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20 Oct 2009 06:56
Given his tough rhetoric on Darfur during last year’s US election campaign, Barack Obama will face inevitable criticism over his new policy of engaging rather than bashing Khartoum’s leadership. But even opponents of the revised US strategy unveiled in Washington agree Sudan has reached a very fragile juncture.
Obama had little choice but to soften Washington’s approach and try something different—or risk a geostrategic and human calamity.
It’s been evident for some time that if genocide occurred in Darfur, in western Sudan, six years ago—and the government of President Omar al-Bashir strongly disputes it—the term does not accurately describe what’s happening there now.
UN officials and aid agency staff say the extreme violence of that period, which the US blames on Khartoum and its Arab Janjaweed allies, has been replaced by more traditional, low-intensity conflict involving clan-based rebel militias and criminal gangs, with occasional interventions by government forces. At the same time, an internationally sponsored peace process is in train. A next round of talks is due in Qatar this month.
Even Susan Rice, Obama’s UN ambassador, who at one time advocated military intervention in Darfur, has rowed back. “Things have changed in Sudan from a year ago or two years ago, and this policy is an effort to take that reality into account,” Rice said. Yet in apparent deference to American opinion heavily influenced by Christian evangelical lobbying, the White House is sticking with the term “ongoing genocide” for now and will not ease sanctions until and unless its new policy elicits positive responses.
Obama’s decision to opt for initially non-confrontational “incentives and pressure” to modify Khartoum’s behaviour, as recommended by his Sudan envoy Scott Gration, was prompted by more than the relative calm in Darfur. Ever greater attention is now focusing on southern Sudan, where intertribal violence has killed more than 1 200 people so far this year, a toll far higher than in Darfur during the same period.
At stake is the Western-backed 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of civil war—and related plans to hold national elections in April and a secession referendum in 2011. The collapse of the CPA would have major negative strategic implications for western interests in the Nile basin, the Horn of Africa and further afield. It would be a disaster for the people of Sudan.
Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of the semi-autonomous southern Sudan government created by the CPA, wrote to Obama last month complaining that al-Bashir was deliberately destabilising the south by fomenting violence in oil-rich areas. Human Rights Watch recently accused both sides of failing to meet CPA obligations to downsize and integrate militias. It said the Khartoum government had also “failed to implement peace agreement provisions on border demarcation and troop withdrawal”, thereby exposing civilians to abuses.
UN envoys say the unrest threatens the return of a remaining two million out of 4,5-million refugees displaced by the north-south war. Meanwhile, Action Against Hunger is warning that southern Sudan faces a “massive food deficit” caused by high staple prices and drought. Acute child malnutrition rates have spiked at well above World Health Organisation emergency levels, the charity said, while shortages were expected to worsen next year.
Responding to such concerns, Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, al-Bashir’s senior adviser, told the UN general assembly last month that Khartoum welcomed constructive international collaboration. Renewed ethnic clashes in the south “threaten not only the stability of Sudan but the stability of the whole region”, he said. Salahuddin added that Khartoum was committed to holding peaceful elections next year: “We invite the international community to support financially and materially the conduct of elections in deeds and in words.” He also called for international backing for the Darfur peace process.
By signalling willingness to accept these invitations to work together, Obama may be able to exert greater influence in other areas of concern. One is the growing emergency in eastern Sudan, where thousands of refugees fleeing from war-torn Somalia and Eritrea’s Stalinist government are arriving every month.
For these and other potent reasons, such as combating the regional spread of hardline Islamist ideology and challenging China’s growing influence, constructive US and Western engagement with Sudan makes sense to the White House. But as with Iran, Syria and Burma, Obama’s unfamiliar “hugs not slugs” policy will be expected to produce results—and quickly. - guardian.co.uk
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