New mediators are trying to resolve the conflict in Sudan's ravaged western region
The crisis in Darfur
Neither all-out war nor a proper peace
Sep 3rd 2009 | KHARTOUM
AFPWHEN General Martin Agwai, the outgoing commander of the United Nations and African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, said that the war in Sudan's western region had all but dried up, he stirred controversy. Some people are loth to acknowledge that the nature and scale of the violence in Darfur have changed. All the same, violence still rages—and the UN must share the blame for failing to do more to stop it.
In part, the general was stating the obvious. About 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of the violence that erupted in 2003 after rebels attacked Sudanese government forces. This year, by contrast, more people have died in inter-ethnic fighting in the south Sudanese state of Jonglei alone than in Darfur, where big clashes have been happening only rarely. The death rate in Darfur, a controversial measure, is widely accepted to be below what aid agencies consider the threshold for an emergency. Especially in America, campaigners who say that genocide is still taking place in Darfur find this hard to admit.
But General Agwai accepted that there was still no peace in Darfur. If anything, the fragmentation of rebel groups, sometimes into little more than gangs of bandits, has left it as dangerous as ever—and less predictable. Aid workers and food convoys are often attacked. Low-level fighting is still creating refugees, who must join the 2.7m others in the camps that litter Darfur. UNAMID has failed to stem this violence.
For sure, General Agwai's task has been hampered by circumstances beyond his control. His force arrived at the start of last year but is still less than three-quarters of its mandated strength of 26,000 soldiers and police, the largest such UN peacekeeping force ever deployed. The general also got less logistical support than he wanted. He asked for 18 military helicopters, which are vital in the remote desert region of Darfur, the size of France. So far he has received none. He also faced concerted bureaucratic obstruction by Sudan's government.
Yet UNAMID had substantial assets at its disposal. But it rarely intervenes to stop the fighting. It has done a bit to boost security in Darfur's towns but has provided almost no protection in rural areas. Even in towns, security has been patchy. On August 29th two UNAMID people were kidnapped in Zalingei. "If they can't handle their own security, how can they protect anyone else?" asked one aid worker.
The political head of UNAMID, Rodolphe Adada, a bow-tied Congolese diplomat who also stepped down last week, has been largely ineffective. Others have taken the lead in trying to revive peace talks in Darfur, stalled since the total failure of a conference in Libya in October 2007. On behalf of the AU, Thabo Mbeki, a former South African president, is looking at ways, perhaps involving so-called hybrid courts, to prosecute those responsible for war crimes in Darfur.
The idea is to present an alternative legal framework that Sudan's government might find more palatable than seeing some of its members hauled off to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which has indicted President Omar al-Bashir and two of his top men. Mr Mbeki is expected to report back to the AU later this month. A compromise over the ICC wrangle might possibly let Sudan's government be more willing to make concessions that could lead to a political settlement in Darfur.
At the same time, a variety of other mediators, including the Qataris and a new American special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, have been encouraging the disparate rebel groups to resolve their differences and form a more coherent negotiating body. This requires patience. The utter fragmentation of the rebels into warring factions in the past three years is a big reason for the lack of progress towards peace in Darfur. But diplomats are now shuttling between the capitals of Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Sudan and elsewhere. Previous efforts have got nowhere. Recently there has been at least a little spurt of hope.
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