As fighting in Sudan’s western region of Darfur escalates once again, the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe is poised to become an even worse disaster. Aerial bombardments by the government and ground fighting with rebel forces are displacing yet more villagers and preventing aid workers from getting relief to people in the most insecure areas. “If the humanitarian operation were to collapse, we could see hundreds of thousands of deaths and a man-made catastrophe of an unprecedented scale in Darfur,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland warned in late August.
“I’m 85 years old and nothing like this has ever happened to me,” Mohamed Abdulai Saleh, who fled his village in North Darfur, told IRIN, a UN humanitarian news service. “We need help.”
The overall rise in violence has also brought an increase in sexual assaults. Reports of rape have soared in the giant Kalma camp for displaced people near Nyala, in South Darfur — surpassing more than 200 instances in just a five-week period. In the same province, reports the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “In Gereida, women were exposed to attacks by armed militias as [the women] conducted income-generating activities.”
During much of September, UN officials, aid agencies and human rights groups raised an especially urgent alarm as a sharp deterioration of the situation appeared imminent. The mandate of a 7,000-troop peacekeeping mission of the African Union (AU) was set to expire at the end of the month, while the government of Sudan continued to reject the establishment of a new, much stronger UN mission. This threatened to leave a complete peacekeeping vacuum, in which many more Darfurians could perish.
After intense negotiations, the AU agreed to extend its African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) by another three months, to the end of the year, with additional troops from African countries and more financial and logistical support from the Arab League and the UN. But even a moderately stronger African force, AU officials acknowledge, will not be able to protect so many displaced civilians over such a large territory. The extension of the AMIS mandate therefore buys mediators only a few more months in which to convince the Sudanese government to accept a UN mission and to pressure the contending factions in Darfur to stop obstructing relief operations.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, addressing the Security Council on 11 September, underlined the urgency of acting to save Darfur. “Can the international community, having not done enough for the people of Rwanda in their time of need, just watch as this tragedy deepens? . . . 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.”
A staggering toll
The crisis in Darfur, which has complex political and social roots, erupted on a major scale in early 2003, when rebel movements launched attacks on government forces. In response, the regular Sudanese military carried out major military operations and encouraged parallel actions by an irregular militia force known as the Janjaweed. Many of the government and Janjaweed attacks were directed against the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, from which the rebels draw much of their support.
The toll on civilians has been enormous. According to estimates by UN and other relief personnel, some 200,000 or more people have been killed since the start of the conflict, either as a direct result of the fighting or indirectly because the disruption of farming and health services has seriously worsened hunger and disease.
Within Darfur, about 3 million people depend on relief aid to survive. Out of those, about 1.9 million have been forced from their homes and live in squalid, overcrowded and dangerous camps. Another 220,000 refugees have fled across the border into neighbouring Chad.
Bringing assistance to all these people has been a major financial, logistical and security challenge. Despite threats, attacks and other obstructions, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the International Committee of the Red Cross and numerous other humanitarian groups provide food, medical care and shelter, saving many lives.
But the recent escalation of fighting is seriously jeopardizing those efforts, especially in North Darfur, but also in South and West Darfur. In the two months up to mid-September, 12 aid workers were killed — more than in the previous two years. Many relief vehicles have been stolen. The attacks have forced numerous non-governmental relief organizations to pull out of the most insecure parts of Darfur.
According to the World Health Organization, 40 per cent of the population of North Darfur is not receiving health care, while vaccinations have dropped from 90 per cent in 2005 to a mere 20 per cent in 2006. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported in early October that some 224,000 people in North Darfur remained cut off from food aid, most of them for the fourth consecutive month.
It is not in the interests of Sudan, Africa or the world “for us all to stand by and see genocide being developed in Darfur.”— Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
Because of the insecurity, many farmers could not plant their fields. Livestock herders have been unable to migrate in search of the best pastures. Food scarcity may become especially severe, since much of the recent population displacement has been “in the very fertile areas, not in the arid areas,” notes Mr. Niels Scott. He heads the Darfur regional office of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which supports the African peacekeeping mission there, alongside its main task of monitoring a separate peace agreement between the government and former rebels in southern Sudan.
Rebel rivalry, government offensive
The resurgence of fighting has come in the wake of a peace agreement that the government signed with one of the Darfur rebel groups in May, following negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria. AU mediators had hoped the pact would be the first step towards a more general settlement and would make it easier for African and international peacekeepers to protect civilians in Darfur.
