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Prendergast: International Pressure Needed to End Violence, Insecurity in Sudan

Interviewee: John Prendergast
Interviewer: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
February 24, 2006

The violence in Sudan's western province of Darfur continues into its third year with few signs of abating. Nearly two million people have been displaced and tens of thousands killed in Darfur, where pro-government Arab militiamen called janjaweed are accused of ethnic cleansing against non-Arab ethnic groups. The United States says genocide has been committed in Darfur and is now pressing for a resolution authorizing a new UN peacekeeping force in the region to replace the 7,000 African Union troops there whose UN mandate expires March 31. Separately, little progress has been made toward forming a national-unity government that was supposed to emerge from a peace deal ending the north-south civil war. That deal last year ended a 21-year-old war between the mainly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south, costing more than 1.5 million lives.

John Prendergast, senior adviser with the International Crisis Group who was in Sudan this past autumn, is highly critical of U.S. and UN Security Council actions to date. But he says a robust international response is still crucial to resolving the conflict there.

What are your thoughts on the request for a UN peacekeeping presence in Darfur?

It's a year or two late. It was quite clear as early as the beginning of 2005 the force that the African Union was deploying under the rules of engagement and the mandate it was given with the little bit of equipment it was provided were simply inadequate to address the enormous insecurity caused by the government of Sudan's counterinsurgency strategy. So a year and a quarter later we finally have the United States making a decision to begin to press for the transition from the African Union force to a United Nations mission. We lost a lot of lives—tens of thousands of lives—as a result of that delay. But, it's never too late. There are still huge protection issues in Darfur, and the situation, in fact, is deteriorating.

News reports say the UN has been preparing for a couple of months [for the transition to UN peacekeepers], but [U.S. Ambassador to the UN] John Bolton criticized [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan for not pushing harder to get the planning done for the UN forces. Does this criticism have merit?

It is the height of disingenuousness. The United States only recently made a decision to begin pressing for a transition to the UN. Principally, for financial reasons and for reasons of policy, the United States was supporting the AU fully and said the AU was the right way to go up until the end of last year. So it's only been the last month or two that the United States began to publicly say we need to have a transition to the UN. And then, to all of a sudden turn around and accuse the UN of dragging its feet—this is one of many, many examples of this administration taking a policy position, seeing that policy crumble in failure, and then pointing fingers at others and blaming others for the failure. Just like the African Union was set up from the beginning to fail, now the United Nations is going to be blamed for dragging its feet.

What do you mean when you say the United States is pushing for a transition to UN forces "for financial reasons"?

The U.S. provides 22 percent or so of the peacekeeping budget. So in other words, when it formally becomes a UN peacekeeping operation, it's going to be a much more expensive price tag for the United States to foot. Bush even said himself last Friday, unauthorized, before the policy decision was even made, that we need to double the number of forces on the ground in Darfur. And that's basically just one of the major reasons why the U.S. resisted and held on to this African Union-only policy for so long, because it's a much cheaper policy. We really tried to do this whole stabilization effort in Darfur on the cheap [by assigning it] to an embryonic organization that had no experience of doing this, and we thought we could get away with it and really, it was dead in the water from the beginning.

So did the realization of the AU failure prompt the policy change?

Yes, I'm quite sure. There's been a lot of fomenting—fermenting, I guess I should say—inside the administration for months now at the full realization that this policy was not working. But the policy often catches up to the realization very late, and so the U.S. administration is now going through a policy review, making new decisions about where it's going in the future. And that's why it's so interesting that President Bush on Friday made these comments—he just said what he thought, unscripted, way ahead of the policy decision. And immediately the Pentagon was scrambling, saying "Well, no policy decision has been taken about these things," and that escalates the debate internally. And so, there are those who don't want to do more in Darfur for financial reasons and for other reasons related to our relationship with Khartoum on the counterterrorism front. Then there are those who do really say, "Hey, we're on the hook, we've said all these things, that this is a genocide, that we need to do all we can and we're not doing all we can and need to do more." So that's the debate there.

Now, this has brought Darfur back into the news for the first time in a long time. Are the peace talks [on Darfur] weighing on what's happening in Darfur at all?

On the peace process, the process is bleeding along. They very well could sign another protocol sometime in the near future that would be largely symbolic. But we have two sides of the table. On the rebel side, there is a disintegrating, fractious, free-for-all amongst different rebel groups as they position themselves on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. And they've really embarrassed themselves. In the context of the negotiations, it's been very, very unfortunate that the meltdown of the rebel side has had such a negative impact on the peace table. On the other side of the negotiating table is the government, watching—and in fact fomenting, fostering the rebel divisions, laughing the entire time, feeling no pressure from the international community to make any sort of compromise, any sort of real policy proposals because all the attention is on the fact that the rebels are so divided they can't negotiate. So [the government] has watched everyone else pay attention to [the rebel divisions] and there has been no pressure on the government to come forward with a real, serious proposal for how to resolve the conflict.

