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U.S.: Obama’s New Sudan Envoy Faces Big Challenges

Jim Lobe and Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Mar 19 2009 (IPS) - As the humanitarian situation in Darfur deteriorates, President Barack Obama’s new Special Envoy for Sudan is likely to find his inbox filled with urgent challenges – none more immediate than how to get relief groups back into the province.

Activists have greeted the appointment of retired air force major general J. Scott Gration as an important step toward coordinating U.S. policy in Sudan.

On Mar.5 Khartoum ordered expelled 13 international humanitarian agencies in retaliation for the issuance of an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Those agencies provided more than half of the assistance sustaining some 1.5 million people who have been displaced by the six-year-old conflict in Darfur.

Aid groups that remain on the ground are reporting a potentially catastrophic situation, including outbreaks of meningitis that have already taken hundreds of lives and threaten tens of thousands more. More than one million people have also lost access to clean water.

“Gen. Gration will need to hit the ground running and spearhead an urgent and sustained diplomatic push – involving China and key African and Arab countries – to establish unimpeded humanitarian access, hold President Bashir accountable for meeting Sudan’s obligation under international law to protect the lives of Sudanese civilians, and move toward lasting peace,” said Jerry Fowler, head of the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of nearly 200 faith-based and human rights groups.

How precisely all of these goals can be met – and which should take priority – has been a matter of considerable debate among human rights and Darfur advocates since last summer, when it first became clear that the ICC’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, would push for a formal indictment against Bashir.

Few here dispute that Bashir deserves to be brought to justice for his role in the brutal and prolonged counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur that is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of as many as 400,000 people, most of them members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit ethnic groups.

Obama and former president George W. Bush have both joined rights groups in calling the Darfur campaign a “genocide”, although the ICC chose not to press genocide charges against Bashir.

However, the Darfur movement and rights groups were split on the issue of prosecuting Bashir. Some Darfur advocates warned that initiating judicial action before any political resolution had been reached in the Sudan would only exacerbate the crisis facing the people of the region, where 1.5 million have been displaced and over four million rely on humanitarian assistance.

Their warnings gained additional force in early March, when the Khartoum government responded immediately to the ICC’s issuance of the warrant by expelling the relief groups, which included Oxfam, Medecins San Frontieres, and Save the Children.

The escalating humanitarian crisis created by their expulsion has led some leaders in the Darfur movement to insist that highest priority should be getting the humanitarian groups back into the region – even if it means deferring Bashir’s prosecution.

The Arab League and the African Union (AU) have already asked the UN Security Council to defer exercising the warrant for one year, in accordance with Chapter 16 of the Rome Statute creating the ICC.

Some human rights groups, however, argue that such a move would subvert the ICC’s authority, as well as undermine the credibility of the new U.S. administration, which until now has supported issuing the warrant.

“Who are we to say that Darfuris must pay the price of international justice?” asked Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has played a leading role in the Darfur movement. “Despite months of warning that that the regime might well target humanitarian efforts if the ICC went forward, the administration was caught flat-footed without any contingency plans. As a result, I see no option to trading out the ICC indictment for the return of the humanitarian workers.”

Others have pushed for more aggressive measures against Khartoum. In a column published in the Washington Post, Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former air force chief of staff and co-chair of Obama’s presidential campaign, called for the U.S. and its allies to use air power to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested in her confirmation hearings that a no-fly zone was being considered as part of a yet-to-be-concluded policy review, and the proposal has attracted support from others, including former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and UN ambassador Susan Rice who, along with another key Obama adviser on his National Security Council staff, Samantha Power, has been an outspoken hawk on Darfur for several years.

But Reeves and other analysts see these threats as largely empty and possibly counter-productive, even if they were implemented.

Aside from working to restore humanitarian aid, Washington’s first priority, he said, should be to strengthen the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which, since its inception two years ago, has been hampered by a lack of resources and equipment, particularly helicopters and armoured vehicles, necessary to patrol such a vast territory and transport supplies and personnel where they are needed.

“How can a military threat by the U.S. be taken seriously when we can’t even give UNAMID the minimum they need to do their job?” he told IPS. “Not to have a single tactical helicopter almost two years after (the UN Security Council authorised UNAMID) is absolutely scandalous.”

Activists and U.S. officials, see China, which buys most of Sudan’s oil and, along with Russia, is Khartoum’s major arms supplier, as key to pressing Bashir to permit relief agencies to return. While it has publicly urged Khartoum to address the humanitarian crisis, Beijing last week blocked a proposed Security Council statement demanding the return of the aid workers by insisting that it include a call for suspending the arrest warrant.

China is in a strong position, if for no other reason than Washington needs its help Beijing’s help on a range of other pressing foreign-policy issues, notably curbing Iran’s nuclear programme.

Some observers, such as Sudan specialist Alex de Waal of the New York-based Social Science Research Council and Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, have also urged the administration to go along with delaying the arrest warrant in the larger interest of preserving the tenuous 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

The CPA ended a 21-year conflict between Khartoum and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army in southern Sudan. Some two million people are believed to have died in that war.

Still, Darfur advocacy groups welcomed the appointment of Gration, whose views reportedly enjoy considerable influence with the president. The two reportedly became close in 2006 when Gration accompanied Obama on a 15-day tour of five African countries, including a stop to visit Darfur refugees in neighbouring Chad. The son of missionaries, the 30-year air force veteran grew up in Africa and is fluent in Swahili.

“Obama’s appointment of Gration as special envoy for Sudan shows that it is a priority for the administration,” said Mark Hanis, executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network, a Washington-based group.

Like Fowler, Hanis added that the appointment must be followed up “with swift action from the administration to reverse the humanitarian expulsions, forge a peace deal for Darfur, reinforce the UNAMID peacekeeping mission, and ensure the (CPA’s) implementation.”

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