Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Why Abuja won't save Darfur (Eric Reeves)

Eric Reeves, whose expertise (and passionate concern) regarding Darfur is unmatched, offers a pessimistic--though not entirely dismissive--assessment of the probable consequences of the Abuja "peace agreement." For those of us who favor serious action to stop the Darfur atrocity, this is absolutely not the right moment to relax.

--Jeff Weintraub
New Republic (Online)
Only at TNR Online | Post date 05.10.06

Security Concerns

by Eric Reeves

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room Monday, President Bush heralded the Abuja "peace agreement" between Khartoum's génocidaires and one of the Darfuri rebel factions as the beginning of "hope for the people of Darfur." Bush claimed diplomatic victory, explaining that Darfur now has "a chance to begin anew." The Bush administration certainly has the right to be a bit hopeful; there were worse outcomes that could have followed the peace talks last week. But the administration should not let its optimism obscure the reality on the ground in Darfur: The Abuja agreement is little more than another request to trust a regime that has never abided by any agreement with any Sudanese party--not one, not ever. And it asks the survivors of genocide to accept the promises of génocidaires rather than providing the meaningful security they so desperately need.

It is the security provisions of the agreement that are the greatest cause for concern: There are simply no credible guarantees or guarantors. The first phase of the agreement calls for a month-long assessment of the combatants. Only at the end of this does a 45-day disengagement period begin, wherein Khartoum is supposed to redeploy and begin the process of disarming the Janjaweed. The success of this "disengagement" won't be evident until well into July and the height of the rainy season, which coincides with the traditional hunger gap between spring planting and fall harvest. If Khartoum reneges on the security agreement, it will be too late to save those confronting either violence, lack of food, or the absence of humanitarian assistance that continues to contract because of insecurity.

The only insurance that Khartoum will not renege is the African Union, which is charged with numerous monitoring and verification tasks under the agreement. But the African Union has no mandate to protect civilians and humanitarians, nor does it have the capabilities to take on such a mandate, even if the organization's political leadership could work up the nerve to demand it of Khartoum. Given the dismal record of the AU force in controlling violence in Darfur, which has escalated steadily since late last summer, trusting it to enforce the accord seems dangerous in the extreme. Indeed, accepting the security terms of the Abuja agreement at face value amounts to an extraordinary gamble with the lives of more than 3.8 million human beings now described by the United Nations as "conflict-affected" in the greater humanitarian theater of Darfur and eastern Chad (whose vast and growing crisis receives barely a nod from the Abuja agreement). In essence, the victims of genocide are being asked to trust that the perpetrators of genocide will disarm and restrain themselves.

No wonder that the State Department and Human Rights Watch oddly find themselves on the same page in recognizing the urgent need for a robust U.N. peacekeeping operation. But such an operation is nowhere in sight, and Khartoum has yet to agree to its deployment (which might not be completed until 2007). To date, Khartoum's response to the idea of a U.N. force has been to deny visas to an assessment mission from the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations--and to threaten that any force deploying without permission from the regime's chief génocidaires will find Darfur to be its "graveyard." Moreover, the United Nations is clearly spooked by the blunt threat Khartoum has issued, reported in TNR last week by Samantha Power (citing a "senior U.N. official"): "If you like Iraq, you'll love Darfur!" No matter that African Darfuris are desperate for meaningful international military intervention; Khartoum has wielded the specter of Iraq, in a ghastly irony, as an efficient instrument of terror.

For their part, NATO officials have declared that in Darfur their "footprint should be as limited as possible." This signals to Khartoum that there will be no one willing to challenge its arrogant and self-serving assertions of national sovereignty--no one willing to ensure that there will be consequences if the Janjaweed are not in fact disarmed months from now, as Khartoum has again promised. Moreover, we're asked by the Abuja agreement to forget how many of these militia murderers have already been incorporated into the various military and security services in Darfur.

Why, if it is so flimsy, did Darfuris agree to the Abuja agreement? Because they had no choice. Sudanese rebel groups do not believe in the accord, or that it represents justice; they believe mainly in the consequences of not signing. The rebel group that did sign on to the agreement, Minni Minnawi's faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), did so under genocidal duress. If the other SLM faction eventually signs on as well, it will be under similar circumstances. There was a grim truth in the prediction of Alex de Waal, the most informed advisor to the AU mediators: In the absence of an agreement, de Waal declared, "few doubt that Khartoum's Plan B is anything other than a large-scale military offensive." In other words, the agreement was secured by means of an implicit threat that genocidal violence would dramatically accelerate if there were no agreement. It is difficult to imagine a less secure foundation for a permanent and just peace.

In fact, a military offensive had already begun in the Gereida area of South Darfur the week before the eventual agreement was signed. Human Rights Watch reported on the attack shortly after it began; there was a terrible familiarity in the account: "The Sudanese government has launched a new military offensive in South Darfur that is placing civilians at grave risk. An April 24 attack on a village in rebel-controlled territory used Antonov aircraft and helicopter gunships indiscriminately in violation of the laws of war, and displaced thousands of civilians who had sought safety there." The implications of the attack were clear: If the rebels did not sign, "Plan B" would take effect and the military's attacks on civilians would intensify.

Traveling in Gereida this past weekend, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland declared that 2006 has been the worst year yet in the Darfur catastrophe; he highlighted the immense distance between what is required in the way of humanitarian access and what Khartoum permits: "In the peace agreement in Abuja, there is unlimited access granted in all Darfur for all humanitarian organizations, but this is not the practice." Indeed, in a recent report to the U.N. Security Council, Egeland detailed 14 categories of humanitarian obstructionism on the part of the National Islamic Front--a strategy working with ruthless efficiency to deny food and medical assistance to desperate civilians. As it did again in Abuja, Khartoum has in the past repeatedly promised to provide unfettered access to humanitarian aid workers. But why should we assume it will be different this time?

And why should we believe that Khartoum will disarm the Janjaweed, despite the elaborate machinery of the Abuja agreement? What consequences have followed from Khartoum's previous refusal to abide by various promises to disarm the Janjaweed, the first made to Kofi Annan in July 2004? Has the Security Council's July 2004 demand, that the regime disarm the Janajweed and bring its leaders to justice, had any discernible effect? By accepting this new promise in the Abuja agreement at face value we put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

The riot yesterday that greeted Egeland when he visited the vast Kalma camp near Nyala (South Darfur), forcing his evacuation and that of other aid workers, was apparently sparked by the desperate demand of displaced persons that a meaningful international military force be deployed to protect them. They know all too well that the Abuja agreement will not do so. The alternative to signing last week's "peace" agreement may indeed have been Khartoum's following the ghastly "Plan B" described by de Waal. But "Plan A" may ultimately prove no less destructive. It will be different primarily because the international community, at the appropriate moment of self-exculpation, will attempt to point to a meaningless piece of paper signed under genocidal duress in Abuja. But this will not be self-exculpation; it will be self-indictment. Bush was right Monday when he said Darfur now has "a chance to begin anew." Left undefined, however, is what that new beginning will bring.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.

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