So the government has had a free pass. In the absence of more leveraged external mediation, you're going to get a bleeding status quo ad infinitum. I don't think we have much hope that in the near term there's going to be much progress in Nigeria [where the talks are taking place, sponsored by the African Union].

So are the external efforts to get the government in Khartoum to move forward with peace talks—maybe there aren't any efforts, as you seem to suggest—impeding efforts to get the government to actually do something about Darfur?

Yes indeed, there is some diversion of energy, particularly the U.S. policy, as led by the State Department and its belief that a peace deal last year in Darfur would sort of end the atrocities and end the crisis in the region, was ill-founded. They just didn't appreciate the fact Khartoum's strategy is to completely destroy its opposition in Darfur. The government is set on destroying the opposition and destroying the civilian base [made up of the African Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups] of the opposition [led by two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement], which is why they conducted their counterinsurgency campaign in the manner that they did, why the Bush administration calls it genocide. They went after specific ethnic groups that formed the basis of the rebellion and killed and displaced their civilian supporters. It's the oldest counterinsurgency trick in the book: draining the water to catch the fish.

So the State Department completely underestimated the resolve of the government of Sudan to destroy Darfurian opposition and thought they'd get some kind of quick deal at the negotiation table.

Constantly, there's this accommodation and constructive engagement with the regime officials in Khartoum that attempts to incentivize the path to resolution, which will never work because Khartoum pockets the incentives and continues with its policies of destruction.

So, what do you think would work?

Hard pressure is the only way to do it. That means you go to the [UN] Security Council. We already have an authorization for targeted sanctions; we have seventeen names on a list from the work of the UN sanctions committee [charged with investigating anyone they deemed to be obstructing efforts to end the Darfur conflict] as we saw leaked to the press in the last couple of days. Sanction those people, go after them, go after their assets, freeze their travel, do these kinds of things. Send a message to Khartoum that, in fact, there will be a cost for conducting the kind of counterinsurgency campaign they're conducting and there will be a cost for committing massive crimes against humanity. By the way, there are three rebel leaders on that list as well. Sanction them, too.

So far, three years into this war, no one has been penalized in any way for anything that has happened. That is a remarkable failure on the part of the United Nations Security Council and a remarkable failure on the part of the United States, which came out and for the first time called something genocide while it was going on. And then to not have any repercussions for that is simply a moral failure.

Do you see the UN peacekeepers as part of this pressure diplomacy?

If we start to press very hard for a United Nations force that actually has a civilian protection mandate, that actually has the kind of muscle on the ground to protect people, that is a form of pressure that is a statement to Khartoum that the days of no accountability for crimes against humanity are over and that we're going to actively involve ourselves, the international community, in protecting civilians because the government of Khartoum has abdicated its responsibility to protect.

Bush also mentioned NATO in his comments on Darfur. Do you see NATO troops getting involved as part of this pressure we're going to be putting on Khartoum?

I think it is a long shot. President Bush was certainly affected by the bipartisan congressional resolution that was introduced last week [by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Joseph Biden (D-DE)] that calls for more direct NATO involvement in the effort as a bridging element to the United Nations. I think it's the right approach, but there are two major problems. The first is that the government of Sudan will strongly oppose this and so there will have to be a great coordination of pressure on Khartoum to think about its position. And secondly, the politics of NATO are problematic. The French government is not willing to envision a NATO-led deployment into Africa. The French would like EU [European Union] leadership in these kinds of things, not NATO, and so this is an issue that will have to be worked internally within NATO. And so I think that it's going to be a really difficult hurdle at a time when the U.S. needs to work with the French on Iran and Iraq, and other issues.

Do you think the U.S. and UN policy changes are too late, or is there still hope for resolving the conflict in Darfur?

This crisis has unfolded in slow motion compared to what we've seen in previous eruptions of violence. Three years have gone by, the killing is sort of a low-intensity nature, and therefore there are constant opportunities for an escalation of a response to have a significant impact on the ground and end the tragedy in Darfur. So yes, I think there is a great deal of hope that if the U.S. and the UN actually do make the kinds of policy changes necessary, deploy a more muscular force and produce measures of accountability like targeted sanctions, and step up their support for the process—if we see those things happening across the board, we could get a resolution of the Darfurian crisis that will literally save tens of thousands of lives and will enable, over time, literally two and a half million people to go home again.

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