Why Darfur was left to its pitiful fate (David Blair)
As helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers sweep across the rugged plains of Darfur, striking villages at will, Sudan's emboldened regime must scent victory. When it comes to spurning international pressure and exposing the vacuity of Western rhetoric, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has proved himself a master.
More than two years after Colin Powell, then America's secretary of state, declared the civil war in western Sudan a "genocide" - and after the passage of no fewer than 11 UN resolutions on Darfur – Mr Bashir feels confident enough to launch yet another offensive. At this moment, his forces are laying waste to villages and forcing more families into squalid refugee camps.
Mr Bashir has made a fool of the West. The fighting now raging in North Darfur province, near the local capital of El Fasher, compares with the heaviest since the war began in 2003. UN officials expect it to escalate, for Khartoum is pouring more troops into the area. Mr Bashir, a dour, harsh and unscrupulous general who seized power in a coup 17 years ago, must scarcely believe his good fortune. How has he managed it?
First, a brief look at how we reached this juncture. When Darfur's war broke out, Mr Bashir's Arab-dominated regime faced a grave threat from black African rebels. He could not trust his regular army to suppress this challenge, because most of its rank-and-file were recruited in Darfur and hailed from the same tribes as the insurgents.
So he relied on the notorious Janjaweed militias. These mounted gunmen, drawn from Khartoum's traditional allies among Darfur's Arab tribes, were given carte blanche to pillage the regime's enemies. This dealt the rebels a heavy blow – but also forced two million into refugee camps. The result was an avalanche of international condemnation.
In the summer of 2004, one Western foreign minister after another visited Darfur and spoke words of grave concern. Mr Powell went so far as to accuse Khartoum of carrying out a genocidal campaign, targeted largely on the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes. He was probably wrong: a UN investigation later ruled that genocide had not taken place. There is no evidence that Mr Bashir intended to eradicate these tribes – and proving genocide turns on whether one party intended to destroy a specific ethnic group.
Yet for a few months in 2004, Sudan felt the full glare of international scrutiny and a succession of UN resolutions followed. Resolution 1556 demanded that Sudan disarm the Janjaweed by August 30, 2004. Mr Bashir solemnly pledged to do so. Four months earlier, Sudan had signed a ceasefire agreement. In December 2004, it promised to ground its warplanes.
It scarcely needs to be said that Khartoum ignored each of these deals. But Mr Bashir never felt strong enough to reject them out of hand. In public, he bowed to every UN resolution and promised obedience, even if his behaviour exposed the mendacity of his words. Contrast this with his response to the Security Council's latest missive on Darfur. Resolution 1706, passed last Thursday, called for the deployment of a fully fledged peacekeeping force in Darfur, consisting of 17,300 troops and 3,300 civilian police.
But the newly emboldened Mr Bashir reacted with scorn. After spending months accusing the UN of "plotting" to "re-colonise" Sudan, he gathered his cabinet on Sunday and announced a "decisive rejection" of the resolution, urging his country to prepare "for the confrontation" with the UN. The unpalatable fact is that Mr Bashir has been watching the West since the onset of Darfur's agony and believes he can get away with almost anything.
In fact, the miscalculations of Western governments have actually strengthened him. Instead of placing pressure on Khartoum, they chose to sponsor a wholly ineffective African Union force of 5,000 troops and 2,000 civilians to Darfur – which made no impact.
The West also backed an endless round of peace talks between Khartoum and Darfur's rebels in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. In retrospect, this was probably the most disastrous move of all. The outcome of the talks was a half-baked peace agreement concluded in May. Mr Bashir's regime signed the deal – but the rebel movement split over whether to follow suit. One faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), dominated by the minority Zaghawa tribe, signed up. But another SLA group, drawn from the much larger Fur tribe, refused to follow. So Mr Bashir's enemies tore themselves to bits, thanks largely to a peace deal mediated by Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, and Robert Zoellick, then America's deputy secretary of state.
This deeply flawed agreement also gave the regime an opening to buy off Minni Minawi, the Zaghawa leader, making him "special adviser" on Darfur affairs. Mr Minawi's rebels, now allied with the Khartoum regime, will fight alongside Mr Bashir's army in the offensive against their former comrades. This has given Khartoum the confidence to launch the new offensive. Having withstood the pressure of 2004 and seen his rebel enemies obligingly fall apart, Mr Bashir feels under no pressure from the West.
What should have been done? Instead of waiting until last Thursday, a resolution calling for peacekeepers should have been passed in 2004. That was the moment to call for an international force, backed by a robust mandate allowing the protection of civilians. Instead of using Sudan's moment of maximum weakness, the West dithered for two years. Mr Bashir weighed his opponents in the balance and found them wanting. Tragically, the resolution was eventually passed at the hour of his greatest strength – and the people of Darfur are paying the price.
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