Jan Eliasson, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for Darfur and head of the UN/AU (African Union) mediation team facilitating peace talks, says that an agreement on cessation of hostilities will be the first issue on the table for the talks set to begin on October 27 in Libya. While he acknowledges the importance of including civil society, Arab tribes, women, and displaced Darfurians in the talks, he says he “cannot promise full participation at the negotiation table for all groups.” He calls the frustration and anger in the Darfur camps a “ticking bomb,” and stresses that “without a peace to keep, peacekeeping becomes futile.”
You’ve been working for ten months now to get Darfur’s rebel groups to some kind of unified position. Clearly it’s a really difficult process. What is the nature of the divisions?
The parties, SLM [Sudanese Liberation Movement] and JEM [Justice and Equality Movement], have different ideological colors no doubt. SLM is very strongly a Darfurian party; the Justice and Equality Movement also has a national program. There are other ideological differences which I cannot indeed describe, but there is also, in Darfur, an element of difference of the tribes. Darfur is a country of strong and proud traditions, where the tribes play a very important role. You have the Fur tribes, in fact Darfur means “land of the Furs,”—Dar means land and Fur is the major tribe. You have the Zaghawa—and this shows the relationship of the neighboring states if you take into account that the president of Chad is a Zaghawa. You have the Massalit, which is another important tribe, and you have the Rizeigat—a tribe of Arabs which is very important. These tribes form the traditional structure of Darfur, and sadly this structure, this socioculture fabric, has been torn apart. They still play a role, but so many of the movements have tribal elements and that has been a divisive factor between both SLM and JEM.
At this point, it is not clear whether these rebel groups actually represent the interests of the people in Darfur. You’ve talked about the importance of including groups like women, IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons], and Arab tribal groups in the peace process. How will the positions of these stakeholders be represented at the talks?
It is very important for the credibility of the process that we include civil society, traditional leaders, women’s groups, and other representatives of internally displaced people and refugees. In a country or region that has been struck by this terrible disaster, the methods of selection are not well developed so it’s hard to identify who are the best representatives of these groups. We have a dialogue with these different categories through the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue by Mr. Abdul Mohammad, and our own civil-affairs component of the United Nations.
Dr. Salim and I cannot promise full participation at the negotiation table for all groups, but we promise that we’ll definitely listen very carefully to the voices of the concerned groups on every issue.
We have identified major traditional leaders and representatives of civil society whom we are going to invite not only to the opening of the talks in Tripoli on the 27th of October, but also to the working sessions on particular subjects later on. The key areas are wealth sharing, power sharing, and security. There is also interest in discussing humanitarian affairs and land issues. We have a plan to invite these representatives for specific sessions to make sure their voices are heard when substantial decisions start [being made on] an area which affects them. The three major issues for the people of Darfur, particularly those in the camps, are security—disarmament of the militias; compensation or “blood money,” which is from the huge loss of lives and property; and the right to return to their land.
For us to discuss these issues without listening to those people who have been victims of the war would be wrong. We have received positive signals from civil society and tribal leaders to attend. We have also talked to the government about this. There was some reluctance to begin with, but we hope they will see the value of having supported the peace process. One leader, Abdul Wahid, who is located in Paris, has decided not to come. He has a strong standing in the camps—I have seen it myself. We hope very much that he would allow, even if he doesn’t attend, the voices of the camps, his own followers, to have their views known to the negotiators.
When you say the different groups will be represented at the working sessions, what does that mean in terms of the actual hammering out of some kind of agreement? Will, say, women have a voice at the final negotiating table?
We take one step at a time. We hope the first phase of the talks will agree on a cessation of hostilities that will be respected. We will then proceed to the other issues, and then we will try to identify the best combination of negotiators. Dr. Salim and I cannot promise full participation at the negotiation table for all groups, but we promise that we’ll definitely listen very carefully to the voices of the concerned groups on every issue. We will see whether we will find an even more active role for some groups in some situations, but we will take one step at a time. To begin with we need to have the cessation of hostilities agreement and for that we need to have an inclusive invitation list, inviting all those who can affect the situation on the ground, not least militarily. Later on we may find other accommodations necessary for the talks, but that will be the result of the conversations that will start immediately after the initial phase.
It sounds like you’re talking about a negotiation process that is fairly extensive. Do you have a time frame in mind?
