Darfur’s Last Chance?

In May, the Security Council authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur. Three months later, blue helmets are nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the UN’s top humanitarian official recently warned that a peace accord signed in Abuja, Nigeria between some of the rebel factions and Khartoum is “doomed to failure” and that the situation was going from “really bad to catastrophic.”

So who or what is to blame for this appalling inaction in Darfur?

Martin Peretz of The New Republic views the continuing violence in Darfur as a failure of the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions. In a sense, he is correct: The Security Council resolution passed in conjunction with May’s peace accords called for the paltry African Union monitoring force in Darfur to be replaced with a robust United Nations peacekeeping force.But Kofi Annan cannot wave a magic wand and summon a peacekeeping force for Darfur. He has to rely on member states to pony up. So far, key member states have been reluctant to commit troops without first securing Khartoum’s blessing. And to say the least, Khartoum has not responded enthusiastically to this idea; at various moments, Khartoum has called such a force “neocolonialist” and has unsubtly threatened it with violence.

The situation seems hopelessly stuck. Or at least it was until late last week when the United States and the United Kingdom seemed poised to endorse an ambitious plan of action for Darfur spelled out by Kofi Annan.

With the Security Council otherwise consumed by back-to-back crises in North Korea and Lebanon, Darfur received scant attention this summer. In the midst of the chaos in Turtle Bay in late July, Kofi Annan issued a little noticed but hugely important thirty page report on Darfur. This report (pdf), which was delivered to the Security Council on July 29th, could be the last chance to save Darfur.

Annan outlines a broad mandate for a United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to take over from the African Union, which currently fields only 7,000 troops that operate under a limited mandate. By contrast, UNMIS would include some 17,300 peacekeepers, and many thousands of civilians experts to secure, rehabilitate, rebuild and enforce a ceasefire in Darfur. However, Annan acknowledges the hurdles to assembling a peacekeeping force for Darfur. So, as something of a stop-gap measure, Annan proposes that the UN appropriate resources including communications, logistics, and command and control assets, as well as military equipment such as aircraft and armored personnel carriers, to the African Union.

This is a novel idea. And if the Security Council approves it would create what the informative Security Council Report calls “a hybrid force, never before tried by the UN, with UN assets and personnel placed under the command of another institution [the AU].” As envisioned by Annan, the hybridization would commence immediately and continue until the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is able to deploy a robust peacekeeping force in Darfur.

At least for the moment, Annan’s proposal seems to have inspired some members of the Security Council to refocus on Darfur. In the Council’s first meeting on Darfur in over six weeks, representatives from the United States and United Kingdom explicitly endorsed Annan’s plan in a draft resolution they circulated. Further, the US-UK draft resolution would place eventual peacekeepers under Chapter VII, which seems to heed Annan’s call that UNMIS be mandated to protect civilians and keep open lines of humanitarian access, even if this means dealing “proactively with spoilers, including in a pre-emptive manner.”

Per Annan’s recommendation the US-UK draft proposes 17,300 UNMIS troops for Darfur, with two additional battalions on the ready. And to be sure, the same obstacles that have prevented the deployment of blue helmets to Darfur since May exist to this day; the countries with the most influence over Khartoum continue to refuse to make Sudan’s acquiescing to a peacekeeping force a priority in their bilateral relations. This is despite Annan’s plea:

“No effort should be spared to send [Khartoum] the simple, powerful message: international involvement will increase the chances of peace taking root in Darfur, will strengthen the credibility of the peace process and the protection of the suffering populations of Darfur. Transition to a United Nations operation should happen as soon as possible, and the international community’s message should make clear that the costs of rejecting the transition could be serious and lasting.”

Unfortunately for the people of Darfur, Annan alone cannot pressure Khartoum into accepting peacekeepers. For that, he needs the support of his most influential member states which alone have the ability to lean on Khartoum.

Darfur is on the verge of total collapse. Unless this new movement for Darfur turns into real momentum for progress in the region, death and misery will remain the norm in Darfur for the foreseeable future.