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POLITICS-SUDAN: Darfur Crisis Set to Worsen?

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Aug 28 2006 (IPS) - Human rights and Africa activists are urging the U.N. Security Council to urgently authorise the deployment of as many as 20,000 peace-keeping troops to halt the rising tide of violence and chaos in Darfur, Sudan’s western-most region.

But Khartoum’s staunch opposition to the deployment, as well as the apparent unwillingness of the Security Council to impose strong sanctions against the regime or consider sending troops the regime’s consent, suggests that the situation in the war-ravaged region, where as many as 450,000 people have perished since 2003, may only get worse in the coming weeks and months.

Indeed, reports that the government has been deploying its own military forces in the region and that rebel groups have received heavy weaponry, allegedly from Eritrea, have set off alarms here and at the U.N. where Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch warned early last week that “something very ugly is brewing.”

According to a source at the U.N., Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hédi Annabi told the Security Council Monday that the build-up of government forces in Darfur has already begun, and a military offensive is imminent.

Kate Gilmore, Amnesty International’s deputy secretary general, noted that, “Eyewitnesses in al-Fasher in North Darfur are telling us that the Sudanese government military flights are flying in troops and arms on a daily basis.”

“Displaced people in Darfur are absolutely terrified that the same soldiers who expelled them from their homes and villages may now be sent supposedly to protect them,” she added.

“With the looming threat of fresh military action by the Sudanese army, the Security Council must deploy peacekeeping urgently to protect civilians,” warned Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Monday.

“Adopting a resolution is a crucial first step toward stopping the bloodshed in Darfur, but member states must also do all they can to compel Sudan to accept a U.N. force,” he said.

So far, however, even the United States, which joined with Britain last week in submitting a draft resolution that would authorise a deployment of up to 17,300 troops and another 3,000 police, appears unwilling to exert serious pressure on Khartoum to accept such a force, which would replace an increasingly ineffective 7,000-strong African Union (AU) peace-monitoring operation whose mandate is set to expire at the end of next month.

Washington, which has denounced the violence that has been directed by the government and government-backed Arab militias mainly against Darfur’s African minorities as “genocide”, dispatched its top Africa official, assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer, to Khartoum late last week.

But Frazer, who noted before setting out from Washington that the security situation in Darfur was “deteriorating very quickly”, was reportedly unable even to secure a meeting with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has repeatedly rejected appeals that he accept a U.N. force mandated to impose peace on the region.

Despite her apparent failure, Washington’s ambassador at the U.N., John Bolton told reporters Monday that he wanted the pending resolution approved by the Council “in the next couple days”.

“The time for talk is over,” he said. “It is time for action. It is time for this Council to uphold its responsibility and pass a resolution immediately authorising the deployment of U.N. forces.”

Still, most analysts believe that the Council is unlikely to approve any resolution that would impose such a force on Khartoum without its approval. Sudanese government representatives chose not to attend Monday’s closed-door Security Council session on Darfur.

“Diplomatically, there doesn’t appear to be any willingness to put serious pressure on the government of Sudan, other than theoretical pressure,” according to Colin Thomas-Jensen, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) here. “There’s lots of bluster, especially from the U.S., but no sense of real action.”

Russia and China – both permanent members of the Council – have expressed strong reservations about the draft, although it remains unclear if either would veto it if it came to a vote. Qatar, currently the Council’s sole Arab member, has also strongly supported Khartoum’s position.

Washington, however, has shown itself increasingly reluctant over the past year to exert strong pressure on Russia and China over the situation in Darfur due to the much higher priority it has attached to gaining their cooperation in its growing confrontation with Iran.

The Bush administration has called on the Council to impose sanctions against Tehran if it fails to accede to demands that it stop enriching uranium for its nuclear programme by the end of this month.

The month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – and the European Union’s agreement to send some 7,000 peacekeeping troops there to police a fragile cease-fire – has also made it less likely that the U.N. will be able to quickly put together the kind of “robust” U.N. peacekeeping force that most analysts believe will be necessary to stop the violence in Darfur, a region that is roughly the size of France.

“With Europe contributing to Lebanon, there’s a new question – are the kinds of forces that Bush himself has said are needed really available for deployment to Darfur?” asked Thomas-Jensen. “Or will this simply amount to a rehatting of the AU force, which would be thoroughly inadequate?”

“We know the Security Council’s attention is focused on Iran and Lebanon,” noted HRW’s Takirambudde, “but the United States, Britain and France must step up efforts to ensure that Darfur is a priority also.”

If Sudan does not go along with a U.N. force, Takirambudde and other activists are calling on the Council to impose targeted sanctions, including an asset freeze and a travel ban, against specific Sudanese officials responsible for egregious human rights abuses or for blocking implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) that was signed by Khartoum and the largest rebel faction nearly four months ago.

A U.N. panel of experts named 17 government and rebel officials as among the worst abusers in a confidential report submitted to the Council earlier this year, but, despite the reported presence on the list of top Khartoum officials, only three individuals – two rebel leaders and one retired general – have been sanctioned to date.

“At the time, Bolton said the three were just a ‘down payment’,” Thomas-Jensen told IPS. “We need to start seeing the payment of the balance.”

Meanwhile, Sudan’s own proposal for imposing an end to the violence in Darfur, which it submitted to the Council late last week, coupled with its reported arms build-up, is provoking growing concern here, as well as in the region itself, according to human rights and humanitarian groups. Khartoum has said it would send 33,550 military and police forces to Darfur, a step that would itself violate the DPA’s terms.

“The Sudanese government’s ‘protection plan’ is a sham and must be firmly rejected,” according to Amnesty’s Gilmore. “How can Sudan …realistically propose being a peacekeeping (force) in a conflict to which it is a major party and perpetrator of grave human rights violations?”

The government, which has periodically harassed humanitarian groups and blocked delivery of relief supplies to some of the more than two million people displaced by the violence, suggested last week it will expel the International Rescue Committee from Sudan shortly after the group released a report on the unprecedented number of rapes that have taken place in and around camps for the internally displaced in Darfur.

Attacks on and killings of humanitarian workers have also reached record levels in the past month, according to the U.N.

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