Darfur: countdown to catastrophe

Stephen Ellis
9 June 2004

The signing of a peace agreement between contending forces in a neglected conflict is often the prelude to a brief spasm of attention from the world’s rulers and media, followed by a quick flight to the next story. The pattern should be broken in Sudan, where after the recent peace deal the world needs now to pay more attention, not less, to what is happening in Africa’s largest country.

In the western Darfur region since February 2003, armed assaults and the systematic destruction of villages by Janjaweed militias supported by the government in Khartoum have caused around 30,000 deaths and large-scale displacements. Now, hundreds of thousands of people are at imminent risk of starvation. Many of those in flight from their destroyed villages are being pursued over Sudan’s border to Chad. If even more devastating suffering is to be averted, the international community simply cannot afford to look away.

Sudan’s other conflict

The recent headlines announce a long-awaited peace deal in Sudan. The three protocols signed by Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Naivasha, Kenya, on 26 May 2004 certainly mark a milestone in ending the decades-long civil war between north and south that claimed the lives of some two million people. But further negotiations are still required to provide all the necessary detail for a final, comprehensive peace agreement. Sudan is still some way from internal peace and stability.

More importantly, the process does not cover Darfur, where the government’s response to a separate insurgency has been extremely brutal. There, the Janjaweed militias have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians, burned their villages, committed systematic rape, and left 1.5 million people homeless.

Of these, 1.2 million are internally displaced within Sudan, most slowly starving or dying from illness in concentration camps surrounded by Janjaweed guards. The remainder have fled to Chad, where even there they are not safe from attack by the militias.

Current estimates are that at least 350,000 people could die by December 2004. If Khartoum’s barriers to aid are not fully removed and if cross-border Janjaweed raids into Chad spark a regional war, the toll will be even higher.

No agreement signed in Naivasha will avert any of that.

The world’s responsibility

What will stop the impending humanitarian catastrophe is swift action by the international community. Along with preparing a massive humanitarian aid effort, the world must ensure that the killing stops. The UN Security Council must pass a resolution threatening international military intervention if the government of Khartoum does not act soon to disarm and disband the Janjaweed and end their rampage.

Moreover, if Khartoum continues to prevent humanitarian aid access to those internally displaced within Sudan, then the UN must authorise a force to deliver that aid. In short, if the government of Sudan cannot or will not protect its own people from murder, ethnic cleansing and starvation, the outside world must take on that responsibility.

There is a link here between Naivasha and Darfur – for the progress towards a final agreement between the government and the SPLA, while it does not address the Darfur crisis, at least removes one excuse for international inaction on the issue.

For months, many at the UN, in Washington and in European capitals were reluctant to pressure Khartoum over its killing fields in Darfur for fear of upsetting the delicate talks in Naivasha. The United States and Britain in particular sought to promote the Khartoum-SPLA talks as a foreign policy success, and they prioritised the Naivasha deal while not responding robustly enough to Darfur. The government in Khartoum knew this was the calculation, and it strung out the talks as long as it could.

But even though the Sudanese government will still have countless opportunities over the coming months to stall and delay the final stage of talks, the signing of the protocols with the SPLA provides a watershed opportunity for Security Council members to reflect and redirect their attention toward Darfur.

It is time for the UN Security Council to assume the world’s responsibilities in the face of impending catastrophe. For the sake of the 1.5 million people facing starvation and deadly disease in the government-controlled camps in Sudan and the refugee camps in Chad, a Security Council decision to take resolute action must come quickly.

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