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US-SUDAN: Darfur Activists Deplore Closer Ties With Khartoum

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, May 1 2009 (IPS) - Washington’s recent move to “normalise” relations with Sudan is being called a “capitulation” by critics.

The Sudan Times reported that “The United States of America is positioning itself to become ‘friends’ with the Government of Sudan, seeing this approach as the best way to improve the situation in Darfur and reach a political settlement,” according to a closed briefing given by Special Envoy Scott Gration at the U.S. State Department on Apr. 20.

Gration recently visited the country to speak with the Sudanese government, announcing on Apr. 2 that, “The United States and Sudan want to be partners and so we are looking for opportunities for us to build a stronger bilateral relationship. And I come here with my hands open and it will be up to the Sudanese government to determine how they want to continue with that relationship.”

“Hopefully it will be with a hand of friendship, hand of cooperation, and one that we can move ahead, because like all my American colleagues ‘ana ahib Sudan’ (I love Sudan),” he said.

In early March, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war-torn Darfur region. The U.N. estimates the Darfur conflict has cost 300,000 lives, while over 2.7 million people have been displaced, in six years of fighting.

Bashir rejected the decision, calling it a western ploy to take Sudan’s resources. In retaliation for the ICC’s arrest warrant, he forced 13 major humanitarian organisations out of Darfur, citing the need to protect the sovereignty and security of the country.

According to the United Nations, 1.1 million people will go without food, 1.5 will go without healthcare and over 1 million will go without water as a result of the expulsions.

On Mar. 30, U.S. President Barack Obama called the organisations’ expulsion an “immediate crisis,” adding, “We have to figure out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place, to reverse that decision, or to find some mechanism whereby we avert an enormous humanitarian crisis.”

Sudan expert Eric Reeves opined that Obama has decided to take the same route as former President George W. Bush, which Obama criticised as a “’reckless and cynical initiative’” on the campaign trail in April 2008. “Obama has capitulated, deciding that ‘normalised relations’ with Khartoum aren’t such a bad idea after all,” Reed said.

He added that the Obama administration was unprepared for the aftermath of the ICC indictment and set out on a “policy of accommodating (the Sudanese) regime in which it is perpetrating war crimes.”

Analysts in the U.S. are sceptical about renewed diplomatic relations, pointing to the grave situation in Darfur as evidence that Khartoum has done very little to protect its own people.

“We cannot constructively engage with those committing mass atrocities against their own people,” said Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies.

“Re-engagement with Sudanese government should be done with caution,” said Michael Stulman of the non-profit group Africa Action.

Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also visited Khartoum this month and met with Sudanese officials. He announced that Sudan agreed to let in new aid groups to replace the ones expelled under the condition that they employ local staff that previously worked with the expelled groups. However, since Sudan has accused the ejected relief groups of collaborating with the ICC, Khartoum stressed that no previously expelled worker will be allowed back.

Kerry suggested that removing Sudan from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism and lifting economic sanctions is contingent upon developments in the coming weeks.

“Absolutely. That is entirely on the table. I can’t tell you when, that’s a decision President Obama makes,” he said.

A recent report on terrorism by the State Department said, “Sudan remained a cooperative partner in global counterterrorism efforts.” However, Sudan remained listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, despite Sudanese objections listed in the report.

Senator Russell Feingold, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs, said, “The report overstates the level of cooperation in (the U.S.’s) counterterrorism relationship with Sudan.” He thinks that a more comprehensive U.S. assessment of its policy toward Sudan, including the conflict in Darfur and the hostilities between the North and South, is needed.

Reeves called the recent agreement “completely nebulous” and a “series of non-statements,” adding that “the time-frame specified in the Kerry agreement (one month) is simply impossible, as all in the aid community recognise – even with a complete re-admission of all expelled groups.”

But the concerns of activists and dissenters appear to not be getting through to the administration.

After a meeting at the headquarters of the National Congress Party in Khartoum on Apr. 8, Gration was optimistic about a changed relationship with Khartoum. “I’m very encouraged to have a new friend, to have someone who we can work with,” he said. “And I believe that there is hope – and there is a chance – so we don’t have to continue to do what we’ve done and get what we’ve got, but we can do something new and get something better.”

Woods pointed out that one reason the Obama administration seems to be capitulating to Khartoum is because Sudan is seen as an ally in the fight against extremists. “The root of the problem is that the U.S. is prioritising these other types of interests and relegating to the back burner the interests of the Sudanese people,” she said.

With counter-terrorism as a sole priority, little is likely to change in Khartoum.

“Bilateral and U.S.-led multilateral diplomatic pressure has little credible effect when Sudanese officials know that despite whatever State Department officials say, U.S. intelligence agencies will continue to coddle them,” according to Africa Action.

The U.S., along with the EU, was critical in bringing about the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s decades-long north-south civil war. However, as international attention has focused more on the crisis in Darfur, tensions between the north and south have escalated and many worry that the treaty is near collapse.

In an attempt to quell the violence in Darfur between pro-government militias and rebels, the Security Council authorised the deployment of a 26,000-strong joint United Nations-African Union (UNAMID) force in 2007. The mission is now deployed in every part of Darfur, with only two-thirds of its mandated military personnel in place.

Rodolphe Adada, the U.N.-African Union (AU) joint representative, said the mission’s success has been modest due to a lack of political progress.

“The overriding policy goal of the Obama administration in Sudan should be a comprehensive peace,” said John Prendergast of the Enough Project. “The United States needs to take the strategic lead in putting a credible process together for Darfur, while constructing more effective mechanisms to support the implementation of the north-south deal and the Eastern agreement.”

Some organisations see Obama’s move as a step in the right direction, as long as Khartoum complies with various requirements.

“So long as they continue to press for the return of humanitarian organisations and an end to obstruction and opposition to the U.N. Security Council resolution with respect to Darfur, then the approaches are fine, but those are critical,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group (ICG). “I don’t think the administration is shifting the objectives.”

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