Here on the territorial edge of one of the world’s most intractable crises, U.N. peacemaker Jan Eliasson looks a gray-bearded tribal leader in the eye and tells him that there are moments in history that can make the difference between peace and more war.
Talks are taking place aimed at solving the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, and the elder, called the makhtoum of Nyala, needs to persuade a rebel leader from his tribe to join in, Eliasson says.
“If we miss this opportunity now, your people will languish in the camps, your land will be grabbed, your problems will continue,” the tall Swedish diplomat says. “Take the chance now! The whole world wants peace in Darfur!”
The makhtoum clutches his bamboo cane and lets Eliasson’s plea hang in the dirt-floored room. A fly buzzes, then lands.
“We are ready to speak to our sons,” he finally says.
Eliasson, a peace negotiator for 25 years, is one of the U.N.'s most experienced diplomats. Friday at the U.N., foreign ministers from 26 nations will discuss how to coordinate pressure on Sudan’s government, part of his strategy to address the problem from all sides instead of from the top down. The diplomatic effort is supposed to culminate with peace talks to begin Oct. 27 in Tripoli, Libya.
But Darfur, Sudan’s vast, arid western region, has become a lesson in the limits of diplomacy, an example of how a single regime can defy world opinion seemingly with impunity.
Of all the world’s trouble spots, few have received as much attention recently as Darfur. An estimated 200,000 civilians have died here since fighting began in 2003. President Bush and many others have labeled the killings genocide. They say Sudan’s government has used militia groups, known as janjaweed, to try to wipe out tribes such as the Fur, the makhtoum’s ethnic group. The tribes, in turn, have backed rebels who seek more power and wealth from Sudan’s central government, based in Khartoum.
The attacks have dwindled this year, as many villagers fled to camps run by the U.N., and humanitarian efforts have greatly reduced the death toll. But the rebels and militias continue to fight, and long-term stability remains elusive. Settlers linked to the janjaweed have begun to take over the abandoned land, foreshadowing new conflict if villagers try to return home.
Eliasson has spent much of the last several months traveling with his counterpart from the African Union, Salim Ahmed Salim, in an effort to bring warring parties and the countries that support them to peace talks.
It is an effort he compares with “herding cats,” and the makhtoum’s agreement, he knows, is just one step.
Darfur, he says, “is one of the most difficult problems I have ever faced.”
‘Responsibility to protect’
Two years ago, world leaders agreed at the U.N. General Assembly that they had a “responsibility to protect” -- a duty to intervene to help people whose governments would not safeguard their lives.
The responsibility to protect was a breakthrough in theory, but the U.N. had no way to enforce it. The U.N. has no army, and the nations that contribute troops to peacekeeping efforts would not send them if they thought their soldiers would need to participate in an invasion.
“They have agreed there is a duty to protect, but not who is supposed to do it,” said John Prendergast, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington. “And so far, nobody has the will.”
The United States has often been the de facto leader in interventions, but has few strategic or economic interests in Sudan. Moreover, the Bush administration relies on Sudan’s government for intelligence help in combating Al Qaeda. Some critics of U.S. policy say intelligence cooperation has limited the administration’s willingness to press Sudan’s president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. The U.S. envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, denies that.
China and Russia, meanwhile, have blocked efforts by the Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudan. China buys more than two-thirds of Sudan’s oil and has significant investments in the country. Russia is one of the Sudanese government’s principal arms suppliers.
Both countries have veto power in the Security Council and both argue that sanctions would only push the Khartoum regime into a corner.
As a result, although the council has passed six resolutions -- some demanding that Sudan end the violence, disarm militias and embargo arms to Darfur -- none have included sanctions strong enough to cause Khartoum to end the fighting.
Unable to move the Bashir government, a combination of human rights activists, athletes and Hollywood celebrities began a campaign late last year to threaten China by saying that if it failed to use its leverage to bring the killing to a halt, next year’s Olympics in Beijing would become known as “the Genocide Olympics.”
That effort appears to have had an effect. In February, China’s president, Hu Jintao, visited a new Chinese-backed oil refinery in Sudan. While there, he canceled $80 million in debt and provided an interest-free loan for a new presidential palace. But diplomats say he also told Bashir that Sudan would have to stop blocking a U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur and uphold a cease-fire.
By midyear, Bashir had grudgingly accepted a U.N.-led force of up to 26,000. But as always, he had conditions. The force had to be composed of African troops and led by African Union commanders, he said. Otherwise, it would be tantamount to foreign occupation.
