Year of failure in Darfur as ICC spectre looms over Sudan
KHARTOUM (AFP) — Darfur ends 2008 more dangerous than ever with a much vaunted UN mission unable to protect civilians and a possible war crimes indictment against Sudan's president casting a pall over 2009.
Huge hopes 12 months ago that the United Nations could bring some measure of stability to the western Sudanese region by assuming control of peacekeeping have been largely disappointed as the mission struggles to find its footing.
"Genocide continues" was the blunt if controversial verdict this week from International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who is seeking an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Beshir over the six-year conflict.
Insecurity has spiralled as the war, which erupted in 2003 when Darfur rebel groups rose against Arab-led government in Khartoum, mushroomed into a complex web of violence between myriad groups and also marred by widespread banditry.
What was to have been the world's largest UN-led peacekeeping force became operational last December 31, but by the end of November it had deployed just 12,163 troops and police, less than half its total planned strength of 26,000.
An "unconditional" ceasefire declared by Beshir in November as part of diplomatic efforts to stall international legal moves against him was dismissed by rebels as disingenuous propaganda, and fighting and bombing has continued.
"Millions of people are living under daily threat of violence and are dependent on humanitarian aid that is hindered or entirely blocked by ongoing insecurity and endless bureaucratic hurdles," said Julia Fromholz, director of the Crimes Against Humanity Programme at Human Rights First.
UN officials estimate that since 2003 up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes. They say 4.7 million people are getting aid in the world's biggest relief effort, set to cost one billion dollars in 2009.
Nearly 310,000 civilians have been displaced this year, UN officials add.
The Sudan government has been heavily criticised in the West for brutally trying to suppress the uprising and unleashing Arab proxy militias, but insists the death toll stands at 10,000 and dismisses other statistics as a conspiracy.
Aid workers come under near daily attack, mostly from bandits and rebels, and in some areas have incurred increasing restrictions from the authorities, with the quality and quantity of aid delivered suffering as a result.
Insecure roads and expensive air travel have also forced cuts in food aid.
In the first nine months of 2008, 11 aid workers were killed and humanitarian premises attacked or broken into 144 times, compared with 93 last year. The UN says it has humanitarian access to just 65 percent of the region.
The UN-led peacekeeping force lacks its quota of 24 helicopters to cover a region larger than France. Patrols are far from regular in all areas, and civilians say peacekeepers cannot protect themselves, let alone others.
Eleven UN troops have been killed, including seven in a July ambush that prompted the mission to boost security levels.
The force was criticised for standing back in August when 33 people died during a government raid on Kalma, Darfur's biggest camp for the displaced.
There is some hope that a stronger UN peacekeeping force -- the UNAMID hybrid mission with the African Union -- will emerge in 2009.
An initially reluctant Sudan is cooperating fully over UNAMID deployment. In some areas, regular patrols have made civilians feel more secure and improved access for aid workers. And UNAMID now has a 24-hour police presence in Kalma.
In May, the Justice and Equality Movement attacked Khartoum, the first time regional rebels have ever approached the seat of power, and although they were defeated the brazen assault humiliated Sudan's army.
Then in July, the ICC's Moreno-Ocampo demanded an arrest warrant against Beshir on 10 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Judges are expected to make a decision in early 2009 on whether to issue what would be the first ICC warrant for a sitting head of state.
Some say a furious Sudan will evict peacekeepers and aid workers, torpedoing hopes of resolving the conflict, jeopardising a 2005 peace agreement between north and south Sudan and compromising the path to elections in 2009.
Others believe the Khartoum regime will use diplomacy to stay in power and convince the United Nations it is serious about a solution in Darfur.
Efforts to resolve the conflict, stalemated throughout 2008, have shown signs of picking up with a new international mediator on Darfur and the Gulf state of Qatar also keen to host talks.
But the omens remain murky. The rebels are fragmented and their incentive to negotiate with a would-be indicted war criminal president unclear.
"It hasn't got any closer, if anything it's been receding," said Sudan expert Alex de Waal, referring to prospects of a negotiated peace.
"If the referendum on self-determination goes ahead in south Sudan in two years' time and the south separates, I think then we're in for another five years of indeterminacy in Darfur, so I think it's a very, very long way away."