No peacekeepers, no peace

As violence in Darfur mounts, and the African Union mission is set to expire, will the U.N. send in the blue helmets?

Published September 15, 2006 12:15PM (EDT)

The clock is ticking in Darfur.

The African Union's monitoring mission in the west Sudan region is cash-poor, ineffective and undermanned at 7,000 soldiers. The United Nations wants to take over peacekeeping duties when the monitoring mission's mandate expires at the end of September. Yet Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has threatened to send his army to fight any U.N. troops in Darfur. If the African Union pulls out in two weeks, and no blue helmets take their place, there won't be any outsiders to witness, much less prevent, what is happening in Darfur, where a massive military offensive against the civilian population is under way.

Despite a high-profile peace agreement signed in May by the government in Khartoum and one of the rebel groups, the situation on the ground in Darfur has grown more dire. Tuesday, Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian chief, told reporters that "in many ways Darfur is in freefall at the moment," with some areas simply too dangerous for humanitarian aid workers to provide relief. Thirteen aid workers have been killed in Darfur since the peace agreement was signed.

Estimates of the number of people who have died so far in the 3-and-a-half-year-old crisis top half a million. American authorities have used the word "genocide" to describe what the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and its allies are doing to the region's black Muslim residents. Now, almost half a million refugees living in camps are cut off from all outside aid, according to the U.N. World Food Program.

This Sunday, Darfur activists will rally in New York's Central Park, wearing blue hats to symbolize the need for U.N. peacekeeping forces. Salon spoke by phone with Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College, who over the past eight years has become an expert on the Darfur region and the conflict. Speaking from his home in Northampton, Mass., Reeves explained what he believes the United Nations should do now to head off the deepening humanitarian crisis.

That peace agreement in the spring got a lot of international attention. Why isn't there peace?

The Darfur peace agreement had no chance from the beginning, precisely because it was signed by only one of the rebel parties.

Since May 5th, when this was signed, not a single deadline has been met, not a single obligation specified in terms of the security arrangements has been upheld by Khartoum. This was entirely predictable. With only the African Union as both guarantee and guarantor, this was an impossible situation. It was doomed from the beginning.

Did the peace agreement just end up providing cover for the Sudanese government?

It has done exactly that. The current offensive in North Darfur state is massive by all accounts.

The U.N.'s Integrated Regional Information Networks reported Monday an expanding bombing campaign by Khartoum's Antonovs, which are not bombers per se. They're cargo planes that are retrofitted. Crude barrel bombs are pushed out the back cargo bay, which means that they're useless for real military purposes. They can hit villages, but they can't be much more precise than that. They're exquisitely suited to civilian terror, but they have almost no true military purpose.

And these attacks are expanding with the effect of displacing more and more thousands of Darfuris. They're fleeing southward to the [refugee] camps in the El Fasher area. El Fasher is the capital of North Darfur. It's where the major air base for all of Darfur is for Khartoum's air force. And it's from there that the Antonovs and the helicopter gunships are taking off.

In the camps ... we're [also] seeing an increasing ethnic polarization. The Zaghawa and the Fur, in particular, have an extremely tense relationship. The camps themselves could become targets. There are weapons now in the camps. There is this increasing ethnic animosity. If the camps are attacked frontally, we will see massacres.

These camps are completely vulnerable. There is no way that the African Union can prevent a frontal assault if Khartoum [or its allies] decide to attack. And we've seen such attacks previously, but now we have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, over 2 million people, displaced in the camps, and maybe a third of them in North Darfur, and they are extremely vulnerable.

The villages being targeted right now by Khartoum are primarily the surviving Fur villages. Estimates of the percentage of the non-Arab or African villages that have been destroyed are 80 or 90 percent. Perhaps somewhat less in North Darfur, but that is now changing very rapidly with the current military offensive.

Why did the situation get worse?

It's worsened because the peace agreement was overwhelming rejected by Darfuris on the ground. The agreement provides only $30 million in compensation for people who have lost everything. The wealth of generations in the form of cattle looted or killed or destroyed or lost, all the food stocks, all the seed stocks, all the agricultural implements, poisoned wells, burned villages, looted homes.

Four million people are being asked to accept $30 million in compensation. That works out to be about $8 dollars a person. There is simply no way that you begin your life again with $8 when you've lost everything. This compensation issue is hugely significant to Darfuris. They also saw clearly that the security arrangements were essentially left in Khartoum's hands, and they don't trust Khartoum.

It's clear that cataclysmic human destruction is in the works. These people, after three and a half years of conflict, have no resources other than those from the humanitarian community. When humanitarians withdraw, that means food doesn't get through. There are some 400,000 people in North Darfur who haven't had food for three months now. This is the height of the so-called hunger gap between nominal spring planting and fall harvest. There wasn't any spring planting, and there won't be any fall harvest, but this is the worst time of year for food. When humanitarians withdraw, so too do the resources by which water is purified, one of the only measures against a massive outbreak of cholera. It will claim tens of thousands of lives in camps that lose access to clean water.

The Sudanese government said it won't allow the U.N. peacekeeping forces into the country. Why?

Khartoum has been emboldened to the point of believing that they can stiff the international community by any number of actions, by the failure of the U.N. Security Council to make good on its 10 previous Security Council resolutions, by Khartoum's ability to thumb its nose without consequence at the international criminal court investigating crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Darfur.