However, there have been few efforts by the government or the faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) that signed the agreement to implement its provisions. Instead of disarming the Janjaweed militia, the government has reportedly incorporated many of its fighters into the regular army. The Sudanese courts have done little to bring to account those suspected of war crimes.
Tensions have sharpened considerably between the SLM/A faction that signed the agreement, led by Minni Minnawi, a leader of the Zaghawa ethnic group, and the rebel forces that did not sign. The most prominent non-signers are a wing of the SLM/A led by Abdelwahid Mohamed al-Nur and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The al-Nur group, which draws its support largely from the Fur, the largest ethnic group in Darfur, maintains that the agreement does not adequately address the Fur farmers’ loss of land during the conflict. The JEM, which is led by former national politicians, advocates the overthrow of the central government in Khartoum. At least two smaller factions have also emerged, further complicating the political landscape.
There have been reports of some fighting among the non-signers, but most frequently between them and Mr. Minnawi’s faction, whom they accuse of now siding with the government. Civilians have often been caught in the crossfire and on occasion appear to have been deliberately targeted.
The rebel activities, UN Special Envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk told the Security Council in September, “provided the government with an excuse for continuous attacks and air raids.” More than 10,000 additional government troops were moved into Darfur as part of a major offensive launched in late August. The Darfur peace agreement, Mr. Pronk said, “is nearly dead. It is in a coma.”
Defiance and pressure
Recognizing that its peacekeeping mission does not have the capacity to protect civilians under such circumstances, the AU asked the UN to step in with a well-financed and -equipped international force. On 31 August, the Security Council authorized such a force by agreeing to send some 17,000 UN peacekeepers to Darfur, on top of the 10,000 “blue helmets” already in southern Sudan.
Actual deployment, however, was contingent upon the consent of the Sudanese government. So far, there has been no consent. President Omer Hassan al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials have repeatedly rejected the notion of a transition from the AU mission to one involving non-African troops under a UN flag, which they portrayed as an “imperialistic” plan to “recolonize” Sudan — even though the government has already consented to the presence of UN peacekeepers in the south.
Some members of the Security Council have suggested the possibility of international sanctions to further pressure the authorities in Khartoum to agree to a UN force in Darfur. But other members do not now favour such a course. As a result, notes UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Juan Mendez, the Sudanese government “relies on the disunity in the Security Council to avoid the imposition of sanctions.”
Under the urging of other African countries, the Sudanese government did signal its acceptance of an extension of the AMIS mandate to the end of 2006, with an increase in the number of its troops. Some Security Council members see this as an interim measure. According to US Ambassador John Bolton, “we can strengthen AMIS as we [are] simultaneously preparing for the UN handover.”
At the same time, said Secretary-General Annan, further international pressure should be applied to secure Sudanese acceptance of a robust international peacekeeping force. “Individuals and governments alike must make themselves heard,” he said in September. “Whoever, in Africa or beyond, is in a position to influence the government of Sudan must do so without delay.”
The following month, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria — the country with the greatest number of troops in AMIS — used especially sharp words in a speech at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. It is not in the interests of Sudan, Africa or the world, he said, “for us all to stand by and see genocide being developed in Darfur.”
Many groups and individuals around the world also have been speaking up in defence of the people of Darfur. In late August, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Sudan Organization Against Torture (its local affiliate) called for an end to violations of human rights in Darfur, rejected the Sudanese government’s deployment of more troops, called for strengthening AMIS and urged more efforts to secure Sudan’s consent for a UN peacekeeping mission “with a strong mandate for the protection of civilians.”
On 17 September, a day of solidarity with the people of Darfur brought protesters into the streets in locations around the world. In London demonstrators rallied outside the Sudanese Embassy, while Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders delivered a plea and said prayers outside the residence of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people rallied in New York City. In Rwanda, survivors of the 1994 genocide called for action to halt the Darfur crisis, while other events were held across Africa, from Dakar to Sudan’s Juba Mountains.
That same day, 31 human rights and civil society organizations from 10 predominantly Arab countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen) issued a declaration urging the Sudanese authorities to accept deployment of UN forces in Darfur, disarm the Janjaweed militia and punish anyone carrying out rape or other sexual violence against women in Darfur.
Following the demonstrations, the Darfur Consortium, a coalition of more than 40 Africa-based and Africa-focused civil society organizations, welcomed the AU’s decision to extend the AMIS mandate and urged the Sudanese authorities to accept UN peacekeepers. Speaking on behalf of the consortium, Mr. Alioune Tine of Senegal, president of the Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO), declared: “In the new Africa, the veil of sovereignty must be pierced when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from massive violations of international humanitarian law.”