Darfur: Crisis Continues

Darfur: Crisis Continues

Whatever the outcome of the current round of peace negotiations between Sudan’s government and rebel groups, the crisis in Darfur seems likely to drag on. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is planning a transition from AU peacekeepers to an expanded, UN-led force.

May 4, 2006 5:07 pm (EST)

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Three years after government-backed Arab militias known as "Janjaweed" began burning villages and conducting large-scale massacres in the Darfur region, the Sudanese authorities and rebel forces are moving at a painfully slow rate toward peace. In the meantime, a situation the U.S. State Department has called "genocide" has left some 2 million people displaced and hundreds of thousands dead. A well-meaning but ill-conceived peacekeeping mission by the African Union has failed to stop the massacres and destruction of villages. Now the UN Security Council, in spite of reluctance on the part of China and Russia, is calling for greater UN and NATO involvement in the crisis, against the wishes of the government in Khartoum.

What is the background of the Darfur crisis, and who are the main players?

African farmers and Arabic nomads long have competed for limited resources in western Sudan’s Darfur region, particularly following a prolonged drought in 1983. Meanwhile, the Muslim government in the north was engaged in a civil war with rebels in the Christian/animist south. The Sudanese government funded Darfur’s Arab militias—which came to be known as the "Janjaweed," or "armed horsemen"—to keep the rebels at bay. This enflamed Arab-African tensions in Darfur and, as a Council Special report says, the regime of President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir transformed a competition for scarce resources "into a large-scale violent confrontation tinged with serious racial and ethnic overtones."

The current crisis in Darfur began in February 2003, just after the government began peace negotiations to resolve the civil war with the south. The loosely aligned Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels attacked government targets in central Darfur and demanded autonomy. After a ceasefire mediated by Chadian President Idriss Déby between the government and rebel groups fell apart in December 2003, Khartoum used the Janjaweed militias to attack the villages populated by African Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa peoples. The SLM/A and JEM draw much of their support from these groups. Although these African ethnic groups are mostly Muslim, they practice a form of the religion that is infused with Sufism and animism, and is held in contempt by the Arab Islamic government of Khartoum. "The ethnic cleansing in Darfur is a combination of wanting to convert Muslims who are looked on as going astray and driving them off the land," says Robert Collins, an expert in African history at the University of Santa Barbara, California.

What is the state of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

Since the beginning of the conflict, almost 2 million Darfurians—a third of the region’s population—have been internally displaced as a result of the systematic destruction of villages; some 200,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Chad. An estimated 350,000 people in the region have died as a result of violence, disease, and starvation, according to a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Sexual violence is rampant, and UN Undersecretary General Jan Egeland told the Security Council in 2005 that "rape is systematically used as a weapon of warfare." The UN World Food Program announced that, starting in May, it will be forced to make drastic cuts in food rations in Sudan because of a severe funding shortage. According to a February Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the Janjaweed have also crossed over the border into Chad to attack civilians.

Complicating matters, says International Crisis Group Senior Advisor John Prendergast, is the fact that, over the past year and a half, the rebel groups have become fragmented under "the strain of a failing rebellion combined with active recruitment and payoff by the Khartoum regime, [leading to] more infighting and more ’warlord-ism’ on the ground in Darfur in rebel-controlled territories."

As a result of the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, human rights organizations such as HRW, the Save Darfur Coalition, and the ICG have called for greater international pressure on the Sudanese government to put an end to the massacres and destruction of villages.

What is the international presence in Sudan?

The African Union (AU), a regional organization comprising fifty-three African nations, sent monitors to oversee the 2003 peace negotiations. After those talks failed in 2004, the African Union sent around 3,000 troops to protect the observers there and provide security. There are now about 7,000 AU soldiers in Darfur, which many experts say falls short of the actual security presence needed. The African Union has continued to mediate in peace negotiations—now in their seventh round after two years—between the government in Khartoum and the Darfur rebels, but the SLM/A and JEM refused to sign the AU’s latest proposed peace agreement by the April 30 deadline at talks in Abuja, Nigeria. Prendergast says the AU’s peace proposal "was so biased to the government’s [side] that it would have been tantamount to unilateral surrender" on the part of rebel groups, adding that the best hope to protect civilians would be to deploy UN forces backed by NATO logistical support.

What role is the United Nations playing in Darfur?

The UN Security Council has praised the AU’s efforts in Darfur, but called for a transition by September 30 to UN-led, largely African peacekeeping troops. Part of the reason for the lengthy transition, says Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Roberta Cohen, is the difficulty of moving some 20,000 troops into the remote region. Although Bashir’s government has voiced opposition to the presence of UN troops in Sudan, claiming that a UN presence would call into question the nation’s sovereignty, Prendergast predicts, with strong diplomacy and pressure, "they will accept UN forces there."

The UN Security Council also declared on April 25 travel and financial sanctions against four Sudanese nationals accused of war crimes related to Darfur. Two of the individuals were from the rebel groups, one was a former Sudanese air force head, and the fourth was a pro-government militia leader. Initially, China and Russia opposed the Security Council resolution, but they eventually abstained.

What are China’s and Russia’s positions on Darfur?

"China seems in many respects quite oblivious to anything but its need for energy in regard to Sudan," says Cohen. She attributes the failure of China and Russia to oppose Khartoum’s role in the devastation in Darfur as being related to those two countries’ economic interests in Sudan. China, as a CFR Background Q&A notes, bought 50 percent of Sudan’s oil exports in 2005, and Russia has a history of selling arms to Khartoum’s government. But Cohen also says it is in both countries’ interests for there to be peace in Sudan. Hence, they have therefore abstained rather than vetoed UN resolutions that include the recent sanctions against Sudanese nationals.

What has been the U.S. role in Darfur?

In September 2004, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said "genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility." The United States, along with the United Kingdom, has been active in pressuring for a greater UN role in Sudan, and has also taken part in recent peace negotiations. U.S. and British officials, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, headed to Abuja to support AU negotiations after the latest round of peace talks foundered. And two days before recent rallies calling for increased international attention on Darfur took place in Washington, Bush met with Darfur advocates and called for an expansion of peacekeeping forces under UN leadership.

But in spite of U.S. pleas for an end to the genocide, experts note the United States will not be sending troops or making the conflict a policy priority. "It’s not going to happen because we’re already mired down in one Muslim country and the Muslim world would be furious if we took action in Sudan," says Collins, referring to the U.S. campaign in Iraq. As Gene B. Sperling, a CFR senior fellow, recently wrote, after President Bush’s February call for doubling peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, "the White House immediately seemed to downplay Bush’s comments." Adds Cohen: "Sudan is not a main strategic interest for the United States."

Do experts expect a resolution to the crisis?

Some are cynical about the UN’s ability to maintain peace in the region. "I really hate to say this, but a year from now—two years, three years—Darfur will be like it is today," says Collins. But Prendergast says deployment of UN troops to protect Darfurians “would be a great advance.” Any compromise agreed upon by Khartoum must recognize Sudan’s diversity, experts say. "A peaceful future for Sudan," Cohen says, "is going to be about power-sharing, wealth-sharing, and realizing that the country is multi-religious and multi-ethnic."

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