Dr. Salim and I have agreed to not set an exact time frame. This is not something you do in weeks, but it’s also something you don’t do in years. I hope we will work with speed and efficiency. We don’t want to have a renegotiation of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) which was concluded in May last year, but we certainly need to look over some of the clauses of the DPA and look at the situation as it is today and reflect that in our negotiations. We hope that we will have a compact negotiation. We don’t want to repeat the long extended experience of Abuja [negotiations preceding the DPA].
Andrew Natsios [U.S. special envoy for Sudan] recently mentioned in a speech that you and Salim Salim [the AU special envoy] have done extensive analysis of the Abuja talks, basically what worked there and what didn’t work there. Can you share some of your insights from that and how you hope these upcoming talks will be different?
Some parts of the Abuja agreement are very well crafted and well done. I have been negotiating for many, many years and I am impressed by the work, for example, done in the security chapter in the DPA. But, an agreement must reflect the realities, and we know that the agreement of May last year was not signed, and we have to look into the reasons for that. Probably we will find, in the end, several parts or segments of the DPA will be very useful and could even be taken over by the new agreement, but we will also have certain parts where we will have to work anew and find new angles of dealing with the problems.
To me it seems slightly absurd that by gaining territory or military control, you would have a better chance of dealing with how Darfurians will live in peace in the future.
The main thing is that the agreement reflect the realities of the ground and the aspirations of the ground. There was a disconnect between the finalization of the talks in Abuja far away from Darfur, and the realities in Darfur. Therefore, this time, there is a need to have a very transparent process where civil society, IDP representatives, and traditional leaders are also involved, and that we, the negotiators, also would set up an effective communication line to the field, to Darfur and Khartoum, so that it is understood what is happening. One of the advantages of being in Libya is that it is closer to the field, and people can travel more easily than they could in the case of Nigeria.
I actually talked to someone recently who suggested that peace talks should be held in Darfur. Do you see that as a possibility?
That was my original idea, but it turns out to be, logistically, administratively, and from several other aspects, impossible. The symbolism of talking about the future of Darfur in Darfur is the right one. But it is not physically possible, especially because we are dealing with the deployment of the UN-AU hybrid forces in Darfur, and we have considerable logistical challenges facing us in that department. It was a good idea but unfortunately not a realistic one at this stage.
What about the Sudanese government? In the past week and a half it seems there has been military action from the government. Are they working in good faith in this process?
We are trying to investigate the military incidents and developments in the last few weeks. I don’t have a completely clear picture; I don’t have full reports from the different clashes that have occurred in the past two weeks. We expect both the government and the rebel movements to reduce the level of violence in order to create an environment conducive to the talks. We hope very much that it is duly understood that we expect deescalation of hostilities. We hope that there are no parties speculating gaining anything from military action. To me it seems slightly absurd that by gaining territory or military control, you would have a better chance of dealing with how Darfurians will live in peace in the future. This is not a territorial conflict.
In South Sudan, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is looking increasingly fragile. How will any agreement that comes out of Darfur fit with the CPA, which actually provides for national power sharing and calls for elections in 2009?
The CPA is a very important agreement between the north and the south ending a huge tragedy. We hope that a good agreement on the Darfur problem will not infringe upon the CPA. On the other hand, it is evident that there is a relationship in both directions between Darfur and the north-south relationship. We have an interest in maintaining the credibility of the CPA, while the north and the south have an interest in creating a well-functioning DPA. I take it for granted that this is mutually reinforcing, and that there is no need to, in a fundamental way, change the CPA.
Where do you see Darfur a year from now?
There are two perspectives, one optimistic and one pessimistic.
What is your perspective?
I have refrained from speaking up with the optimists about Darfur, but we have a hope that we can turn the negative trends into positive trends by the talks starting, the reduction of violence, and common positions reached on compensation, return to villages, return to homes, and power sharing. If that’s the case, then Sudan has a great opportunity of healing. The perspectives of not succeeding on the political track are scary, because you have the frustration and the anger inside the camps that I have seen so much of all over Darfur. People have been in those camps for three to four years now. You also have the sad fact that land is taken over by people who don’t own that land, and there is competition between tribes about land that has been deserted. This is a ticking bomb, and we have to deal with this in a political way and not solve those issues by violence. The military operations and peacekeeping operations are absolutely essential. They are mutually reinforcing the efforts that we are doing in the political realm, but without a peace to keep, peacekeeping becomes futile.