“Never Again” Does Not Apply to Sudan

John Siebert Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2009 Volume 30 Issue 2

As I flew over the dusty, endless tracts of uninhabited land from Juba to Wau last September the thought nagged at me: the international community will never ride into Sudan on a white charger to deliver the suffering civilians from their misery in Darfur.

No rallying cry

“Never again” is the popular expression for the international community’s positive obligation to intervene to stop crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Intervention means more than military intervention. Strengthened or more targeted sanctions, stepped up diplomatic pressure, and other means may have the necessary effect, but, finally, a properly UN-mandated and -directed protection force may be necessary in some cases.

“Never again,” however, will only be the actual rallying cry for sending in troops where geography and the logistics of intervention are more amenable, or where the stakes are strategically higher than in a country such as Sudan. It is too big, too sparsely populated, and not of sufficient strategic merit for a full-scale military intervention by the UN, NATO, the European Union, or any single power such as the US, acting alone or in coalition.

This analysis may be instructive for those who thought something more dramatic might happen in response to the latest turn of the screw in Sudan. On March 4, 2009 the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudanese President al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sudan’s immediate retaliatory finger in the eye of the world—expelling 13 international and two national humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from Darfur—did nothing to change the military calculations of intervention by the world community.

If an international military intervention in Sudan to protect civilians is out of the question, what can be realistically expected from the international community, and Canada, to ease the suffering in Darfur? The past is as good an indication as any of what the future holds.

Conflict and peacemaking in Sudan

First, recall that what is happening in Darfur is not the worst that can or has happened in Sudan. The Government of Sudan has been waging war against increasingly fractious rebel movements in Darfur since 2003, using and supplying proxies—the dreaded Janjaweed. It is estimated that 270,000 people died and 2.7 million were displaced into overcrowded camps.

This regional struggle is, broadly speaking, a continuation of the style of warfare carried on by al-Bashir’s Khartoum regime during the 22-year north–south civil war in Sudan. In the latest phase of that war, which ended in 2005, an estimated two million people died, four million were internally displaced, and upwards of 600,000 became international refugees.

Despite these high numbers, the international community did not intervene militarily in the north–south war to rescue suffering civilians. It did, however, use diplomatic and other levers to assist in the successful negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January 2005. A UN civilian and military support mission, UNMIS, was cobbled together to assist in preserving and extending the peace, sometimes also providing a measure of protection to civilians.

The Sudanese got to this shaky but still holding ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement through a combination of southern rebel unity that increased their military strength, hard-nosed and lengthy peace negotiations, and international pressure on Khartoum. Suffering civilians in the twilight zone of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps survived on humanitarian aid from international actors, which was considerable but never enough.

The indictment of President al-Bashir

These three elements are key to resolving the armed conflict in Darfur as well. What is most unfortunate, however, is that the ICC indictment of President al-Bashir has created momentum in the opposite direction, even if this was not intended. The ICC indictment of al-Bashir has been welcomed by many people in Darfur and some prominent voices in Africa, but peace negotiators, particularly among Sudan’s immediate neighbours in the Horn of Africa, see the ICC indictment as primarily a disruption of the Darfur peace process.

Rebel factions in Darfur, rather than coming together, have become less united, handicapping their effectiveness in the field and in peace negotiations. Indeed, some of the Darfur rebel groups have used al-Bashir’s indictment as a rationale to step back from their participation in the peace negotiations, wrongly thinking that al-Bashir has been weakened politically and that international pressure on him will increase.

On the contrary, there is no immediate prospect that al-Bashir will be arrested and stand trial before the ICC. And his political standing in northern Sudan and among sympathetic African, Arab League, and some other states has been strengthened. As a result, international pressure on Khartoum to negotiate an end to the Darfur conflict appears to have lessened.

Referring to the aftermath of the ICC indictment, Djibril Bassolé, the mediator jointly appointed by the African Union and the UN to work with the Darfur peace process, reportedly said behind closed doors at the UN Security Council on March 26, “In all likelihood, the process to find a political solution to the crisis in Darfur has been significantly slowed and even compromised.”

Meanwhile, the international humanitarian support for those suffering in Darfur has been weakened. The NGO expulsions by Sudan represent an estimated 40 per cent of the aid workers, who were delivering over 50 per cent of the aid in Darfur. While the Sudanese government says that UN agencies have not and will not be expelled, the UN describes its efforts and those of the remaining NGOs as insufficient. Khartoum has publicly stated that it can and will provide the needed humanitarian assistance without these now expelled NGOs, but its past performance does not bode well for those in need in Darfur.

Again, these may not have been the intended consequences of the ICC indictment, and those criticizing the ICC have not said that alleged international war criminals should not be prosecuted. It is also too early to tell if the short-term negative consequences of the ICC indictment of al-Bashir will ultimately yield a more positive impact on the Darfur peace process.

Since 2006 Canada has contributed about $500-million to struggling UN and African Union military peace support efforts (UNAMID) and humanitarian aid. With the “never again” option of direct military intervention to protect civilians in Darfur off the table, now is the time for Canada and others to redouble diplomatic and other efforts to support the Darfur peace process and strengthen Darfur rebel unity to increase their effectiveness in negotiations with Khartoum. This is likely the best way forward to respond morally and responsibly to the situation in Darfur.

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