Help the African Union protect Darfur's people
Help the African Union protect Darfur's people
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Help the African Union protect Darfur's people

As concern has continued to grow around the world at the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the western Darfur region of Sudan, the stream of high-profile visitors to Sudan over the past few months has been accompanied by increasingly angry language from the international community.

The indignation is aimed at Sudan's government, which responded to an armed rebellion in early 2003 by arming and unleashing the rogue Arab Janjaweed militias against the civilian populations of Darfur, suspected of supporting the rebels.

Over the past 18 months, the Janjaweed have killed 50,000 civilians, committed countless atrocities including mass rape, destroyed more than half of Darfur's villages, and left 1.2 million people displaced, most now in grim camps. The U.S. Agency for International Development fears that as many as 350,000 people could perish by December.

On July 30, a UN Security Council resolution demanded that the government disarm the Janjaweed within 30 days. Khartoum committed itself to reigning in the militias in the April 8 cease-fire agreement signed with the rebels, then in the communiqué the government signed with the United Nations on July 3, and again in the "plan of action" signed by the government and the United Nations on Aug. 5.

Despite these repeated promises, the government still refuses to take meaningful action against the militias, who continue to act unchallenged in Darfur.

Sadly, the Aug. 5 "plan of action" undercut the little leverage that the Security Council resolution may have built by acknowledging up front that the government was unlikely to fulfill its commitments within 30 days. By signing the document, the United Nations stymied its own efforts, limiting the likelihood that the Security Council will take meaningful steps against the government of Sudan after the 30-day period passes, despite ample evidence that Khartoum continues to back the Janjaweed and the ethnic cleansing campaign. This leaves the international community without a clear vision of how to proceed in Darfur.

There are two rays of hope, both stemming from the African Union, which has energetically taken the lead on monitoring the April 8 cease-fire agreement and setting up a political process for Darfur. With little fanfare, the African Union has deployed most of the observers for the cease-fire commission operating in six sites in the region - five in Darfur, one in Chad - and is currently deploying a protection force of 308 Rwandan and Nigerian troops to Darfur.

Yet 308 troops in an area the size of France will not be able to change substantially the dynamics on the ground, and Khartoum has resisted calls by the African Union to expand the mandate of the protection force to include civilian protection. More important, in the long run, will be the African Union's efforts to send a much larger peacekeeping force, with an expanded mandate including civilian protection and disarming the Janjaweed, as called for at the African Union's Peace and Security Council meeting of July 27.

Although Khartoum has rejected this idea so far, and the African Union has not yet moved beyond the planning stages, this is the best chance to save the lives of tens of thousands of Darfurians. A larger force would be able to provide protection for the civilian population, facilitate humanitarian relief to all areas of Darfur and help in disarmament efforts.

For this to become a reality, the international community must unite in supporting the African Union, providing financial and logistical support in a timely manner and placing coordinated pressure on Khartoum to accept the African Union peacekeeping force. Endorsement from the UN Security Council at the end of August would help make this idea a reality.

The second hope stems from the African Union-led political negotiations between the government and the two main rebel groups. Although the round of talks in Addis Ababa in mid-July failed to take off, the African Union has opened a new round of talks in Abuja this week. A negotiated political solution is the only sustainable answer to the problems of Darfur, although it is likely that substantial progress will only be made if the government begins to implement its various commitments on the security side.

As the international community encourages this process, however, it must not lose sight of the older civil war in Sudan and the nearly completed negotiations between the government and the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Like the Darfur conflict, that war, which took more than two million lives, stemmed from a history of marginalization by the central government, so the two peace processes need to be linked as well.

The African Union is on the right track in Sudan. If it can maintain the robust support of the wider international community, there is a chance that the largest country in Africa can take a significant step toward a comprehensive peace.

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