Chapter Eight - Jonathan Steele: Be honest: the west isn't sending troops to Darfur
"Bush and Blair are raising false hopes among rebels and refugees, at the same time as blocking the best mechanism for peace," writes Jonathan Steele in Darfur, Oct 6, 2006, The Guardian. Copy in full:
A cruel hoax is being perpetrated on the desperate people of Darfur. With their constant demands for UN troops to go to Sudan's western region as the only way to protect civilians, George Bush and Tony Blair are raising hopes in a grossly irresponsible way. When reality dawns and new despair takes over, Washington and London will have to take the blame.
It is not just that the Khartoum government rejects the idea of UN troops. More important, Bush and Blair know that, even if Khartoum were to back down, they will not be sending US or British troops to replace the African Union (AU) force. Nor will other European governments. Why does this matter? Because hundreds of thousands of displaced villagers who sit in miserable camps across Darfur are under the impression that European soldiers will soon be riding over the hill to save them.
After spending hours talking to homeless families and their community leaders, I can report that the demand for the UN to send troops to Darfur is overwhelming. The Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has orchestrated demonstrations in the capital denouncing US and UK interventionism, and warning of "another Iraq". The Arab press hammers the same theme, which may well resonate among its readers.
In Darfur's camps, however, the mood is different. It explains why Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president on a trip here on Sunday, was not allowed to make the usual camp tour. No reason was given, but EU officials said they were sure it was to prevent him hearing pleas for a UN force.
If UN troops are sent here, where do you think they will come from, I asked everyone I met. "British, American, all the European countries," said Abdullah Hassan Karamidin, an elderly imam in a white knitted cap who sat with six other men in a clearing between their miserable homes in the Abu Shouk camp at El Fasher. What if the UN troops turned out to be from India, Bangladesh, or Turkey? "No, they can't solve our problem. They're like Arabs. Arabs can't protect us," the imam replied, while the others nodded in agreement.
In Zamzam camp, south of El Fasher, I came across four guerrilla fighters, unarmed but wearing trademark white scarves wrapped into their turbans. Two were festooned with small leather pouches, each carrying a verse from the Qur'an. The amulets they were wearing protected them from bullets, they said. The fighters belonged to a faction that signed a peace deal with the government in May, which allows them to protect the camp. They and most of the camp's inmates are from the Zaghawa tribe.
The rebels are known to fellow-Africans as "Tora Bora". My translator laughed at my surprise. "They don't like the phrase mujahideen because they are Muslims, not Islamists. But they know Tora Bora is a place of caves in Afghanistan where the Americans hunted local fighters and couldn't find them, just as the government here couldn't do."
One of the ex-rebels said: "The African Union troops only go along the main roads. If there's an incident, they do nothing except write it down. They're useless." Asked where the UN would get its troops from, he said: "Why not British or American?" His friend was one of the few people I found who was willing to have troops from India, Bangladesh or Turkey, "as long as they can protect people. If that's the case, we have no problem".
A group of community leaders sat under a tree. "We're in need, and we want UN troops," said Sheikh Ali Ishag Hamid. "They should come here even if the government refuses. The government cannot confront the UN." Where would the UN get its troops from? "Britain, America, Nato." And if they were from Asia? "We will only welcome Europeans," he insisted.
Bush and Blair should get the message. Unless they deliberately intend to disappoint Darfurians, it is time for honesty in place of grandstanding. Let's have some constructive nimbyism. Next time they thunder on about the need for UN troops, they should add the qualifier: "Of course, we won't be sending our own soldiers. Other countries will have to send theirs." The two leaders should also start looking for a compromise. Both sides have backed themselves into a corner. Sudan refuses to have a UN force. Washington insists there is no alternative. With three months until the AU force's mandate expires, common sense requires that this interval be used to negotiate a solution.
The first principle should be a security council commitment to extend the AU mandate indefinitely, until it is safe for the displaced to go home. Last month's brinkmanship, when it looked as if the AU would withdraw, leaving a security void, must not be repeated in December. The threat of a pullout creates new fears for traumatised people.
The second principle should be that the AU's contingents are transformed into a robust force from the demoralised units that have not been paid for the past two months. Western governments must fund more AU troops and better equipment, particularly helicopters and surveillance technology. At the moment the AU reacts slowly, if at all.
Darfur was hardly heard of when the UN's founding fathers drew up its charter in 1945. Unwittingly, they wrote seven paragraphs that offer the best mechanism for bridging the gap between Washington's and Khartoum's intransigence. Known as chapter eight, these allow the UN to subcontract peacekeeping to a regional organisation. Instead of the current wrangling over UN troops, why not let the UN give the AU a mandate for Darfur, while requesting that rich member governments, either western or Arab, fund a stronger AU-led force?
In Kosovo and Afghanistan, Nato took charge in a similar way, though under a different chapter and without the request that non-Nato members chip in. Nato, after all, is richer than the AU.
At the UN, senior officials are aware of chapter eight. Jan Pronk, the secretary general's special representative in Sudan, mentioned it in New York a fortnight ago. Sudanese leaders have hinted they would accept it. Shamefully, however, Washington and London are trying to suppress the idea. They reject any suggestion that UN resolution 1706 (which called for UN troops) might be superseded. It would let Khartoum off the hook, they say. But the real people on the hook are Darfur's 2 million displaced. They need quick international agreement on better protection, rather than the mischievous illusion that western troops are on the way.