Darfur and the Diplomacy of Abandonment

Dissent Magazine (on-line), March 16, 2012
[full text with links at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=711 ]

By Eric Reeves

For more than a year and a half the Obama administration has been engaged in a callous and largely surreptitious disengagement from the ongoing human catastrophe in Darfur. This disengagement has taken many forms, and had various articulations. In August 2010 the phrase of choice was "de-emphasizing Darfur" in U.S. Sudan policy. In November 2010 a senior administration official spoke of "de-coupling Darfur" from considerations of whether Sudan should be on the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. Darfur, home to hundreds of thousands of in desperate need, now commands no significant policy attention in the Obama administration.

For example, this week Dane Smith, Obama's senior adviser for Darfur, declared in Pittsburgh that the Obama administration believed that "regime change" in Khartoum would be counterproductive. This message has been conveyed by the United States to the various rebels groups in Darfur and two other northern states currently under genocidal siege by Khartoum's military forces, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. These rebel groups, united uneasily under the banner of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, include the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North as well as the most powerful Darfur rebels movements. They are politically and ideologically heterogeneous, but if militarily united have the power to bring down the tyranny in Khartoum that for twenty-three years has been responsible for massive ethnically targeted human destruction, wholesale denial of humanitarian assistance, and systematic displacement of nearly 10 million human beings.

Why should these rebel groups forgo an opportunity---should it exist---to compel a change of regimes in Khartoum? Why are members of this ruthless security cabal no more in need of removal than Libya's Qaddafi, Syria's al-Assad, or Afghanistan's Taliban leadership---all examples of regime change that the United States has supported or is working for? Does it not matter that Darfuris are being asked to negotiate with a regime whose president and defense minister are under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide?

It has long been clear that only regime change offers the chance for true peace in Sudan: the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime is not a force for peace, but a potent catalyst for ongoing rebellion and military violence---and not just in Sudan. We need only look at the current widespread assaults on the civilian populations in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, conflict along the North/South border (including Khartoum's bombing of a refugee camp inside South Sudan with more than 20,000 civilians), the increasing likelihood of all-out war between Khartoum's forces and those of the new Republic of South Sudan, long and bitter resentment of the regime in eastern Sudan and Nubia in the far north, and the continuing violence in Darfur.

Why does Dane Smith counsel "engagement" with a regime that has never abided by a single agreement it has made with any Sudanese party? Why should rebel groups sit down with a regime that conducts indiscriminate aerial attacks on civilians while denying international humanitarian aid to many hundreds of thousands of desperate people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile? Because, Smith says, rebel efforts to overthrow the regime would "polarize the Arabs against everyone else, so they can say, 'Arabs are under attack. Islam is under attack.'"

And yet the entire population of Darfur is Muslim. How could Muslim Darfuri rebels create the impression that "Islam is under attack"? And more to the point, what in the broader insurgency---which includes a number of Arabs---could give the impression that "Arabs are under attack"? It is difficult to imagine an argument that could hold less force within the African ethnic groups that have been attacked on the basis of their ethnicity for the past twenty-three years---under the banner of an aggressively Islamist and Arabist ideology. The rebel groups, despite their many shortcomings and abuses in Darfur, arose precisely in response to the fact that "Africans were under attack" in the region, and had been since the NIF/NCP regime came to power by military coup in June 1989.

Moreover, the July 2011 Doha "Peace Agreement" that Smith touts is a disaster. It has been overwhelmingly rejected by Darfuri civil society, both within Darfur and in the diaspora. It represents an agreement between Khartoum and one small, militarily impotent, and politically unrepresentative rebel "grouping," a factitious entity cobbled together by the United States and Qaddafi's Libya. Negotiations in Doha produced no significant achievements in the critical area of human security, which continues to deteriorate in Darfur despite the presence of a $1 billion per year "hybrid" UN/African Union peacekeeping force. At Doha, Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, Ibrahim Gambari, the head of the hybrid mission, and Burkina Faso's Djbril Bassolé, the diplomat actually designated as the UN/AU joint negotiator, wrangled and jostled for control of the negotiations. So much went wrong, and so little was actually achieved, that one close observer of the earlier process that led to the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement in Abuja (Nigeria) described Doha to me as "Abuja replayed as farce."

In short, in the interest of avoiding the impression that "Arabs are under attack" and "Islam is under attack," the rebel groups are being urged to halt efforts to change the regime and to participate in a peace process that has already been rejected by the people the rebel groups claim to represent.

