Some Not-So-Bad Signs in Darfur

One year ago today, members of the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of an unprecedented 27,000-strong joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur, Sudan (known by its acronym, UNAMID). While some critics have chosen this anniversary to focus on the slow pace at which UNAMID has deployed, recent developments give reason to think about what has been accomplished and how the UN and international community can best follow up on these gains.

After another year of humanitarian crisis, sporadic outbreaks of violence, and a crippling lack of peace, one could reasonably ask what recent developments could signal a turn for the better in Darfur. Indeed, the most significant occurrence in the past two weeks is actually something that didn’t happen. In the wake of the news that the International Criminal Court (ICC) would hear evidence for the indictment of Sudanese President Bashir, many Darfur analysts feared that Khartoum’s response would be to unleash a wave of coordinated military attacks. Fortunately, this has not happened. In fact, as Nicholas Kristof points out in his blog, “humanitarians have had just about their best week so far” in Darfur. This relative calm points to the likely marginalization of hardliners within Bashir’s inner circle–a crucial prerequisite for peace.And what has happened in the last two weeks that could point to accelerated progress in Darfur? For one, likely feeling the heat of international scrutiny, President Bashir deemed it prudent to pay a visit to Darfur, where he voiced support for UNAMID and pledged infrastructural improvements in the long-neglected region. These promises are merely words, of course, and the Sudanese government has a dark history of backtracking once the public spotlight moves away. The international community–particularly countries with influence on Sudan–will have to continue to press Khartoum to actually follow through with these commitments, lest its government conclude that empty promises are an adequate stand-in for real peace, security, and development.

International pressure has also begun to bear some fruit in the frustrating efforts to deploy peacekeepers to Darfur. Contingents of Chinese and Egyptian engineers have recently arrived, and Ethiopian and Egyptian troops are scheduled to join UNAMID by the end of this month. Perhaps even more significantly, long-awaited Thai and Nepalese battalions have finally been accepted by the Sudanese government. Khartoum had consistently refused the deployment of any non-African troops, so this development could signal another political shift within the regime that may bode well for further and speedier peacekeeper deployment.

What has inspired these calculated–but fragile–concessions by the Sudanese government? The continued pressure of Security Council countries is at least partially responsible. The U.S. and UK in particular have pushed for rapid UNAMID deployment, threatening targeted sanctions for continued obstruction, and even China, facing pressure of its own, has been slightly more cooperative in engaging Sudan. But the immediate impetus for Khartoum’s behavior was the ICC Chief Prosecutor’s decision to tighten the screws on Bashir by announcing his potential indictment. As an independent judicial institution, the ICC makes its decisions–including this one–without any consultation with the Security Council. The Security Council does retain the option of suspending ICC action for a year, however–an incentive that, at this point at least, the Sudanese government has deemed more achievable through tactical conciliation than through overt confrontation.

Even though some Sudanese officials have mouthed predictably hostile rhetoric, this bluster has not translated into actions taken on the ground. This approach is somewhat of a truism in Sudanese politics–if one hand makes conciliatory gestures, the other is obliged to aggressively wave off international interference. More troubling are the recent attacks by government forces on UN peacekeepers. These reprehensible attacks have been roundly condemned, including in a bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives. However, the violence has fortunately not reached the level that some feared would be the response of a vengeful Khartoum.

Even amidst difficult conditions, and still without adequate Member State contributions of funds, manpower, or equipment, UNAMID has valiantly persevered, even taking on additional responsibilities. For instance, UNAMID has increased the number of patrols it conducts from just 271 in January to 644 in June. An ever-growing number of these patrols occur at night, providing protection for women who venture outside of the camps to collect firewood. While a recent report from African NGOs suggests that UNAMID should be doing “more with what it is,” it rightly pins a large degree of responsibility on Khartoum’s obstruction and the international community’s failure to sufficiently equip the force.

Admittedly, the emergence of the “less bad” alternative is never a particularly firm foundation for hope. In Darfur, though, developments have far too often fallen on the “more bad” side of this spectrum. The actions of the Security Council, ICC, and UNAMID present an admittedly thin window to move toward peace in Darfur. These institutions–and more accurately, the countries that comprise and support them–should exert the pressure it takes to consolidate these gains. We cannot afford to wait another year.