The Khartoum regime believes there is no will to deploy [troops] non-consensually, and U.N. Security Council resolution 1706 declares that nothing -- I'm paraphrasing -- nothing in this resolution will affect the government of Sudan's claim to national sovereignty. Khartoum has declared very bluntly that they regard any U.N. forces as precisely that -- an infringement upon their sovereignty.

So the resolution does in fact confer upon Khartoum the right to reject the force that might halt the genocide. This is an obscenity in the wake of the U.N. World Summit of 2005, which produced an outcome document, which says that the international community adopts a responsibility to protect civilians who are not protected by their own government, or who are the targets of their own government. That is exactly the situation we have in Darfur. It was framed so as to supersede claims of national sovereignty such as Khartoum is now making.

How has the U.N. responded?

The international community remains essentially paralyzed. Monday, there were some extremely strong comments from [U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, his strongest statement to date: "Can the international community having not done enough for the people of Rwanda in their time of need, just watch as this tragedy deepens? Can we contemplate failing yet another test? Lessons are either learned or not. Principles are either upheld or scorned. This is no time for the middle ground of half measures or further debate."

This is ironic coming from a man who has dithered for over two years, but that is language that is unmistakably inviting the international community to move robustly to fashion a declaration that the United Nations will deploy [its forces].

The African Union's cease-fire monitoring mission is set to end on Sept. 30. What happens if that mission expires without U.N. forces coming in?

Many people do not believe they will leave, for various reasons. The primary reason is that they are incapable of leaving. Deploying out of the country is not simple. It costs money. It requires organization. The African Union has no plan. It has no logistical outline. It has no resources. It has no leadership. It doesn't even have a spokesman who will declare we have no way of exiting. It's in total chaos. It's a shambles, and if for no other reason, they will not be able to deploy.

The real question is whether they will defy Khartoum and say: "We now accept our being 'blue-hatted.' We accept that we now, however weak we may be, are the U.N." Khartoum has said that if they become U.N. they must leave.

We'll know a lot more about that when the A.U.[African Union] gathers prior to the convening of the General Assembly of the U.N. on the 18th [of September]. The A.U. is certainly eager to have money and resources, and they deserve it. At the same time, the A.U. is incompetent. It always has been. It's badly led, badly organized. It has no mandate appropriate to the situation on the ground. It clearly must be replaced by a more robust force.

Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek was set free last weekend by the Sudanese authorities. What was the significance of his imprisonment, and release?

It sends a very clear signal: 'Do not think about coming in from Chad to Darfur. We will arrest you.' Khartoum had no intention of keeping him. They made their message, and then released him under the highest-profile circumstances possible. The governor of New Mexico travels and gets him released. There is no advantage to Khartoum in keeping him. To some extent, they get the benefit of being seen as the guys who released him. But they're sending a message, as they're sending a message by refusing to grant visas to news reporters.

Look at how few reporters are on the ground in North Darfur. Look at the datelines. We have almost no Darfur datelines anymore. Of course, this is in Khartoum's interest. They don't want this next massive phase to be witnessed, either by journalists or by humanitarians. Virtually all humanitarians have now been withdrawn from North Darfur, at least in areas outside El Fasher. When Jan Egeland, head of U.N. aid operations, briefed the U.N. Security Council on August 28th, he said: "We could see hundreds of thousands of people die needlessly."

What do you think that the U.N. should do at this juncture to prevent that from happening?

It must make clear it will deploy as rapidly as possible with or without Khartoum's consent, and it must seek out the first-world military resources that would allow for a robust deployment in the near term to begin to protect humanitarians, humanitarian quarters and vulnerable camps, and to begin to produce a military stand-down by Khartoum.

Make no mistake about it: Khartoum would stand down militarily. These guys are not going to fight first-world military resources. They're not well-trained. They're not well-motivated. They don't have a good officer corps, and they would be annihilated, and they know it, if they were confronted with a determined first-world NATO-quality brigade.

Certainly, there would be some symbolic spilling of Islamic blood. You can be sure there would be enough resistance so that the blood of Sudanese martyrs could be trumpeted. But there would be a military stand-down. They would not fight.

The Janjaweed [local militias backed by the Sudanese government] would also disperse, at least in the very large numbers in which they've been aggregating. The Janjaweed are not a real military force. They have military power only when they aggregate in the hundreds of thousands. These guys ride on camels and horseback shooting Kalashnikovs. At a distance of 2 kilometers they would be annihilated by a first-world force. And if they don't know it, they would find it out very quickly.

What should the United States do?

The U.S. should be pushing with every bit of diplomatic and political leverage at its disposal to force China into a position where it must accede to international will and must go along with a resolution authorizing immediate deployment, with or without Khartoum's consent. The key task is to bring about a change of position on China's part, which looks at Sudan only though the lens of its oil production interests in southern Sudan.

Are officials in Khartoum refusing to let U.N. troops in because they're afraid of being tried for war crimes in the Hague?

They know that there is so much evidence against them that there is no way if they're extradited they could ever survive a trial without multiple life sentences. So, they have nothing to lose on that score. They're guilty. They know they're guilty of genocide. They want to complete the genocide for political purposes.

The International Criminal Court in the Hague has more than enough evidence now. There is no senior member of the National Islamic Front who would not receive multiple life sentences if actually tried in the Hague. These guys have absolutely no intention of allowing any Sudanese witness or accused to go to the Hague.

Their primary goal in keeping the U.N. out is to ensure there is no obstruction to the instrumental counterinsurgency genocide. They mean to finish this business once and for all.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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