On the same recent occasion, Smith took the opportunity to acknowledge that "we haven't seen justice served in Darfur." But he didn’t suggest what the United States is prepared to do to see that justice is rendered at the ICC, or that impunity in Darfur is ended---impunity that sustains an ongoing epidemic of sexual violence, and radical insecurity in many camps and rural areas, while the Central Reserve Police (the Abu Tira) has become a lawless force, murdering, robbing, and kidnapping at will. It's true, as Smith notes, that "Darfur is not the same as the same place it was in 2003 and 2004," but the notion that after 2004 things were bad but not really so very bad ignores a number of indicators. Since 2004 there have been more than 650 confirmed aerial attacks on civilian targets; since 2007, when the UN Security Council authorized the hybrid force, more than 1.2 million Darfuris have been newly displaced, according to UN and aid group estimates. Many tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped, and continue to be raped. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that 264,000 Darfuris remain in eastern Chad as refugees---too fearful to return even as they face increasingly limited prospects of humanitarian assistance.

Smith went on to point out that "in 2003 just 18 percent of Darfur was considered urban settlements, but today it is 50 percent urban." But as Smith must understand, this increase is due overwhelmingly to the growth of squalid, under-served camps for displaced persons in the immediate environs of major cities and towns. These people will not leave the camps because of security conditions, and because many of their villages and agricultural lands were either destroyed or seized by Khartoum's militia allies. And the evidence from the past sixty years is clear: the longer displaced persons or refugees stay in camps, the less likely that they will ever leave.

There are very few jobs in the camps or the adjacent urban areas, and as the economy of (northern) Sudan continues its sharp contraction, there will be even fewer. Economic hardship will fall disproportionately on the poorest, who struggle to secure or purchase enough to eat. Children, some of whom have been in camps for more than eight years, are losing any sense of connection to the land and the agricultural way of life their families have known for countless generations.

This way of life is dying, even as much of the land around these overcrowded urban areas faces unprecedented environmental distress. A sobering study was released last month by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization showing that "current wood harvesting is causing the degradation and depletion of existing resources" (Land Cover Mapping and Wood Energy Analysis of Darfur’s IDP Regions). This seventy-five-page study augurs poorly for the future of Darfur: in those areas where people are most concentrated, the imbalance between wood energy production (biomass) and demand is shockingly great. In Nyala, capital of South Darfur, the annual accessible supply potential of wood fuel for 2011 was 52,000 tons; but actual demand was 366,000 tons. Since wood energy is critical not only to cooking but to the makeshift industries that have sprung up in the camps (like charcoal production), we may expect to see even greater costs incurred by families that are already unable to afford sufficient food, as well as the collapse of many small employment sources.

Darfur may not be seeing the levels of violence that marked the early years of the genocide, but Smith's casual historical bifurcation downplays not only violence after 2004, but the needs of the people displaced by that violence. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has been unable to conceive of a global or truly strategic Sudan policy that makes Darfur integral to all future negotiations. Meanwhile, Khartoum continues to play one region of the country against another in order to create diplomatic disarray and retain political power.

Smith shows no sign of appreciating Amnesty International’s recent report, "No End to Violence in Darfur: Arms Supplies Continue Despite Ongoing Human Rights Violations," or other reports that suggest just how great violence and civilian insecurity presently are in Darfur. Smith has also yet to make a public comment on the effective demise of the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur, authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005) to monitor an arms embargo and a ban on all offensive military flights by Khartoum. Nor has he spoken directly of the ominous reports on humanitarian conditions, sometimes smuggled out of the region, including a substantial, unreleased Tufts University study of a year ago: "International humanitarian capacities have been seriously eroded and impaired to a point that leaves Darfuris in a more vulnerable position now than at any other time since the counter-insurgency operations and forced displacements in 2003."

This is, as I have repeatedly argued, "genocide by attrition," a deliberate effort by Khartoum to further attenuate the humanitarian presence following the expulsion of thirteen of the world's most important relief agencies in March 2009---half the total humanitarian capacity in Darfur. Recently I have received authoritative reports of visas and travel permits being denied to humanitarian workers trying to reach Darfur---a continuation of the pattern of obstructionism, harassment, and intimidation that has marked Khartoum's response to relief efforts for more than eight years. Radio Dabanga reports almost daily on the local impact of this war on humanitarian assistance: people continue to die, in large numbers, from a lack of food, clean water, and primary medical care. Khartoum suppresses mortality figures, as well as reports on malnutrition, even from areas that are experiencing emergency levels of malnutrition.

A diplomacy of abandonment has proved the path of least resistance for the Obama administration, and the face of that abandonment is Ambassador Smith. That he would presume to tell the people of Darfur to accept the present regime of génocidaires as a legitimate negotiating partner is a measure of the moral rot at the center of the Obama administration's Sudan policy.

[Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.]