Eric Reeves

The phony optimism on Darfur

By Eric Reeves
August 6, 2009

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IN SENATE testimony last week, the US special presidential envoy for Sudan offered a peculiarly upbeat assessment of the crisis in Darfur and the prospects for peace throughout Sudan. Envoy Scott Gration argued that the United States should move toward normalizing relations with the regime in Khartoum, including lifting sanctions and removing Sudan from the State Department list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. This would be a grave mistake - and would reward a regime comprising the very men who orchestrated genocide in Darfur and continue to renege on key elements of the 2005 north/south peace agreement.

There was little policy detail in Gration’s testimony because debate within the Obama administration continues to be intense. But Gration is close to Obama and seems determined to set the tone and establish the substance of US Sudan policy. He clearly went a step too far in June when he declared that genocide had ended in Darfur, and that there were only “remnants of genocide,’’ a characterization disowned by the State Department, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and President Obama, who used the word “genocide’’ in the present tense during recent speeches in Germany and Ghana.

More troubling, Gration has said too little about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the consequences of Khartoum’s March 4 expulsion of 13 key international humanitarian organizations; he has demonstrated little appreciation for what was lost, and the difficulty in generating new capacity. Stop-gap measures are beginning to fail at the height of the rainy season, and a number of camps report grave health and sanitation crises.

Gration also appears excessively optimistic about the moribund Darfur peace process. He repeatedly declared to Darfuris and humanitarians during a recent trip to the region that peace in Darfur would be achieved by the end of this year. But any meaningful peace agreement will first require an effective cease-fire, with robust monitoring of a sort that cannot be provided by the current UN/African Union peacekeeping force, which is badly underequipped, undermanned, and has lost the confidence of most Darfuris.

Humanitarians were dismayed at Gration’s insistent talk about the “voluntary’’ return of some 2.7 million displaced persons languishing in camps throughout Darfur. There is no humanitarian capacity to oversee such returns and ensure their voluntary nature; Khartoum refuses to provide security in areas it controls; and Darfuris in the camps complain bitterly that they are being asked to return to lands without protection, and which have oftentimes been taken over by Arab tribal groups. The notorious Janjaweed have not been disarmed and pose a constant threat. Even in the camps themselves, security is tenuous; women still face rape, men are tortured and murdered, and looting is commonplace. In the past, it has been Khartoum that has pushed for returns under these conditions; now, perversely, it is the US special envoy.

In his Senate testimony, Gration suggests that his travels to Cairo and Beijing enabled him to meet “leaders who share our common concern and want to work together toward shared objectives.’’ This ignores the long and resolutely obstructionist role both Egypt and China have played in Sudan over many years. Shortly after Gration’s testimony, a senior Egyptian official described Darfur as an “artificial’’ crisis directed against the people of Sudan. Beijing’s continued shipment of advanced weaponry to Khartoum; its opposition to the role of the International Criminal Court in pursuing atrocity crimes in Darfur; and its relentless support of Khartoum at the Security Council leave one wondering what Gration means by “common concern.’’

Most disturbing, Gration gives no evidence in any of his public comments of understanding the ruthless nature of the security cabal that rules Sudan and is determined to retain its stranglehold on national wealth and power; like many before him, he is convinced that the National Islamic Front is controlled by men who can be reasoned with, cajoled, rewarded, made to do “the right thing.’’ He ignores the basic truth about these men: during their 20 years in power they have never abided by any agreement with any Sudanese party. Any rapprochement that is not preceded by clear and irreversible actions to establish unimpeded humanitarian access, create freedom of movement and deployment for peacekeepers, and meet the critical benchmarks of the north/south peace agreement is doomed to fail.

Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor, is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.’’

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