China, helicopters and genocide

Leaders of The Save Darfur Coalition met with The Times' editorial board last month to discuss the situation on the ground in Sudan — and what the world should (but isn't) doing about it. Here's a partial transcript of remarks by Amir Osman, the group's international outreach coordinator, and retired U.S. Ambassador Lawrence Rossin.

Current situation in Darfur

Amir Osman: Thanks for having us here. I will start talking about the situation briefly on the ground. I might go into the details that you are aware of.

In recent conversation with some colleagues who work on the ground in Darfur — they are from Darfur and work for local NGOs, humanitarian and human rights organizations — the message they are sending to us is that the activists on the ground are really frustrated … because they lost trust in the international community. They have been living in the [internally displaced persons] camps, about 70 IDP camps all over Darfur in a difficult situation and they are hopeful that someone will come one day and rescue them . . .

Recently, most of the IDP camps that are in Darfur witnessed violence by the rebels and by the government. Some of the rebel movements went to the IDPs and tried to include some people. The government responded: We had an incident in July where the government literally went to … one of the biggest IDP camps and tried to send people back to the villages and people were resisting going back. The security agents, the international security agents and the military detained about 76 IDPs — no one knows their whereabouts. Now, the U.N. is still investigating . . .

[The Sudanese government wants] people to go back to their villages in order to make the situation look better for the international community . . . The government is about to do a census for the coming elections and doing the census of the IDPs where they are living — the IDP camps — may not help the government policy . . .

Another aspect people are highlighting about the situation on the ground is the recent . . . inter-tribe fighting through the government bribing some of the chiefs of the tribes and giving lands of the Darfurian people to non-Sudanese people. There is an issue of bringing people from Chad, Niger and other neighboring countries and providing them in some cases citizenship, IDs and giving them the land in order to change the demography or Darfur for the same reasons — the coming elections — and because these tribes are allied with the government of Sudan . . .

Dealing with the Sudanese government

Lawrence Rossin: Amir has described the situation on the ground. I think the observation that will bother experts and analysts . . . is that compared to 2003, 2004, the rate of killing has declined. I wouldn't say the rate of displacement has declined because the U.N. so far this year has recorded about 300,000 new people coming into the camps, so we're still seeing a considerable — roughly 30,000 people a month — displacement going on in Darfur. To the degree in which the killing has gone down, to the degree in which displacement continues or not, to the degree in which any of these things are happening or not, to the degree in which the situation in the camps is stable or is deteriorating, this core issue which comes out here, which to me argues more strongly than anything else for continued international engagement, continued public engagement with regard to Darfur and the undiminished need for definitive, strong international action to change the situation on the ground in Darfur, and that is that, as of now, and indeed for the whole entire period of the genocide in Darfur, there has been zero counterweight to the government of Sudan on the ground in Darfur. If the armed forces of Sudan and the Janjaweed have diminished their actual attacks on villages, having destroyed so many and displaced so many people, that does not mean that the situation is definitively stabilized.

Tomorrow, even while we're sitting here, the government in Sudan could be, for whatever reasons, making the decision to reignite that activity. And unlike other situations, similar situations in the world, there's actually no international presence that can protect the people of Darfur, that can protect the humanitarian aid on which those people depend. The thing could be turned on — just like it may have been turned off — at any moment.

The Times … has written about the peacekeeping situation and the need to get peacekeepers on the ground and the difficult challenge of dealing with the Sudanese government because it is so duplicitous and because the international will has tended to be weak. And I think where we are right now on the UNAMID force, the hybrid peacekeeping force, exemplifies the situations that you've raised concerns about a number of times in the past more clearly and more demanding of action than has been the case before.

You know the history that the first resolution that actually called for peacekeeping force passed in August of '06, Resolution 1706, and was never implemented. I had a long career in U.N. peacekeeping, and before that with the U.S. government in post-crisis diplomacy — this is the first time with the U.N. enacting a peacekeeping force that was simply not implemented because of a host country obstruction and stonewalling . . . You'll remember then that there was a meeting at Addis Ababa of all the international players, this hybrid force concept was developed in part to assuage purported Sudanese concerns, didn't go anywhere. [Sudanese President Omar Bashir] disowned his foreign minister before he got back to Khartoum. We saw a number of months of Sudanese obstruction and gradually growing pressure for sanctions in the Security Council . . .

