Matching Rhetoric with Action in Darfur
Matching Rhetoric with Action in Darfur
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Matching Rhetoric with Action in Darfur

Last month, in the town of Mershing, South Darfur, there was chaos and carnage.  On a scorching day in February, four hundred Janjaweed militiamen attacked, firing indiscriminately on civilians, destroying homes, and looting livestock. Eight hours after the initial onslaught, the Janjaweed returned for a second round of mayhem, assaulting women and children and looting the town's main market.

Following a terror-filled night, the 55,000 residents of Mershing fled for their lives. Thirteen infants were trampled to death and 220 children separated from their families in the exodus. The day after, here in Washington, a senior State Department official told journalists that "there isn't large-scale organized violence taking place" in Darfur.

President Bush has called for a doubling of the number of peacekeeping troops in Darfur and said that the transition from the current African-led force to a larger, more robust UN peacekeeping mission will require significant NATO involvement. This pronouncement is laudable, but likely to be viewed as yet another example of schizophrenic U.S. policy on Darfur.

The administration's rhetoric has been consistently inconsistent with its actions and with the reality on the ground. Despite the government of Sudan and their proxy Janjaweed militias' sadistic campaign to murder and displace Darfur's non-Arab civilians, some U.S. officials continue to heap disproportionate public blame on Darfur's rebel groups for the lack of security.  Although the rebels frequently commit atrocities against civilians and should be censured, Khartoum's counterinsurgency strategy has caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people and displaced two million more.

While U.S. diplomats have credited Sudanese officials with "acknowledging what's taking place in Darfur," Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir recently said that "the so-called Darfur conflict is an invention by foreign interests." Indeed, the Sudanese government has made numerous commitments to disarm its militias and prosecute war criminals, only to flaunt its disregard for these obligations by denying responsibility and continuing to support the Janjaweed. Government helicopters that provided air support for recent Janjaweed attacks on civilians in eastern Chad confirm that this patron-killer relationship remains intact.

Some U.S. officials blame this growing insecurity on "tribal" violence, the same code language that previous U.S. administrations used in Rwanda and Bosnia as they twiddled their thumbs in inaction. Further, "tribal war" denotes anarchy, removing clear culpability for atrocities.

Sudan's ruling party has traditionally employed a divide-and-destroy strategy to eliminate enemies, and claims of anarchy in Darfur are self-fulfilling. Sudanese military intelligence agents manipulate local ethnic divisions and exacerbate tensions, and then the government blames the bloodshed on lawlessness and tribalism. The U.S. government must recognize that ethnic violence is not the root cause of the conflict but a deliberate tactic of the barbaric braintrust in Khartoum.

What is behind all this rhetorical contortionism? The answer is simple: the Bush administration wants to look tough on Darfur without jeopardising Khartoum's cooperation on counterterrorism. Many of the Sudanese military intelligence officials who offer information to the CIA are the principal perpetrators of atrocity crimes in Darfur, responsible for arming, training, and unleashing the Janjaweed on innocent civilians. But the administration cannot justify this moral sacrifice on national security grounds: it is in U.S. interests to oppose a regime it accuses of genocide.

It is not too late for this administration to act. The U.S. and European Union are leading the international effort to deploy a robust UN force. The African Union's recent communiqué has paved the way for UN deployment. While the UN prepares its mission, the U.S. must do three things urgently:

First, the administration must work with congress and with other donor nations to ensure that the AU mission in Sudan (AMIS) is fully funded until the UN deploys.  The U.S. should also provide logistical support and assist the AU with intelligence gathering to enhance the mission's ability to protect civilians and monitor an enhanced ceasefire agreement.

Second, President Bush should appoint a special envoy to increase the level of pressure on the warring parties to negotiate an enhanced ceasefire agreement, reach a comprehensive political settlement through the AU-facilitated Abuja negotiations, and persuade Sudan to accept and the AU to confirm transition of AMIS into a strong UN peacekeeping mission. Without U.S. leadership and pressure, the peace process and the transition to a robust UN force have little chance to succeed.

Third, the U.S., in consultation with the AU, should work with its allies to identify a nation or nations to lead an advance UN-Mandated stabilization force of some 5,000 troops to buttress the AU and focus on the Chad-Sudan border enhancing civilian protection efforts. President Bush needs to secure greater U.S. support for this intervention.

Some of the residents of Mershing have returned to their homes, but many have chosen not to go back for fear of further Janjaweed attacks. Speaking about Darfur, President Bush said recently that, "There has to be a consequence for people abusing their fellow citizens." One could hardly blame Mershing's displaced and vulnerable civilians for thinking that the President's comments are more hollow rhetoric that leave them with no homes, no future, and no hope.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
Former Research and Advocacy Manager

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