The Continuing Peril of Darfur

Monday, January 30, 2006

Based on accounts from the scene, things have clearly taken a turn for the worse in a hurry in Darfur. At the U.N. summit in September 2005, countries included an affirmation of their “responsibility to protect” their populations and the necessity for collective action to protect people when a government fails in this basic responsibility—or worse, as in the case of the Sudan government, is actively complicit in war crimes against civilians. It would be tragic if, having declared this bold new principle, governments couldn’t bring themselves to act on it effectively in Darfur.

The problem is as it was: The Janjaweed militias—armed bands of killers, marauders, and rapists of Arab origin set up to fight a burgeoning armed resistance movement—have acted in conjunction with forces of the Khartoum government or at its behest to terrorize the black African population of Darfur, the Texas-sized western region of Sudan. The militias, often operating with assistance from helicopter gunships flown by the Sudanese military, have destroyed whole villages, driving millions of Darfuris into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps or across the border into refugee camps in Chad.

The IDP camps are powerless (though the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and numerous international nongovernmental organizations have made extraordinary efforts in meeting basic needs) to improve the security situation—the prerequisite for enabling Darfuris to return home. To venture beyond the confines of a camp is to risk rape and death at the hands of the militias, and even the camps themselves are subject to attack by Janjaweed on horseback or by fighters traveling in government trucks. There have been reports that the government has painted its vehicles the color of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.

The United Nations, responding to the deteriorating security situation in western Darfur, has ordered nonessential personnel out. The U.S. Agency for International Development has closed its field office in Genina. Nongovernmental organizations are feeling similar pressures, and the deterioration is not confined to western Darfur. “The humanitarian space is closing,” one Westerner e-mailed me from Darfur. Veteran Sudan-watcher Eric Reeves ( notes that the supposed “banditry” taking place along the roads looks to humanitarian workers on the scene more like coordinated political violence, with attacks on relief convoys. The U.N. special adviser on genocide, Juan Mendez, back from a September trip to the region, noted in his report: “Though government officials attribute these attacks to banditry and common crime, their coordinated planning and apparent use of intelligence to prepare the attacks suggest a degree of organization and firepower that is consistent with Janjaweed activity, albeit under a different name.”

Khartoum has also been taking steps to halt aid, blocking essential equipment and restricting visas. I got a taste of this when I tried to visit Darfur last spring, in conjunction with the Gingrich-Mitchell task force on U.N. reform: As we were getting ready to leave for the airport, we found out that the Sudanese foreign minister would not, after all, approve our visas. We feared then what seems to be happening now: Anyone who knows anything about the history of governments’ perpetrating or abetting ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts will recognize that restricting access to outsiders and forcing humanitarian organizations to curtail operations due to security concerns have often been precursors to mass murder.

The AU peacekeeping force in Darfur, though recently increased in numbers and receiving enhanced assistance from NATO and the European Union, is still undermanned and underequipped for its task, which anyway remains too narrowly defined. The AU mission suffered its first killed in action in October 2005.

Here, too, getting equipment in place has been a problem. It took months for armored personnel carriers waiting at a port in Senegal to be delivered to the AU mission, while the Khartoum government lingered endlessly processing the paperwork. Had the armored personnel carriers been in the field sooner, their added protection might have prevented the deaths of AU troops in October.

The AU decided in October to refer the deteriorating security situation to the U.N. Security Council. Juan Mendez was planning to make a presentation of his recent findings to the Security Council, but the council, with U.S. backing, declined to hear him. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the council should be “talking more about the steps it can take to do something about the deteriorating security situation.”

I don’t see why it was necessary to give Mendez the brush-off, but I say amen to moving on to the next steps. What are those steps? They can be summarized as follows: more troops, better training, stronger mandate. As for more troops, estimates of the size of the required force cluster around 20,000, not the 7,000 currently deployed. But as one source who has observed the situation firsthand told me, raw numbers are not enough: Some of the AU troops on the scene have been effectively trained, but most have not. They need help fast. But even well-trained troops will remain paralyzed by a mandate that does not allow them to protect civilians. The Khartoum government is resisting efforts to beef up the mandate, and the AU is reluctant to become confrontational. Concerted international pressure—muscle, that is—is the only way to change the Sudan government’s ways.

Renewed efforts to help the long-suffering Darfuris must begin with recognition that the problem is getting worse because the Sudan government wants it to and that until the Janjaweed are disarmed and Khartoum backs off, Darfuris will remain in peril.