That led to, apparently, the decision of the Sudanese government to unconditionally accept, as they stated at the time, the peacekeeping force . . .

It was interesting at the time, and I think you flagged it in an editorial in June, which I'm looking at here, that although the Sudanese government announced this, nobody was sort of thrilled about it in the international community or among a lot of foreign affairs analysts, because we had seen before these kind of acceptances that weren't quite real . . . Never did we hear that Omar al-Bashir say that he had unconditionally accepted it. And, in fact, he speaks to domestic audiences, and he spoke to one right at that very same time, and said it's only going to be African troops, and it's not going to be U.N. command and control, and it's going to be an African force with the U.N. carrying bags . . .

So we've seen since the passage of Resolution 1769 in August of this year with the hybrid force, already in October the secretary general reported to the Security Council that the Sudanese government was stonewalling. They said at the time that they were not hearing back, but it was U.N.-speak for stonewalling . . .

In November again the secretary general reported on that in stronger terms, and then of course we saw the head of peacekeeping … and the envoy … both report to the security council at the beginning of [December] . . . in extremely strong terms that the Sudanese government was reneging on all of the commitments they've made . . .

Now we have a situation where the government of Sudan is rejecting — not merely stonewalling, but now actually rejecting — the troop-contributing countries list that was sent by the U.N. and the African Union working together . . . They are rejecting the U.N. command and control. Bashir, in his remarks two weeks ago, stressed this would be an African Union force, responsive with green helmets to the African Union with U.N. assistance. And then they're raising all kind of specific things . . . no night operations, the government of Sudan should be able to UNAMID communications whenever to government of Sudan is going to carry out a military operation in Darfur, restricting the types of aircraft that can land, a whole variety of restrictive measures . . .

One of the lessons obviously that the Sudanese can draw from international behavior is that the international community is not serious about 1769, it's not serious about UNAMID success.

Paul Thornton: I just want to get your idea about what adequate pressure would be on Sudan. It just seems like it's been just a lot of talk.

Rossin: Well, the pressure that has been has been U.S. sanctions — limited sanctions, they were increased last year. Otherwise, it's been mostly scattershot diplomacy. There haven't been global sanctions. There haven't been any trade measures taken by anybody else. So really, the concrete pressure has been primarily American pressure . . . Earlier this year we think we saw some Chinese quiet engagement, but the Chinese have backed off since September. What we're told by the people in the U.N. who are pretty visible is in fact the Chinese have receded from any kind of constructive engagement, I think deciding that the Olympic pressure has been handled.

We see several steps. The first step we see is that in fact those countries that voted for this peacekeeping force should actually contribute to this peacekeeping force. African countries have made contributions to ground troops — that's fine. A lot of the African countries' ground troops need to be trained and brought up to U.N. standards. Countries that could do that have not responded to the U.N.'s request.

The problem with getting helicopters

Rossin: The U.N. has said over and over again that if we're going to operate in a place the size of Texas, we've got to have attack helicopters, we've got to have transport helicopters so we can move our forces around . . . No country has come forward with a single helicopter contribution. The U.N. is looking for 24 helicopters; it's not looking for 2,400 helicopters.

Dan Turner: That's something I wanted to ask you about. What is up with that? Why can't we get helicopters in there?

Rossin: We're puzzled about that as well, and so are our European colleagues. It's true — it seems to be true — that there is a shortage of helicopters for peacekeeping missions from countries generally.

Last week I went to talk given by the commander of [the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan], and he was complaining that he doesn't get enough helicopters from ISAF-contributing countries for operations in southern Afghanistan. On the other hand, Germany alone has like 1,600 helicopters . . . The idea that they can't spare two or four operations in Darfur somehow doesn't add up, because they're also apparently not contributing them to Afghanistan although, when you ask them, they'll say operations in Afghanistan are really straining our resources. We're not convinced.

