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Darfur Peace: A Distant Dream

Dr. Nivedita Ray was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 25, 2006

    After weeks of intense negotiations and international pressure, the Sudanese government and a faction of the main rebel group (SLA) signed a peace deal on May 5, which aims to settle the devastating crisis in Darfur. Although there is a modest hope that it could bring more protection to millions of refugees and result in a significant decline in bloodshed, it is unlikely to end the three-year conflict or bring durable peace to Darfur. Instead, its utility is likely to be limited to paving the way for the UN to replace the African Union peacekeeping force in place now. Sudan had earlier opposed the deployment of the United Nations-led peacekeeping force and had said that it would only consider doing so if the peace deal is signed.

    The treaty is also unlikely to bring about any immediate transformation on the ground. It has failed to receive support from the two other main opposition parties - the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the rival faction of the SLA led by Abdul Vahid Muhammad Nur. Their refusal to sign the agreement brokered by the African Union, the United States, the European Union and other Western countries, weakens the chance of the deal working. And it illustrates that neither divisions between the rival ethnic groups nor some of their demands have been addressed The agreement calls for a ceasefire that began on May 12, a compensation fund for victims of the conflict, the disarming and neutralizing of the Janjaweed militias, the absorption of 5000 rebel troops into the Sudanese army and the joining of rebel leaders in the government as advisors to the president. It, however, does not include the rebel's main political demand, viz., occupying a vice presidency in the National Unity Government. For the other two rebel groups it is an incomplete deal and would not lead to real peace given widespread distrust and fear on the ground - a fact acknowledged by US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, Washington's point man on Sudan.

    There is even doubt regarding the sincerity of the Khartoum government as far as implementation is concerned, given its past record of undermining agreements. One example is with regard to the 'January 2005' North-South peace agreement, which even after sixteen months has not been implemented fully. It is therefore doubtful that the Sudanese government will pursue the implementation of the latest agreement with much eagerness.

    For the African Union and the international community, the challenge lies not only in convincing the opposing rebel leaders to choose peace over conflict but also in ensuring that those who have signed the agreement actually implement it on the ground and that the people of Darfur remain protected. Presently, there is only the 7000-strong African Union Mission (AMIS), which has proved too small and toothless to provide protection and enforce a ceasefire. It effectively has only one soldier for every 72 square kilometres and a limited mandate that often prevents it from engaging the combatants and stopping the bloodshed. The International Crisis Group report released in March has stated that "as the security situation steadily worsens, AMIS's credibility in Darfur as a military and civilian protection force is at an all-time low."

    So far, the African Union Mission has demonstrated that it has little power to change the violent dynamics on the ground. Current conditions are intolerable and if they continue humanitarian workers would be forced to withdraw, severing a lifeline that sustains hundreds of thousands of defenceless civilians. All sides - the government, militias, and the rebels - are responsible for the appalling security conditions that threaten the lives of the people of Darfur and make humanitarian efforts increasingly impossible. The conflict has already claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced some two million. In order to provide real security for the displaced people the priority remains the strengthening of the AU force.

    The US administration has played an active role in this regard. It has helped in promoting negotiations and has been urging that the AU mission be transformed into a larger UN force that is better equipped, with a stronger mandate and receives logistic support from NATO. In fact, the US has been consistently exerting pressure on Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for inserting a UN mission since January. But it is yet to receive a firm commitment from the Sudanese leader.

    As mentioned earlier, Khartoum had previously opposed the deployment of a UN force and had insisted upon a peace deal with the rebels as a precondition. The haste with which the rebel groups and the government were forced by the international community to sign the deal proves that the deal was not aimed at enabling a political settlement but rather to serve as a political cover for changing the AU mission to a UN one. This is evident from the fact that the rebel groups still remain disunited even as their demands remain unfulfilled. What the agreement essentially means is that Sudan has lit the green light for the above-mentioned transition, though there is no clear answer as to when it would be in place given that Khartoum is yet to grant consent for the UN forces to take over the peacekeeping mission.

    Though not all rebel groups have signed the agreement, Khartoum will certainly come under immense international pressure to live up to its own pledge. The push in this regard has already started with the UN Security Council pressing Sudan to allow military planners into Darfur to prepare for the deployment of a UN force and to determine what would be needed to effect a quick transfer of control from the AU to the UN. The Council has also threatened "strong and effective measures" against anyone who violates or tries to stand in the way of the agreement. The threat is likely to translate into travel bans and financial restrictions like those imposed last month against four men accused of organizing and carrying out atrocities. The measure is legally binding under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. Sudan has, however, given conflicting signals about whether it will eventually allow the United Nations to take over and build up the strength of the under-staffed African Union force. The AU Peace and Security Council, for its part, is ready to hand over charge as early as the end of September.

    Given the presence of fractured rebel groups and a climate of mistrust and fear, it is unlikely that the recent peace agreement will end the conflict in Darfur. Nevertheless it will likely prove to be the first step for the UN to assume peacekeeping responsibility in Darfur from the AU. This transition will certainly remain a challenge for the UN and will delay the implementation of the peace deal. Peace in the true sense thus remains elusive and a distant dream for the people of Darfur.