Is it all "over" in Darfur?

August 31, 2009

Resolution in and around Darfur is far from"over".
Resolution in and around Darfur seems far from"over" to the millions of people still displaced. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The departing Force Commander of UNAMID (United Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur), General Martin Luther Agwai, has been widely quoted as saying so. And if “over” is taken to mean the end of large-scale clashes between heavily armed forces, then this statement is true. In his view, the problems are now essentially related to “security issues… banditry, localised issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that”.

Is this assessment substantially new?

Not necessarily. In the most recent July 13, 2009 Report of the Secretary-General on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, UNSG Ban Ki-moon also noted the reduced levels of force on force violence:

During June 2009, there was a decline in the reported levels of violence in Western Darfur, although the armed parties along the Chad-Sudan border remained on high alert… following attacks by the Justice and Equality Movement on positions near Umm Baru (Northern Darfur) in mid-May 2009, there have been no significant military operations, although Sudanese Armed Forces have maintained an increased presence and military patrolling activities in the areas of Umm Baru, Kornoi and Tine, Northern Darfur… large-scale violence stretching over a wide territory and for lengthy periods is now infrequent.

This reported reduction in fighting, should it last, can only be welcomed by those interested in seeing a possible breathing space open for some form of eventual negotiated peace.

But does that mean that Darfur, as the problems there are popularly understood, is “over”? Certainly not.

The same July 2009 report by the UNSG states clearly and unambiguously: “the situation for the civilians of Darfur continues to be deeply troubling, with 2.6 million internally displaced persons (IDP) unable to return to their homes and some 4.7 million Darfurians in need of assistance. Meanwhile, banditry and sexual violence continue to plague civilians throughout Darfur.”

The assessment of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is just as worrisome:

Conflict and the displacement of civilians within Darfur, and to Chad, continue to hamper efforts to protect and assist the region’s 2.5 million IDPs, as well as some 45,000 Chadian refugees and more than 3,000 refugees from the Central African Republic. The joint African Union and United Nations hybrid force (UNAMID) is present but unable to carry out all its responsibilities due to a lack of equipment and personnel… in Darfur, besides insecurity, violence against women and environmental degradation, the primary concerns of people are in access to land and other livelihood opportunities. Migration heightens rivalries over natural resources, and competition for water, firewood and grazing land can lead to conflict.

In other words, while fighting may be down currently, the underlying issues which lie at its root have yet to be addressed or resolved and the humanitarian consequences of this remains unabated. Coupled with the very serious challenges surrounding the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which has led to a Government of National Unity after many years of North/South conflict, the UNHCR assessment remains all too true today: “The conflict in Sudan continues to affect millions of people and create a complex and volatile political and security situation that remains a challenge for the humanitarian community”.

Similarly unresolved, despite the current lull in major combat, are the very important issues surrounding impunity and the International Criminal Court indictments. Amnesty International has repeatedly called for cooperation on the indictments, which concern President Bashir and others, while rejecting the smoke screen neo-colonialist argument attempting to delegitimize the ICC:

Africa played a leading – indeed, decisive – role in 1998 in the establishment of the ICC. Thirty African states have so far ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. African states strongly supported the creation of the ICC as a court of last resort to ensure that African victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes receive justice and reparations whenever states were unable and unwilling to investigate and prosecute such crimes. Three African states, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, referred situations in their own countries to the ICC on such a basis. A fourth country, Côte d’Ivoire, has recognized the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute crimes in its territory or by its citizens abroad.

Until a real and lasting peace is negotiated which confronts the underlying conditions which have led to six years of war, allowing for the safe return of refugees and the internally displaced and including safeguards marking an end to impunity and a respect for the legitimate ICC process, it is not – and cannot be – “over” in Darfur.

Written by Gilbert Martin, East Africa Coordinator for Amnesty International USA