Sudan cease-fire call gets wary reception in Darfur
Previous cease-fire attempts have failed to prevent violence. Many say the Sudanese president is trying to prevent a war-crimes indictment.
By Simon Montlake
posted November 13, 2008 at 10:00 am EST
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has proposed a unilateral cease-fire in the troubled Darfur region, including the disarming of progovernment militia blamed for five years of bloodshed that has displaced millions of villagers and drawn in foreign peacekeepers. Some rebel groups in the area immediately dismissed the proposal as an empty gesture. Several previous cease-fire proposals have failed to stem the fighting in Darfur.
Mr. Bashir faces a possible war-crimes indictment in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Wednesday's proposal appears aimed at persuading the United Nations not to pursue the indictment, as it could jeopardize any peace initiatives. The cease-fire in Darfur is part of a package of measures from a Qatari-backed initiative that rebel groups in Darfur have refused to join.
The BBC reports that the panel's recommendations are expected to pave the way for a peace conference in Qatar. But any conference is unlikely to succeed unless Darfur's various rebel groups can be brought into the process.
"I hereby announce our immediate unconditional ceasefire between the armed forces and the warring factions, provided that an effective monitoring mechanism is put into action and observed by all involved parties," Mr Bashir said.
The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a key rebel group, told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that it could not agree to the ceasefire.
However, Sudanese Industry Minister Jalal al-Dugair, a spokesman for the SPI [Sudan People's Initiative, a government-backed peace initiative], told the BBC that the government would launch contacts with the rebel groups to promote the ceasefire.
Last week, the JEM rejected Qatar's mediation and called for direct one-on-one talks with the Sudanese government, Reuters reported. But a member of the ruling National Congress Party rejected this proposal and said a comprehensive solution was needed that involved all parties, unlike in 2006, when only one Darfur rebel group signed onto a peace accord.
In July, the chief prosecutor of the ICC sought an arrest warrant for Bashir on 10 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Sudan wants the UN Security Council to suspend any legal proceeding for a year and allow Sudan to prosecute Darfur 'criminals,' says Agence France-Presse. Arab and African countries have largely sided with Sudan on the issue.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the call for a cease-fire, saying the world expects "concrete progress," his office said.
Ban "welcomes President Omar al-Beshir's declaration of an immediate ceasefire between the government of Sudan and the armed movements in Darfur as well as the intention by the government of Sudan to disarm all the militias," his spokeswoman said in a statement.
Believed to be supported by Khartoum, ethnic Arab militia known as janjaweed are accused of widespread atrocities against African civilians in Darfur where as many as 300,000 people have died since 2003. Rebel groups in the region have called for the disarming of the janjaweed – as well as a pullback of government troops – as a precondition for peace talks, reports the Associated Press. Bashir promised Wednesday to "empower" a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur as part of the peace plan.
A top official in the peacekeeping force, known as UNAMID, welcomed the agreement and said the U.N. and Qatar would now approach rebel leaders to try to bring them into a cease-fire.
"The government has put something concrete on the table for discussion. It puts on the table ... almost all the issues the rebels have demanded," Ali Hassan, the head of UNAMID in southern Darfur, told The Associated Press.
But Darfur rebel leaders rejected any immediate ceasefire.
Abdulwahid Elnur, the exiled leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement, said the rebels cannot accept any ceasefire until the janjaweed are disarmed.
"We need action not words from them," he told AP. "It's not a matter of the ceasefire, it's a matter of stopping the genocide ... We don't trust these people."
In an editorial, Saudi-based English-language daily Arab News said Bashir's proposed cease-fire was commendable, including the call to disarm the janjaweed, though it questioned how this could be achieved. The unsigned editorial pointed out that the cool response from rebel groups was a concern, but should not be used as a reason for inaction by Sudanese authorities.
Khartoum's move can be seen as a necessary precondition for a more nuanced and considered reaction by the rebels, now split into some 12 different militias. They will all now be coming under pressure from outside players, not least the government of Chad. Indeed it may be no coincidence that only three days ago the Chadian and Sudanese governments ended a six-month rift and normalized relations by once again exchanging ambassadors.
CNN reports that Darfur activists in the US are pushing President-elect Barack Obama to prioritize the troubled region when he takes office in January. John Prendergast, whose ENOUGH campaign is closely affiliated with Obama's transition co-chairman John Podesta, wants Mr. Obama to appoint a team to focus on Darfur during his first 100 days.
During the presidential campaign, Obama called the crisis in Darfur "a collective stain on our national and human conscience" and said he would make ending it a priority on "day one."
Obama has promised to appoint a special envoy to deal with the Darfur issue and implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the decades-long civil war between the North and South.
That agreement could be a model for a peace process in Darfur, Prendergast said. Although the United States does not have to lead the peace process, it could be an active partner in the global effort to develop a strategy for getting the various parties in Sudan together, he said.
The peace deal signed in 2005 between Khartoum and the mineral-rich south is already fraying, as both sides may be bracing for a possible return to fighting, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The war between the two sides lasted 22 years and killed more than 2 million people. Under the 2005 pact, neither side is allowed to reinforce their military without approval from a joint defense panel. But analysts say this is being flouted. The semiautonomous south last month decided to double its budget to cover additional defense spending.
Decades of conflict have left many in the north and the south unable to fully trust one another, leaving many analysts wondering if the current peace will endure.
"This arms race has been going on for some time, with each side anticipating the worst," says Alex de Waal, a program director at the New York-based Social Science Research Council and a world-renowned expert on Sudan.