Is Darfur still doomed?

The peace agreement was a key step, but ending the genocide demands bigger strides by the U.N. -- and the U.S.


Jill Savitt
May 15, 2006 3:04PM (UTC)

After two years and seven rounds of peace talks, the government of Sudan and a main rebel faction signed an 85-page peace agreement on May 5. The agreement outlines in detail how the Janjaweed will be disarmed, as well as how the parties will address power and wealth sharing, security, compensation for victims, and self-governance for the Darfur region.

There is now a temptation for many in the global community to breathe a sigh of relief, and even pat themselves on the back. International leaders worked hard in the final days of negotiations as deadlines passed and were extended. Concerned citizens also played a part: Tens of thousands of people turned out for rallies in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. In turn, the media devoted coverage, putting increased pressure on global leaders, and on the negotiators.

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But any broad claims of victory would be woefully premature -- the agreement is just a first step along an arduous road to peace. There are an African desert's worth of miles to go before anyone can be assured that more innocents will not be slaughtered, raped and displaced in Darfur -- and there's even farther to go before the 2 million Darfurians can return home, rebuild their lives and have a say in their future.

"The world should be under no illusions that peace will break out easily here in Darfur," said Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, after the deal was done. "We have to have an enormous effort from the international community and the parties themselves to enforce this peace agreement." The top U.S. diplomat involved, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, noted that Darfur "remains a very violent place."

For starters, not all of the rebel groups have signed the agreement, and some rebel leaders do not support it -- and have even denounced it. This opposition is creating real instability on the ground: Commanders and soldiers of these factions do not believe they have agreed to anything, and they are still battling the Janjaweed. Civilians still face serious danger, as do those guarding them. Last week, an African Union interpreter was hacked to death at a refugee camp. The international community has called for U.N. forces to be deployed to Darfur to protect civilians and supplement the struggling African Union forces, but even under the most hopeful scenario, U.N. troops will not be on the ground for months.

And even that is in doubt. While the Sudanese regime promised that U.N. troops would be allowed into Sudan once there was a peace deal, the regime said it was reconsidering before the ink on the deal had dried. Khartoum has reneged on far too many promises to be trusted to ensure the peace on its own. It must feel the pressure of the United Nations, and equally important, of the United States.

Indeed, the same pressure that was applied to bring the Darfur Peace Agreement into being needs to be reapplied -- and even redoubled -- to make its provisions a reality. Darfur needs a peace envoy, someone with the ear of the U.N. secretary general and the ability to communicate directly with the Oval Office. The international community should designate an international figure of the highest stature, appointed by the United Nations and backed by the U.S. and other governments, to oversee the enforcement of the peace every single day -- for as long as it takes. This envoy must have the authority and skill to put unrelenting pressure on Khartoum to live up to its word.

The envoy strategy has worked in the past: In the Balkans (former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke), Northern Ireland (former Sen. George Mitchell), Burundi (former South African President Nelson Mandela) and in Sudan's north-south conflict (former Ambassador John Danforth). Any of these men would be excellent candidates for the envoy position -- as would former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the first U.S. official to label the situation in Darfur a genocide.

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The envoy's first task would be to give Darfurians a sense of security by getting U.N. troops on the ground there immediately. The U.N. Security Council approved the troops in February, but nothing has happened yet. The envoy would work the corridors of the U.N. and the halls of foreign capitals to push for the rapid deployment of a well-equipped and well-funded force. Most helpfully, the envoy could persuade Western governments with military and logistical capability to lead the peacekeeping effort.

Next, the envoy would comb through the 510 paragraphs of the peace agreement, noting every promise and timetable. As deadlines approach, the envoy would alert the world and then report on compliance. As written, the agreement calls for the African Union to verify implementation, but the African Union alone is not up to the task. It does not have the resources or the authority, and is highly susceptible to influence by Khartoum. An envoy with the highest levels of access needs to lead this effort -- and to exact swift censure for noncompliance.

All involved in the peace negotiations have said that an essential element for long-term peace is making sure Darfurians have a say in the government and their own future. The peace agreement details how this critical process should be carried out, and an impartial leader of the highest stature needs to make sure Darfurians are able to start the process of democratic participation without interference. All of this needs to happen before the eyes of the world. A high-profile envoy would make sure the media maintained full access to Darfur, and would help keep Darfur's unfolding peace process a priority for the media.

The peace agreement is less than two weeks old, and Darfur has already disappeared from TV screens and the front pages of world newspapers. This is, of course, exactly what the Sudanese regime wants. It would like nothing more than for the international community to pat itself on the back about the peace agreement, and move on to other issues and crises. Without a top-level leader devoted to keeping up the pressure, for the people of Darfur the recent cry of "never again" is in danger of becoming "yet again" all too soon.

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Jill Savitt

Jill Savitt is director of the Campaign Department at Human Rights First.

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