We're not convinced by [U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates] when he said … we can't do that, we've got requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we do, but we also have these helicopters. I mean, we see them flying over Washington D.C. every day. I wonder if they're doing traffic reporting on the Beltway or, more likely, flying VIPs around from one place to another . . . I flew VIP helicopters when I working in Kosovo; I would have gladly gone 50 kilometers on the ground and sent the helicopter down to Darfur.

U.S. credibility

Thornton: Do you think U.S. credibility after Iraq has anything to do with the international community's unwillingness to go along with things like U.S. sanctions, actions?

Rossin: I think it does to some extent. I think getting European countries to go along with international sanctions has always been an issue … They're not where you look for iron will when it comes to international affairs. But on Iran, the United States — in spite of everything — has even after the CIA report has been able to maintain and foster European sanctions movement in the Security Council and on their own sanctions.

I would say that while we do have credibility issues — and, by the way, we have credibility issues that would not make me turn to the United States as the first place, for example, to provide a total of six attack helicopters or transport helicopters — we also have the ability when we focus our diplomacy and our attention at a high level to bring about an international consensus for something like sanctions at a level that has not been tried in Darfur, never mind achieved in Darfur . . .

The third thing we would look for, partially because we think it's just the right thing to do, partially because we think it actually had an effect the last time around, is assertive U.S. leadership — working with Britain, working with France — in particular in the Security Council, to push for multilateral mandatory sanctions. Likely, those sanctions would end up being vetoed by the Chinese or the Russians . . . That's not a reason not to try. When the British were pushing sanctions in the Security Council last May, the fact of the matter is that the Sudanese did seem to respond to that, and the Chinese seemed to respond to that, and we seemed to see some action.

The rattling of sabers can make a difference, and we believe that that's something the United States ought to be mobilizing international pressure for in the Security Council.

China's influence on Sudan

Rossin: Whether or not the United States had lost credibility because of Iraq and all the things that have happened, China would still be under current circumstances the most influential country in Khartoum because of their level of . . . economic investment, because of their military relationship, but above all because they have been in fact the diplomatic protectors of Sudan for a long time in the Security Council. They water down resolutions, then they either abstain or they vote on them, and then they don't follow up when Sudan does not implement them. That's what we're seeing now: There's no Chinese follow-up on this resolution that they will say they were active in making happen.

China had come under pressure from civil society, not particularly governments . . . The Chinese did become helpful because behind the scenes, because of the activities of people … working on the [Olympic] torch relay — this whole Olympics focus. They had a real vulnerability that they flagged to us. We didn't think we could get leverage on them; they flagged it to us when Mia Farrow and others started talking about the genocide Olympics and they overreacted. Well, we went for the blood . . .

They've got so much influence to change Sudan's behavior, and until they change Sudan's behavior, it wasn't our job as a pressure group to let up on them — what more can we do? . . . We're not dealing with Saddam Hussein here, who could've admitted, could've told the world that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction and probably saved himself a whole lot of grief. These people are more rational than that; these are some sharp people.

Using the International Criminal Court

Turner: Can I ask one thing about the criminal court? You could argue that going after the prosecution of people in the government and protected by the government actually causes the government to dig in more because the last thing they want is international policemen who going to come to arrest them and take them to The Hague. What's you response to that?

Rossin: Well, for a long time, actually, that was our assessment as well. And although one of the … fundamental principals of the Save Darfur Coalition was justice and accountability for genocide and war crimes, we didn't pursue it very hard because the more immediate objective was to get protection on the ground for people in Darfur, and we didn't want that would stop that.

We've changed our view on that. I went to Khartoum with Bill Richardson in January . . . We met with Bashir, who was very conciliatory. Richardson was tough but conciliatory at the same time, as you do when you work your way forward in an issue. And, a lot of activists and others, and I think the U.S. government and other governments as well, tended to downplay the ICC for that very reason. The fact of the matter is, when the ICC has come up, when the ICC has gone down on the radar screen, if the U.S. government has spoken in favor of the ICC or not … it hasn't had any discernible impact on Bashir's behavior. I don't think he takes the ICC very seriously right now, and I don't think he's really factoring it in. I think he's just doing what he does regardless of that, and I think until the ICC threat is made real, he's not going to see any interest in being cooperative . . .

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