Sudan: Mixed Signals on Peace Deal

Image: Flickr, UNAMID
Image: Flickr, UNAMID

Khartoum wants to restrict any future role for the United Nations role in Darfur. The Sudanese capital Khartoum is fraught with diplomatic tension as political manoeuvring continues over how to bring peace to the war-torn western province of Darfur.

Following a resolution by the United Nations Security Council on May 16 which gave the Sudanese government one week to agree to the deployment of a special assessment team in Darfur, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Khartoum in a bid to convince the government that a United Nations peacekeeping force should replace the African Union troops monitoring the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed earlier this month.

After a series of meetings with Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and foreign minister Lam Akol, Brahimi announced an agreement that in the “coming days”, the UN and the African Union, AU, would send a joint assessment mission to Sudan. The team would begin with broad-based consultations in Khartoum, Brahimi said, before moving on to Darfur to assess the needs of the current AU mission, which “must be immediately strengthened”.

But the messages from senior figures in Sudan’s “unity government”’ sounded less optimistic, and sometimes contradictory.

“The National Assembly rejects any role for foreign forces in Darfur,” parliamentary speaker Ahmed Ibrahim Tahir asserted robustly.

Presidential advisor Mustafa Osman Ismail cautioned that the role the UN might potentially play in Darfur had not been clarified. “Will it be a humanitarian role, one of monitoring the ceasefire, or a role of peacekeeping?” he asked.

While Brahimi intimated that the UN-AU team would begin work within days, Ismail said no date had been fixed.

The Khartoum government faces a grave diplomatic problem with the UN, whose Security Council has referred the Darfur crisis to the new International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The ICC is investigating at least 51 Sudanese nationals, whose names have yet to be disclosed, with a view to possible prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The AU currently has about 7,000 military peacekeepers on the ground in Darfur. But the size of the force is totally inadequate for such a huge territory. It is under-resourced and has been subject to attacks from armed militias, most of them government-backed, which have looted vehicles and weapons from peacekeepers. In one recent ambush, an AU soldier was killed and another critically injured by an unidentified group armed with grenades and Kalashnikov rifles.

Independent analysts, UN advisers and AU military commanders have all suggested that troop numbers should be doubled to allow the African force to adequately monitor implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement or DPA, signed on May 5 in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

Majthoub al-Khalifa, the chief Sudanese government negotiator at the Abuja peace talks, noted that the agreement made no provision for international forces, This position was reiterated by Foreign Minister Akol, who indicated that only a “tripartite committee” involving the UN, the AU and the Sudanese government would “examine the role of the UN in Darfur”.

“The AU will oversee the security arrangements in Darfur in accordance with the DPA,” he said.

But Akol insisted, “There is no role for the UN in Darfur if the agreement with the UN is going to be framed under Chapter Seven.”

A key Sudanese government concern has been that no activity must take place under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which requires member states to comply with Security Council resolutions. If the UN deployed forces under Chapter Seven, it would have a broad mandate to intervene – and to use armed force – in the event that the DPA was threatened or breached.

Chapter Seven authority would provide a peacekeeping force with the mandate it would need to separate combatants and confront the “Janjaweed”, the government-backed militia held responsible for most of the atrocities in Darfur.

Khartoum opposes Chapter Seven powers on the grounds that they would mean a loss of sovereignty. This, some officials argue, could precipitate action by Islamic militants reminiscent of the current insurgency in Iraq. Defence Minister Abdulraheem Mohammed Hussein has warned that the deployment of UN forces “against the will of the Sudanese people… would attract al-Qaeda extremists into the country”.

From his secret hideaway, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden has been urging his followers to wage a jihad against any UN force that might deploy in Sudan – a country that gave him refuge in the Nineties.

Meanwhile, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been urging the Security Council to take a stronger stand on the issue of UN intervention in Darfur, where up to 400 000 people are believed to have died and over two million displaced since conflict erupted between rebel groups and pro-government militias in 2003.

Analysts fear that the peace deal, which was signed by the government and only one of three distinct rebel factions, is fragile and could be vulnerable to the manipulation of ethnic loyalties. Although the rebel group that signed the agreement, Sudan Liberation Army, has more guerrilla fighters on the ground than its rivals, its leader Minni Minnawi belongs to the Zegawa tribe, whereas most of Darfur’s population are of the Fur ethnic groups.

In a further twist, the Khartoum government has suggested that Libya should play a role in overseeing the DPA. The Sudan Tribune reports that negotiator al-Khalifa met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Minnawi in Tripoli on May 28, bearing a proposal from President al-Bashir that the Libyans should assist in monitoring the peace deal.

Amid these political machinations, it is clear that Sudan is going to allow a joint AU-UN assessment to happen, and that this is likely to be followed by an expansion of the AU peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the UN.

But Khartoum remains determinedly opposed to any moves it perceives as undermining its sovereignty. As Akol put it, any peacekeeping force will be mandated “to monitor the implementation of the peace accord and not to impose peace”.

A senior diplomat in Khartoum told IWPR that the AU force would be expanded into a UN-managed peacekeeping mission within the next six to eight months, provided that a majority of the peacekeepers are African and that the AU retains joint control over the troops.

At a private event, Akol acknowledged that a changeover from the AU’s green berets to the blue UN caps would be the logical course to follow, but he again stressed that any intervention under the UN’s Chapter Seven would be strongly opposed.

Outside Sudan, there is widespread scepticism that a UN-backed AU peacekeeping force will be the answer to the problems in Darfur, where the Sudan government has been accused of genocide.

Fresh violence by the Janjaweed is reported almost daily, including the burning of villages and the rape of women and children.

A delay of more than six months in putting the strengthened AU force in place would at the very least create more fear and uncertainty for the people now huddling in internal refugee camps in Darfur or across the border in Chad.

“Sudan’s government has waffled on the crucial question of whether it will allow in an expanded peacekeeping force…. Now it is obstructing a serious peacekeeping deployment, with the result that its victims will continue to face shortages of medicines and food,” the Washington Post said in an editorial comment on the likely hiatus.

“This may not be genocide by gas chamber or machete. But it is still a calculated policy of targeting ethnic groups and planning, meticulously, to eliminate them.”

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