A Long War Looming in Sudan
A Long War Looming in Sudan
Report 80 / Africa 3 minutes

Sudan: Now or Never in Darfur

A month after the international community solemnly marked the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in April 2004 with promises of “never again”, it faces a man-made humanitarian catastrophe in western Sudan (Darfur) that can easily become nearly as deadly.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

A month after the international community solemnly marked the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in April 2004 with promises of "never again", it faces a man-made humanitarian catastrophe in western Sudan (Darfur) that can easily become nearly as deadly. It is too late to prevent substantial ethnic cleansing, but if the UN Security Council acts decisively -- including by preparing to authorise the use of force as a last resort -- there is just enough time to save hundreds of thousands of lives directly threatened by Sudanese troops and militias and by looming famine and set in train a serious negotiating process to resolve the underlying political problems and reverse the ethnic cleansing.

Since it erupted in February 2003, the conflict has claimed some 30,000 lives, but experts warn that without a rapid international response, what UN officials have already called the worst humanitarian situation in the world today could claim an additional 350,000 in the next nine months, mainly from starvation and disease. Many more will die if the direct killing is not stopped.

The international response thus far has been divided and ineffectual. The Sudan government has gained time to pursue a devastating counter-insurgency strategy against two rebel groups and a wide swathe of civilians by playing on those divisions and the desire of leading states not to put at risk the comprehensive peace agreement that is tantalisingly close between Khartoum and the SPLA insurgency on what for 21 years has been the country's main civil war.

The ceasefire signed by Khartoum on 8 April 2004 with Darfur rebels is not working in either military or humanitarian terms. Its international monitoring commission has yet to begin, and plans are woefully lacking in numbers, authority and enforcement capacity. The government's strategy for "neutralising", as it promised, the "Janjaweed" militias -- whom it in fact sponsors and who have done the most horrific damage -- is to incorporate them into its formal police and security structures. The political process the ceasefire was supposed to facilitate was still-born.

The majority of the estimated 1.2 million forced from their homes are in poorly run government-controlled Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps within Darfur, where they remain vulnerable to attack by the Janjaweed and have inadequate access to relief supplies. The perhaps 200,000 of these victims who have fled across the border into Chad as refugees are not safe either. The Janjaweed have followed them, and the resulting clashes with Chad's army threaten to destabilise that country and produce a full-scale international war.

Despite new -- and cynically late -- promises by Khartoum in the past few days, aid agencies have effective access, at best, to probably half the IDPs, and lack adequate pre-positioned food and other supplies to meet even their needs. The fast-approaching rainy season presents new dangers of malnutrition and water-borne diseases. To move large amounts of food and medicine, the international community needs either to get unimpeded and monitored access via the rail line, identify new cross border routes from neighbouring countries or SPLA-controlled territory in the south or create -- and be prepared to protect -- a major humanitarian air lift. And none of this will matter unless there are guaranteed safe concentration points for the IDPs -- including from government air strikes and Janjaweed attacks -- on the ground.

The Sudan government has effectively played on fears that its peace talks with the SPLA in Naivasha (the regional, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, process) might unravel as a means to continue its brutal strategy while shielding itself from criticism. Western governments have played directly into that strategy. They have given total priority to Naivasha while only quietly engaging Khartoum about Darfur in an effort to secure incremental improvements in humanitarian access. They have refrained from directly challenging it there even while attacks continue and access is continually impeded. But a failure to resolve the catastrophic Darfur situation will undermine not only the last stages of negotiation in Naivasha but also the prospects for implementing whatever agreement is ultimately reached there.

Urgent action is required on several fronts if "Darfur 2004" is not to join "Rwanda 1994" as shorthand for international shame.

Nairobi/Brussels, 23 May 2004

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.