SUDAN WATCH: Kouchner "France-Afrique, it’s finished" - Europeans Transfer Chad Mission to U.N.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kouchner "France-Afrique, it’s finished" - Europeans Transfer Chad Mission to U.N.

New York Times report by Steven Erlanger published March 16, 2009
Europeans Transfer Chad Mission to U.N.
Kouchner in Chad

Photo: Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France greeted refugees from Sudan in the Djabal refugee camp in Chad on Sunday. He said that France would not intervene in Africa’s internal affairs. (Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

DJABAL REFUGEE CAMP, Chad — Mahmat Ismail Ali, 18, fled Darfur five years ago with what remained of his family, after Sudanese rebels attacked his village and killed his father and uncle and raped the women. The entire village set off on foot for relative safety across the border here in barren eastern Chad; it took them a month.

It is a familiar story by now, with more than 2.5 million refugees from Darfur, and while Darfur continues to suffer, the world has responded here with aid to the refugees in the usual fashion — a bit late, a bit haphazard, a bit misdirected. But Mr. Ali and his friends, like Abdul Aziz Gamaradam, 19, and Ahmad Dawood Abdullah, 19, have a relatively stable and comparatively safe life here in this camp of nearly 17,000, and their main demand — other than the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes — is a high school in the camp, so they can continue their education and break the boredom.

One reason for the calm has been the presence over the last year of a European Union military force of some 3,300 soldiers, drawn from 26 countries, but nearly half coming from France, the old colonial power, working with 850 United Nations officers. It was the first major test of the European Union’s military arm outside the NATO alliance, the sharp end of what is known as the European Security and Defense Policy.

The Europeans agreed, under a United Nations mandate, to be deployed for a year to try to stabilize the deteriorating situation in eastern Chad. There some 260,000 Sudanese refugees, plus 180,000 Chadians driven from their homes by the fighting, are gathered in camps centered on the regional capital, Goz Beida.

In 2006 and 2007, refugees were being attacked regularly by rebels and Sudanese-sponsored janjaweed militias. Pressed by France, the European Union stepped in as a “bridging force” to break the momentum of the conflict until the United Nations could create its own mission.

Though they have done little fighting, the Europeans have been an important deterrent. But the situation on the ground remains deeply uncertain, given the anarchy of Chad, the unbroken war in Darfur and the international arrest warrant issued for Mr. Bashir this month.

Attacks by bandits continue on women and young men, along with efforts to recruit child soldiers. Refugees like Mr. Ali say that it is dangerous to go even two miles outside the camp, making increasingly perilous the treks of seven or eight miles to find firewood in this desperately poor and now overpopulated region, where the stunted donkeys are known as the Ministers of Transport.

Serge Malé, the representative in Chad of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said that with new instability in Sudan, aid groups were preparing contingency plans for 50,000 more Darfur refugees. He said, “Darfur creates the earthquake that impacts the whole region.”

On Sunday, in a spit-and-polish ceremony in Abéché, attended by the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, as well as European politicians and United Nations officials, the Europeans transferred command to the United Nations. The new force begins with about 2,300 soldiers, 750 of them French, and expects to have 3,900 by June, when the rainy season starts, and 5,200 by the end of the year.

For Alain Le Roy, United Nations under secretary general for peacekeeping operations, Chad is a model. “The E.U. is developing its rapid deployment capacity,” he said. “They can deploy quickly and work to stabilize the situation. Then the U.N., which takes much longer to get into gear, can take over.”

About 2,000 European troops will remain, changing their berets from green to United Nations blue, until the end of this year, to prevent a deterrent vacuum.

Mr. Le Roy is running 18 missions, with 115,000 troops drawn from 118 countries, which he called “the second largest deployed army in the world.” Chad is secondary to the far more difficult missions in Congo and Darfur itself. But he is also hoping that this mission will set another precedent, because previously only 2 percent of his troops in Africa were European.

For Mr. Kouchner, a founder of Doctors Without Borders who seems much happier chatting with refugees than getting a Chadian decoration hung around his neck on a yellow ribbon, the success of the European deployment helps show that France can reintegrate in NATO and keep its independence.

But Mr. Kouchner, on his fourth visit here, also insisted that the previous French policy of intervention in former colonies to prop up favored rulers — including a 2006 intervention in Chad — is over. Still, 1,100 French troops remain in Chad under an earlier agreement with the government.

“We won’t intervene ever again in internal affairs,” he insisted. France will operate, he said, with transparent accords or mandates from the European Union, African Union or United Nations. “There are sentiments and feelings that are something familial,” he said. “But France-Afrique, it’s finished. We are working to turn this enormous page.”

Still, suspicion that France pushed this European mission as a way to sugarcoat French interests and support the vulnerable Chadian president, Idriss Déby, kept Germany and Britain from significant participation.

In the end, most agree, the European force, with Lt. Gen. Patrick Nash of Ireland in command and a French general on the ground, strictly followed its mandate to protect refugees, the displaced and aid workers, and did not intervene in Chad’s internal conflicts. Even last June, when rebels attacked and briefly occupied Goz Beida, the Europeans protected refugees and aid workers, but did not try to defend the city.

Gen. David Leakey, director-general of the European Union’s military staff, said that the Irish had worked hard to keep the force’s neutrality. “Look at the balance,” General Leakey said. “This has not been a French operation in an E.U. flag, but it delivered some significant security here. It’s served as a bridge for the U.N. to come and gave some more confidence to the people of Chad.”

He praised the Europeans for moving relatively quickly with force into one of the most isolated and severe environments possible.

But it was “not a war-fighting operation,” he emphasized. “We need to be careful that the E.U. not be stereotyped as a tree-hugging operation. Next time we might face something rather more vigorous.”

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