War is hot! Diplomacy, so uncool

In both Sudan and Sri Lanka, the route to peace is through negotiation.


Jonathan Steele
August 6, 2004 6:17PM (UTC)

The cold war was a time of hot diplomacy. Because in Europe the great contest of the second half of the last century was deadlocked on the battlefield, it was fought largely at superpower summit meetings and lower-level arms control talks. The subject matter was technical and, barring an occasional breakthrough, progress was slow. But the issues were huge, and for that reason politicians and the press followed the negotiations closely.

Now the stage is reversed. A plethora of hot wars over the last decade has turned people cold on diplomacy. The Churchillian adage that jaw-jaw is better than war-war is forgotten in favour of the faulty notion that applying superior military power is the best way to handle stubborn political conflicts.

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One reason is television, which increasingly sets the agenda for newspapers as well as governments. If there is no image there is no message, so political negotiations are condemned as inherently dull, if not irrelevant, compared to the visual drama of war. The other is the cult of impatience, caused by the new craze for humanitarian intervention and the excessive injection of morality into international disputes. If a conflict is projected as a struggle against evil-doers, then there is not a moment to lose. Delay itself becomes a form of moral appeasement and wickedness. When military action is crowned with rapid results and the bad guys' defeat, as in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the illusion is created that a solution has been reached.

The current media-driven push for military intervention in Sudan's western province of Darfur has all the hallmarks of the run-up to the west's last three wars. The fact that none has yet produced stability or justice is overlooked.

The narrative in Darfur, which has been told repeatedly in recent weeks, is not new. Douglas Johnson's authoritative study, The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars, describes how war has been going on in Darfur at a low level among different groups of herdsmen and farmers for two decades. Successive Arab-led governments in Khartoum took sides, using Janjaweed militias, designated in 1989 as popular defence forces, who targeted villagers, killed and displaced civilians, and burned crops while the divide between "Arabs" and "Blacks" was deliberately sharpened.

What has changed is the emergence of two ambitious rebel movements with political agendas, their decision to launch surprise attacks on government garrisons, and Khartoum's over-reaction with the use of air power and helicopter gunships. The government also gave a green light to the Janjaweed for widespread raids on villages that support the rebels.

In spite of this disastrous escalation, a peace process has begun. Not many conflicts of this intensity have a channel for negotiations as well as international observers to try to keep them on track. Getting talks started while fighting is under way is usually a major hurdle.

In having a peace track Darfur is lucky, though one would not know it from most media commentaries, with their impatience for sanctions or military action.

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Virtually every report of last week's UN security council resolution, which gave Sudan 30 days to show progress in disarming the Janjaweed, avoided mention of a para- graph which made demands on the rebels too. It criticised their leaders' boycott of the latest peace talks. It urged them to stop their ceasefire violations and drop all preconditions for attending the next round of talks under African Union sponsorship.

Darfur is also lucky in that the gap between the parties is not as wide as in many conflicts. Neither rebel movement is calling for independence. This is not Kosovo or Chechnya. A model for the autonomy they want for their western region exists in the deal reached this year between Khartoum and the southern rebels. To expand that agreement to take in Darfur or forge one on the southern formula of decentralisation and wealth-sharing ought not to be too hard.

Diplomats and experts on Sudan say the rebel movements are not clear who to designate as leaders, or how representative the current spokespeople are. Some hesitate to attend talks for fear of being exposed or denounced. Another problem is that the rebels may think they can get their way, in the present climate of anti-Khartoum moralising, without compromise or long-term thinking.

In any hostile intervention a key test is regional backing. On Kosovo, though there was no UN mandate for war, European governments took the initiative for military action. There was no comparable backing for the US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq from most of those countries' neighbours. Similarly in Darfur, the African Union has no interest in military interference against Khartoum's wishes, especially now that the government has agreed to an African ceasefire monitoring force.

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So, instead of talk of western military intervention, pressure needs to be put on the rebels to pick genuine representatives and get to the negotiating table. The Sudanese government is also divided between hardliners who hope for military victory if the talks fail and those willing to listen to the African Union. Khartoum bears primary responsibility for the excessive use of force. But division among the rebels is the major obstacle to restoring the peace process.

Like Sudan until the Darfur eruption, Sri Lanka was one of the world's few good-news stories of 2002-03. There too, after a long civil war between the Singhalese majority and Tamil Tiger rebels, international mediation produced a ceasefire and peace talks.

Now they are under threat. The culprits are not western television or impatient humanitarian interventionists. A small island with no oil or strategic value, Sri Lanka was largely ignored in war and peace. Even a death toll of 64,000 over 18 years made little impact abroad. Its problems are internal. On the Singhalese side the peace talks, mediated by Norway, were treated as a political football.

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President Chandrika Kumaratunga claimed the government had made too many concessions, and got her party back in power by appealing to nationalists.

On the Tigers' side, a split between the northern and eastern leaderships has become a campaign of assassinations, which has raised anxieties about their willingness to accept democracy. Meanwhile, the army made links with the eastern rebels. The Tigers' northern leaders accuse it of not backing a return to peace talks which have been suspended for 18 months.

In strong terms for mediators, the Norwegians denounce both sides' "incredible complacency". "What we're seeing now is a frozen war that is starting to melt at the edges", as their envoy Vidar Helgesen puts it. The island's slip back to war shows how difficult it is even with no Darfur-style foreign clamour to get a political settlement without calm and effective leadership, preparation of public opinion and transparency.

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Jonathan Steele

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