Wednesday, February 16, 2011

US-Sudan: Priorities Shift to Mounting Violence in Darfur

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

US-SUDAN Priorities Shift to Mounting Violence in Darfur

By David Elkins

- As peace negotiations over Sudan's Darfur region come to a close in Doha, Qatar and a number of issues related to last month's referendum remain unresolved, several Washington-based advocacy groups have warned against the pitfalls of losing focus on a comprehensive peace agreement for Darfur.

In a report released Tuesday, the Enough Project, in cooperation with other human rights groups, lays the groundwork for what it considers necessary steps to alleviate any further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Darfur, and negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement for North and South Sudan.

Referring to the need for a reconfiguration of U.S. policy in Darfur, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, said, "We think that a new mediation with a new team and a new approach to the process needs to be constructed with international backing, supported by the kind of sticks and carrots that were extremely helpful in the run-up to the referendum."

The report comes at a time when the levels of violence in the region are conspicuously escalating. A report published this month by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies found that past two months have been particularly troubling in the eyes of international observers with over 32,000 displaced from the Khor Abeche region in December 2010 alone.

Increasing numbers of ethnically motivated killings and unprovoked arrests made by the Sudan Armed Forces have added a sense of urgency for international mediators and peacekeepers, doubly burdened with preparing for the July 2011 expiration of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan. Among the most contentious issues is a border dispute over the Abeyi region and access to oil wells.

Growing violence has not been limited to the Darfur region, however. Last week, clashes erupted between government military forces and a rebel group in the South Sudanese state of Jonglei, resulting in over 100 civilian deaths, according to a military spokesman, and dealing a devastating blow to the month long cease-fire negotiated between the two groups.

The U.S. government has been following a clearly defined strategy in Sudan that prioritises ending the genocidal conflict in Darfur, follow through with a peaceful implementation of the CPA agreement, and ensuring that the region does not become a safe haven for terrorist organisations.

But as the centre of diplomatic gravity shifted away from Darfur to support what turned out to be a relatively peaceful referendum, the government in Khartoum has repeatedly denied humanitarian and human rights groups access to displaced persons camps and other troubled areas in Darfur.

According to the report, a major threat to a successful outcome in the Darfur peace process is a push by the Sudanese government and other outside officials, including African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, who has been involved in both the CPA agreement and negotiations on Darfur, to domesticate negotiations, or allow the Sudanese government to take over major responsibilities.

Authors of the report argue this would give North Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party a likely advantage over other parties by encouraging a sense of distrust among the people of Darfur, and giving Bashir the ability to control access for rebel leaders and international mediators into Darfur.

"This is a perfect example of the dysfunctionality of the Darfur peace process," Prendergast said, "we have on the one hand international debate about closing down the Darfur process, you have former [South African] president Mbeki making a strong push for taking over the process and domesticating it inside Darfur. At the same time you have the actual mediator of the U.N. and AU for Darfur [Djibril Bassolé] to Ambassador [Susan] Rice saying things are looking potentially better."

Congressional support for President Barack Obama's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Darfur has not been lacking.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has taken an active role in the Sudanese referendum, having made several trips in the past months to discuss with officials from both sides and make on-the-ground assessments.

After the Sudanese government finalized the results of the referendum, Sen. Kerry stated, "We must remember that there is much to be accomplished in terms of cooperation between these two independent but interconnected countries in the months before South Sudan is officially independent in July."

He went on to say, "Darfur is and will remain central to the U.S. policy agenda and to future U.S.-Sudanese relations. Our goal is peace throughout the region."

U.S. Policy Options

The Enough Project's report includes a series of recommendations for preventing a reversion to full-scale war in Darfur. Although finding a neutral location for peace negotiations is an important component of the overall recommendations, "fundamental changes on the ground…will not be solved solely by cosmetic changes to the venue and mediation," the report states.

The report advises a neutral site allowing leaders from all groups, including those of the Sudan Liberation Army and Mini Minawi and the Justice and Equality Movement, to play an equal part in the creation of a peace agreement.

It also recommends that the U.S. encourage "civil society engagement inside Darfur" to create a "mechanism through which their voices, as well a the voices of Darfuris outside of Sudan can be a part of the peace process," and, finally, "high-level coordinated diplomatic engagement to push for democratic transition in North Sudan in support of human rights and civil rights in the region.

President Obama recently announced his nomination of Scott Gration, former Special Envoy to Sudan, to be ambassador of Kenya, paving the way for a new high-level diplomat to enter into a position that has otherwise been mired in controversy.