Still dithering over Darfur

Even if the U.N. declares later this month that genocide is occurring, international intervention is unlikely. But the newly formed Sudanese government offers some hope.

By Simon Tisdall

Published January 12, 2005 2:26PM (EST)

Six months after British Prime Minister Tony Blair raised the possibility of British military intervention, the U.N. threatened sanctions and the United States declared that genocide was occurring, the international community is still failing to come to grips with the crisis in Darfur.

A recent U.N. Security Council report makes it clear that the conflict in western Sudan, which has so far cost 70,000 lives, displaced 1.7 million people and left 2.2 million dependent on aid, is far from resolved and may soon grow more acute. "A build-up of arms and intensification of violence, including [government] air attacks, suggest the security situation is deteriorating," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said last week. Swift international action is required, he said.

The attacks by government forces, their allied Janjaweed militia, rebel groups and splinter factions have increased since the peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, were suspended without agreement. Civilians are routinely the target. Last year's cease-fire pact is repeatedly broken by both sides, according to the small and overstretched force of African Union monitors. U.N. relief officials estimate that 10,000 people are dying each month.

Humanitarian workers face continuing violence in and around the refugee camps, rebel attacks on relief convoys and official harassment. Last month two Save the Children staff were killed in southern Darfur. "We are worried about the situation. Both sides need to implement the humanitarian and security protocols that they have already signed but are being flouted," a senior British official said Tuesday. "This hampers humanitarian efforts; aid workers can't move out of the camps; mobility is affected. We hope the new government of national unity will treat Darfur as an urgent priority."

The new government is being formed this week in Khartoum after the signing of a peace deal with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the leader of a long-running separate insurgency in southern Sudan. The agreement has raised the hope that the peace efforts in Darfur will now become more focused, although some analysts fear that with much of the international pressure now off Khartoum, the opposite may happen.

But in a potentially positive development, SPLM leader John Garang, who is joining the government under a power-sharing arrangement, recently met Darfur rebel leaders in Asmara, Eritrea. "There is potential for resolving it in a different way now," the British official said. "But they are going to need an awful lot of help from the international community." Britain pledged 50 million pounds of aid for refugees in Sudan and eastern Chad this week but, like the United States, has made a further 50 million pounds this year conditional on progress in Darfur. Reconstruction costs in the south alone may run into billions. Officials say Britain will contribute a limited number of military personnel to a 10,000-strong U.N. peace support operation in southern Sudan that could in theory be extended to Darfur if conditions there improve.

Darfur continues to pose uncomfortable questions about the general effectiveness of international conflict-resolution efforts that will trouble advocates of multilateralist approaches. Divisions in the Security Council have ensured that talk of oil or other sanctions against Khartoum has remained just talk. Despite last summer's bravado Britain, the United States and the E.U. have shown no appetite for a military-led humanitarian intervention in a place where national interests are not at stake.

And the 1948 genocide convention, previously ignored in Rwanda and Bosnia, has been further undermined. Genocide is defined as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." If it is proved, all signatories to the convention (including Britain) have a legal obligation to suppress and punish it. The U.N. will rule on Jan. 25 whether genocide is taking place in Darfur. So will a formal genocide finding finally trigger decisive international intervention? Don't hold your breath.

Simon Tisdall

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