Op-Ed: On the Brink of a New Tragedy in Darfur

On the Brink of a New Tragedy in Darfur

By Jennifer Anderson Lewis and Sebastian R. Astrada, October 28, 2005

Two years ago, the world slept while the Darfur region of the Sudan experienced what the United States in 2004 termed “genocide.” Sudanese government-sponsored gangs perpetrated horrific human rights violations on the villages and towns of Darfur, all of which have been widely discussed and condemned by the international community.

Yet one year later the future of Darfur is still in serious jeopardy. What began as a promising new round of African Union-sponsored peace negotiations between the Sudanese Government and rebel groups has devolved into a new cycle of violence. The situation in Darfur is alarming and urgent. As recently stated by Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “We are close to a moment in which a new tragedy might occur in Darfur.” Both the precarious “ceasefire agreement” and increasingly stalled peace negotiations are at a critical phase. And the AU, under-staffed and ill-equipped for the task of ensuring peace and security, has itself come under brutal attack. The international community must respond immediately and effectively to prevent a full-scale re-escalation of hostilities in the region. But it might already be too late.

The ceasefire has been violated on an almost daily basis by both sides since its inception over a year ago. The Khartoum government has responded by urging the international community to pressure the rebels to comply with the ceasefire, despite having egregiously breached the agreement itself. And, while the government has condemned the abduction and killing of AU and UN mission members, it has refused to provide security for the region, claiming that the AU should stop the attacks. As a result, the security situation has grown increasingly more desperate every day.

The enforcement of the arms embargo has failed, and armed groups continue to proliferate in the region. The number of active rebel factions in the area has increased from two to four or five in the last few weeks alone, further destabilizing the unification of the two main rebel movements, SLMA and JEM. There continue to be reports of fighters streaming in from the Chadian border to join the fighting. And, perhaps most importantly, the government has failed to disarm the infamous Janjaweed militia.

Unfortunately, the return of some civilians to their villages, either due to the onset of the farming season or to forceful ejection from refugee camps, has coincided with this increase in violence. The potential loss of life is enormous, and the risk of rapid escalation very high.

In the face of this upswing in violence there has been alarming inaction on the part of the international community. The situation, as recently stated by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, is one “the world has not fully faced.” The UN, which has been “threatening” sanctions against the Sudanese government for failing to disarm the Janjaweed has not taken any decisive action to hold them responsible for the ongoing violence in the area. Recent statements by the organization only re-affirm the urgency of the situation, but provide no tangible means of handling it. The United States, for its part, has confined itself to “pressing” the parties to honor the ceasefire and stating its desire to see a peace process in place by December.

Action is needed, not words. Intense diplomatic efforts must be undertaken at the highest levels to avoid a descent into full-scale conflict in Darfur.

The international community must demand that Khartoum act concretely to prevent further escalation and to allow increased international oversight and monitoring. Of crucial importance is a widespread security plan for the region that can be properly enforced and monitored. Only in the context of a true ceasefire can a comprehensive political solution to the tragic ethnic warfare in the Sudan be brokered. It is crucial that the situation in Darfur not be forgotten. The last time the international community refused to act, nothing short of genocide occurred.

Jennifer Anderson Lewis is a Senior Research Associate with the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG). Sebastian R. Astrada is a Junior Research Associate with PILPG.