The hybrid force, part U.N., part African Union, is a grand experiment that will take as long as a year to deploy, said the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guehenno. Even if the cumbersome joint command works, the force will have the strength only to preserve a peace agreement, not impose one on warring groups.
Making a peace that the soldiers could keep is where Eliasson and Salim come in. Since the beginning of the year, the two have been circling the region, trying to identify what is needed to solve Darfur’s crisis. In July, they convened Sudan’s neighbors in Tripoli to try to persuade them to stop helping rebel groups and asked the rebels and the government for a cease-fire.
But even if there is a peace agreement next month, Eliasson knows that the work to hold the players to it has just begun. The biggest challenge is Bashir and his hard-line colleagues, who are masters of gaming the U.N. and their regional allies. Days after Bashir committed to a cease-fire in a private meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month, government aircraft attacked a town in north Darfur, killing many civilians.
Bashir’s regime portrays its actions in Darfur as part of a legitimate effort to put down an insurgency, well within its sovereign rights. Sudan has been riven by civil wars since its independence, including a 20-year conflict between the government and tribal groups in the country’s south that ended in 2004.
The rebellion in Darfur threatened the country’s tenuous unity, Sudanese officials say. They feared that other neglected regions might follow Darfur’s lead, or that Darfur’s rebels might join the government’s opponents in the south, they say. Still, they insist their response has been restrained.
“We could have quenched this rebellion a long time ago,” said Interior Minister Zubeir Bashir Taha. “But we have a very strong reason why not: because of our citizens. Rebels attack our army and police and then run and hide among civilians, using them as human shields. So the government attacked the rebels -- but not the civilians.”
The government says only about 9,000 people have died in the conflict. “The army is very careful to avoid collateral damage, but sometimes it happens,” Taha says with a knowing look. “When it happens in Iraq, nobody says anything.”
Despite those arguments, the Sudanese government was in a mood to conciliate when Eliasson arrived on his most recent mission.
“We hope that by the end of the year we will reach a settlement that will help solve the situation in Darfur,” Mutrif Siddig, under-secretary of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in an interview in Khartoum. “We are ready to talk and we are eager to start as soon as possible.”
But off-the-record discussions with Sudanese officials hint at the cynicism behind the cooperation. The U.N. won’t be able to recruit enough troops, they predict. And if the troops do come through, there is still the matter of obtaining land for bases in a place where every acre is contested, and finding food and water in a place where both are in short supply.
Another part of the truth is that on both sides, the warring parties have splintered.
Khartoum is no longer in full control of the militias it created. On the fringes of Darfur, some Arab tribes who supplied janjaweed soldiers have become disenchanted because they have not received the rewards of land and money promised by the government for their participation in the attacks. A few have joined rebel groups against the Sudanese army, a tiny turn of tides the government fears could gain momentum and tip the balance in Darfur.
“Sometimes when they feel the winds are changing, they change too,” Siddig said. “With the new negotiations, they want to be seen as anti-government.”
The Darfur rebels organizations also have broken into more than a dozen groups -- some consisting of little more than a name and a Toyota Land Cruiser and a few dozen troops. One of the largest groups seeks to form a Muslim state in Darfur; another seeks a secular government. Neither signed a truce between the government and the main rebel faction last year, and both are suspicious of Bashir’s professed willingness to negotiate.
“Khartoum is willing to negotiate because they will implement nothing,” said Abdel Wahid, the leader of one rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Movement. “They will sign any paper,” Wahid said in an interview in Paris, where he lives in exile. “Let them implement the previous agreements before creating a new one.”
Wahid’s popularity in Darfur -- and his refusal to join peace talks -- were behind Eliasson’s mission to see the makhtoum.
Afterward, Eliasson stopped at the Nyala marketplace to greet “real people.” The ground was muddy after a sudden and welcome downpour, inaugurating the region’s rainy season, and Eliasson hopscotched puddles in his khaki pants and dress shoes. After stopping to admire a baby and converse through an interpreter with a fruit seller, he found himself in the middle of a circle with a Sufi mystic who had been leading a prayer. The mystic presented Eliasson to the crowd.
“This is the man who has come to bring peace to Darfur. Let us pray for him. Let us pray for peace,” the mystic said, with his arms uplifted. As people in the crowd lifted their arms and chanted, Eliasson lowered his head and clasped his hands in front of him.
“Pray for peace!” the mystic said. “And pray for rain!”
That afternoon, as Eliasson’s small plane lifted off the runway, the rain came. Soon, Eliasson hoped, so would peace.