Darfur: Diplomacy and its Discontents
In the wake of the Global Day for Darfur and the legions of politicians lining up to proclaim their support for the beleaguered people of the region, one could be forgiven for thinking that the situation might just improve. One could be forgiven for thinking that democratic nations might be shamed into putting their resolve where their resolutions are. However, on the face of it at least, it seems that this optimism is misplaced.
So say recent media reports – notably those in the Guardian – which exhort us to abandon our quest to intervene in Darfur and adopt a laissez-faire approach to genocide instead. Their rationale? We should stop engaging in “regime abuse” lest we upset Al-Bashir and his cronies causing them to be even more obstructive. If we are going to intervene in Darfur they argue, then why not elsewhere? Darfur is, after all, just a complicated inter-tribal conflict with no obvious political solution. Far better then to give up our efforts, go home, put the kettle on and post off our donation to the Red Cross. They’ll be able to assuage our concerns by handing out relief when things get really bad.
Darfur is a mess. That much is undeniable. A stalled and incomplete peace process, an impotent peace keeping force, warring rebel factions and a bleak geopolitical terrain add up to a seemingly intractable crisis. Diplomacy, we are told, might be the only option left. Diplomacy may allow a move away from belligerence into more productive political territory thereby opening up a space for dialogue. But doesn’t this mean that diplomacy has to be a serious exercise here, not just rhetoric backed up with little real substance?
Since Abuja, serious efforts have been made by some elements within the “non-signing” rebel factions to rekindle dialogue. Approaches have been made to a number of western governments – including the U.S., U.K. and others - to hold conferences in the South or inside Darfur itself with a view to bridging the current divides. These efforts have been met with a luke-warm reception at best. In the vacuum created by the lack of effort to create a political solution, violence has continued apace by both all sides leading to massive build-up of government troops and escalating human rights violations. Agreements made at the negotiating table by the government of Sudan have been reneged on repeatedly including, most obviously, their acceptance of a UN peace-keeping force. This begs an obvious question: why are we trumpeting diplomacy as the only solution when all evidence suggests that the diplomatic process is viewed in such a cynical fashion anyway?
One of the most urgently needed engagements here is with history. In much that has been written about Darfur there has been a complete failure to engage with the nature of the NCP regime itself and its modus operandi. There has been a complete failure to understand that Darfur is not a one time event for Al-Bashir and his cronies: they have been engaged in the business of genocide for years. Two million dead in the South, 250,000 in the Nuba Mountains, 400,000 in Darfur. How many more have to die before the world wakes up to fact that the NCP is hell-bent on murdering citizens that they consider expendable?
This is not a question of sovereignty, colonialism or anything else. In a world where most states are losing or at least reconfiguring sovereignty, many functions of the state are being unbundled to regional, supranational or quasi-private bodies anyway. Just ask George Bush: he’s privatizing large chunks of his military. Neither is it a question of UN intervention, since they are already elsewhere in Sudan. It’s a question of power and the trappings that go with it underpinned by an exclusionary ideology of Arabization. It’s also a fear that a brutal regime might finally be held accountable to the ICC. At base the situation is no more complex than that.
If bluster and threat give way to “diplomacy” then the most likely outcome will be inaction, leading to thousands more deaths on the ground. Without the presence of significant military hardware and personnel from neighboring countries -as we saw in the South for example - what incentive is there to compromise? It is easy to appear amenable to dialogue in Abuja when surrounded by divided rebel factions and where the pressure to make real concessions is therefore weakened. After the fact though – and especially when the eyes of the world are elsewhere – the real agenda of the NCP will soon become clear enough.
At the end of the day, the track record of the Sudanese government is appalling and is unlikely to change any time soon. Diplomacy and the political process are a vital part of the long term stability of the region but they are what they say: processes. And processes take a considerable amount of time to conclude -- twenty years in the case of the South.
We have a responsibility where Darfur is concerned not just through the words of the resolutions, but to show that a world community actually means something. Sudan’s relations with surrounding countries have, and will continue to wax and wane depending on geopolitical interest. With Egypt and Libya being wheeled out as “friends of the West” when it suits, then we have role in shaping future relations. But the issue now is whether we are prepared to put what is right before what is expedient. That’s the challenge here. And that’s what we must face up to before it’s too late.
Research Affiliate, Transnationalism Project
Department of Sociology
University of Chicago
1126 East 59th St
Chicago, IL 60637