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SUDAN: U.S. Envoy Faces Intense Scrutiny over Darfur Policy

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Dec 4 2009 (IPS) - As U.S. special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration defended the Barack Obama administration’s new policy toward the war-torn country on Capitol Hill Thursday, NGOs and a U.N. official reacted with disappointment and impatience.

Before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, Gration faced persistent questioning from some members of Congress over the policy’s inclusion of carrots alongside the sticks favoured by most international organisations.

The policy, announced Oct. 19, aims bring the conflict in the western-central Darfur region – which the U.S. and others have labeled as genocide – to an end as well as maintain the peace between the northern and southern Sudan that was established by a 2005 treaty.

This peace is thought to be threatened as tensions rise ahead of elections in April 2010 -the country’s first since 1986 – and a referendum on possible southern secession the following year.

But the policy’s path toward achieving these goals traces a controversial route between sanctions, whose effectiveness is more widely accepted, and a strategy of negotiating with Khartoum, for which Gration reportedly advocated and for which he has come under fire from advocacy groups. Gration, a retired Air Force major general, said in September that the U.S., in order to secure the cooperation of President Omar al-Bashir’s government, should “think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement”.

Thursday, Senator Sam Brownback, who was allowed to participate in the House hearing, led Gration down an accusatory and intense chain of logic which culminated in the question, “You are dealing with a government that is conducting an ongoing genocide, is that correct?”

“I am dealing with a government,” said Gration.

After a brief back and forth, Gration repeated, “I am dealing with the government in Khartoum of Sudan.”

“Which is currently conducting a genocide in Sudan, is that correct?” said Brownback.

“That is correct,” Gration conceded.

While these meeting are “in an effort to end the conflict, in an effort to end gross human rights abuses”, as Gration told Brownback, these objectives have not been enough to get advocacy groups off the envoy’s back.

They were particularly upset Thursday that Gration did not reveal details of the carrots or sticks that were supposedly included in the administration’s Sudan policy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken in October of a “classified annex” that listed the incentives that would be on the table for Khartoum.

“There is no annex,” Gration said Thursday. “I’m telling you that I’ve never seen one.”

“The big surprise was there is not a classified annex. And that suggests there is a big hole at the center of the administration’s strategy. They haven’t clearly articulated for themselves, international partners, Khartoum and other actors what the benchmarks are for progress,” said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.

Sam Bell, executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network, echoed Fowler: “After hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives and the public release of an administration policy, we still haven’t heard what specific benchmarks Special Envoy Gration is using to measure progress in Sudan. It is also alarming to hear there might not be a classified annex given the prominent announcement of it at last month’s policy roll-out.”

Gration did, however, mention “classified working papers” on which he would be willing to brief members of Congress privately. He also said the administration has told China, which has significant investments in oil-rich Sudan and reportedly sells arms to the country, that they should join the U.S. in imposing sanctions.

“We have. We have, indeed,” Gration responded when pressed on the question. He said President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao discussed the matter in private during their meetings in Beijing last month.

But Enrico Carish, coordinator of the most recent U.N. Panel of Experts on Sudan report, told the committee later in the day that “the United States appears to have now joined the group of influential states who sit by quietly and do nothing to ensure that sanctions work to protect Darfurians.”

He contrasted this with actions of the Bush administration, particularly in 2004 and 2005.

Carish was less than enthusiastic about a mixed sanctions-negotiations approach. He said the U.S. and others have backed off their enforcement of a U.N. arms embargo against Sudan, allowing weapons from countries like China and Chad to illegally enter the country in recent years.

“Increasingly it looks like poorly understood and under-enforced U.N. sanctions are being sold out in favour of mediation whose success is far from ensured,” Carish said.

Gration also noted that U.S. officials would meet in January for a quarterly evaluation of Khartoum’s progress toward the goals laid out in the U.S. policy.

In terms of the upcoming elections, he said he was concerned about not only escalating violence ahead of the votes but also procedural disagreements and the contested census results that are slowing voter registration. “We are deeply engaged with the parties through the trilateral process to resolve these outstanding issues,” he said.

The 2005 treaty, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ended a 21-year civil war between the north and south in which two million people are believe to have died. It also laid out a path toward elections – a path which has proven to be rockier than hoped.

In his testimony Thursday, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Center for American Progress’ Enough Project, focused on the importance and difficulty of free and credible elections.

“The parties should agree to delay the election until the conditions mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement exist, because the U.S. and international community should not recognize any election that does not meet basic standards,” Prendergast said.

To reach these conditions, he said, “Sanctions on the Sudanese government should be ratcheted up, including enforcement of the arms embargo, denial of debt relief, and greater support for further International Criminal Court investigations and indictments.”

Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Gration said reports have placed the number of Sudanese registered to vote at 12 million, though the numbers vary greatly “across constituencies”. Voter registration will conclude next week.

But in Darfur, two million people have been driven from their homes and 300,000 have died since the conflict began in 2003, according to the U.N. Darfuris, and millions of other Sudanese, are expected to be largely left out of the election.

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