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16 Sep 2007 07:09
A real and unprecedented opportunity for peace in Darfur is emerging after breakthrough talks between Britain and Khartoum this week, according to the United Kingdom’s key envoy to the region, Mark Malloch Brown. A new optimism is building ahead of next month’s crucial talks between 13 rebel factions and the Sudanese government in Libya.
Malloch Brown, the Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, met Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Tuesday.
He said that the meeting had run on for twice as long as scheduled and that the two men had discussed “with some emotion” the ancient ties between Britain and Sudan and prospects for lasting peace in the troubled Darfur region.
“There suddenly seems a lot of straws to grasp at,” said Malloch Brown. But he emphasised: “The Sudanese government did some terrible things and we stood up against them,’ adding: “There is no room here for blind trust or naivety.”
In an interview with the Observer ahead of Sunday’s day of global action on Darfur, Malloch Brown revealed there are major logistical problems with the recently agreed deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.
After much arm-twisting, Bashir had agreed to a UN resolution to send 26Â 000 peacekeepers to Darfur. They had been due to arrive in the country by mid-October, but “as yet they have not built the base and not identified a water supply to support the troops,” Malloch Brown said.
Britain and France are both working flat out to try to help facilitate the movement of a tranche of Rwandan and Nigerian UN soldiers. But it means it could be next year before the urgently needed buffer force is in place. The UN troops will join the over-stretched 7Â 000 African Union peacekeepers presently on the ground in Darfur to form a “hybrid” army with a mandate to intervene with force where necessary.
Malloch Brown said UN commanders expected a fight. “I’m sure the forces will be tested early on by janjaweed elements who want to humiliate it. But this is an enforcement force, not an observation force. It will be stepping in to protect civilians who are under attack.”
The Darfur conflict began in 2003. It is an environmental war, a fight over the twin resources of land and water. When rebel groups began attacking government targets they met fierce retaliation from government forces and their sponsored Arab janjaweed militias. It left 200Â 000 civilians dead and two million displaced.
In an interview with the BBC World Service on Sunday, Gordon Brown called it “one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our time”.
The mass slaughter which saw then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell declare a genocide in Darfur has receded, but 200 people still die in the region each month, victims of rampant political and criminal violence.
Vicious factional fighting grips refugee camps and there is little or no policing on the ground to protect the vulnerable. Peace deals signed in 2004 and 2006 failed. Sanctions against Khartoum were weakened by resistance by China and the Arab League as well as hesitation from some African countries. But pressure came from unexpected sources as Darfur became a cause célÃ¨bre in the US led by George Clooney.
Malloch Brown believes that “despite cynicism” the celebrity pressure worked and praised an “exciting new activism” that was springing up among ordinary Americans.
“The Save Darfur Coalition has done a fantastic job of keeping the pressure on the American public. Bush and Blair both had a great deal of personal passion about Darfur. But there’s a limit to what leaders can do if there isn’t a heavy level of concern from the public.”
He defended the American stance on Darfur, claiming that its “little advertised” sanctions had achieved a great deal by impeding Sudan’s banking systems. He also revealed that there was never a chance that the international community would take military action against Khartoum. “No one is up for deploying a military force in the heart of Africa ... People do not want to do it and it has never been a realistic option, so there has always been an element of empty threat there.”
Asked for a measure of his hopes for peace in Darfur, Malloch Brown looks thoughtful. “On a scale of one to 10 I’d say I’m now at seven. A month ago that would have been three.”
Today’s “Day for Darfur” is being marked by events in about 30 countries and the release of a charity record—with celebrity support from the likes of Matt Damon and Desmond Tutu. It was organised by a coalition of over 50 groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Save Darfur Coalition.
In London, marchers will go from the Sudanese Embassy to Downing Street where a rally including speeches from Malloch Brown and Andrew Mitchell, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, will take place.
“We are hopeful that these newly approved peacekeepers will help end the violence,” said Abdul Adam of the Darfur Union. “But the reality is the situation on the ground has not changed. The attacks continue. People are still dying. It is up to the international community to ensure that these attacks on civilians stop and that we are on our way to returning peace to the people of Darfur.”
After years of the world failing to help Darfur, Malloch Brown and his fellow ministers want concrete moves at the 27 October meetings in Tripoli. “These will not be short meetings,” he warns. “But I think we can prevail.”—Guardian Unlimited Â
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