not fulfill his commitment to allow the UN support forces. Bush had originally planned to impose the sanctions he described but was convinced to postpone them (WashPost) by the UN secretary-general.

This latest twist in Darfur’s tragic story comes as humanitarian access to the region continues to be curtailed. Fighting on the ground has grown to encompass some fifteen different rebel groups and several localized tribal conflicts. The Sudanese government has created an “increasingly chaotic” environment, Andrew S. Natsios, U.S. special envoy to Sudan, said in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 11. The conflict has also spread across Sudan’s borders to neighbors Chad and the Central Africa Republic, as this Backgrounder explains.

Since the UN Security Council passed a robust resolution authorizing deployment of a peacekeeping force to Darfur, the body has balked at taking measures that would force Khartoum to accept UN peacekeepers. China, it is widely thought, has prevented the Security Council from stronger action. Yet in recent months Beijing has made incremental steps toward pressuring Sudan. In February Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Bashir and urged him to consider the UN force. A stronger version of this statement was delivered earlier this month by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, whose trip to Sudan included visits to three refugee camps in Darfur.

Some say these efforts have been spurred by a campaign, led by American actress Mia Farrow, to boycott the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics—nicknamed the “Genocide Olympics” (WSJ). Yet China warns against (NYT) linking the Darfur issue and the Olympics, and there are no indications Beijing plans to press for sanctions, which the United States and Britain both support. In fact, China recently offered to expand (FT) military cooperation with Khartoum, illustrating Beijing’s ambivalence over how to handle the situation in Darfur.

These mixed feelings are not shared by the rest of the world. A new poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org shows that large majorities in many countries—including China—believe the United Nations has the responsibility to protect against genocide. In a Council Special Report, CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein argues that the international community needs to build the capacity and muster the political will to enforce this doctrine.

Thus far, diplomatic efforts have focused on getting peacekeepers into Darfur. But what if there is no peace to keep? Natsios, in an interview with CFR.org, warns that a peace agreement is “the only way to put Darfur back together again.” In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he highlighted an initiative led by First Vice President Salva Kiir, who is also the president of Southern Sudan, to consult with different actors in Darfur on crafting a political settlement. It remains to be seen whether this initiative has any traction, or if it will—like Bashir’s repeated agreements with the United Nations—be just another red herring.

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Backgrounder

Sudan's Fractured Internal Politics

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Experts say instability in south Sudan should be looked at in tandem with the crisis in Darfur, and some call for addressing Sudan's problems...