A New Tack on Darfur

By Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/10/06):

Instead of saving Darfur's people, their advocates may be prolonging their agony. They need to consider whether a different message is required to get urgent action from the Bush administration on ending the violence. Specifically: Is it not time to go beyond urging greater pressure on Sudan and using force in the region to seek an effective negotiated peace settlement between Sudan's leader and the rebel groups in Darfur? That is a necessity in any event.

For three years nongovernmental organizations and the media have pursued a relentless campaign to persuade Western governments to stop the killing in Darfur, protect and feed its people, and get millions of refugees out of camps and back home. The recent renewed military carnage in Darfur has prompted continuing ads in major newspapers and on television imploring President Bush to get a United Nations force into Darfur to "stop the genocide."

This advocacy has rested on two assumptions: first, that only outside pressure will persuade Sudan's government to reverse course; the country's leader, Omar al-Bashir, will do nothing without a gun to his head. Second, if his government resists, Western governments can ultimately be persuaded to do the right thing -- to take aggressive measures to force Khartoum to capitulate. Such measures include a no-fly zone in Darfur, a blockade of Sudan's ports, NATO intervention and sending a U.N. force (whether or not Khartoum accepts it).

What have advocacy efforts accomplished so far? They have caught the attention of Sudan's government, brought in money to keep people alive and made it difficult for governments to avert their gaze. But they have not stopped Sudan's marauding or gotten Western governments to change the situation decisively. International officials say violence is worsening again. Meanwhile, 2 million displaced people remain warehoused.

What is the problem? While public pressure for aggressive military measures has sometimes worked in persuading Western democracies to take actions they prefer not to take, as in the Balkans, those governments interested in Darfur -- in Africa, Arab countries and NATO -- are divided. Robust military measures are, unfortunately, simply not acceptable to governments, whatever they may say about "never again." The United States, which could catalyze strong action, is hampered by its involvement in Iraq.

Indeed at times the advocates for Darfur have accepted half-hearted measures. Sending in an ill-equipped, understaffed and underfunded African Union force, however useful, did not end the killing, but it made the world believe that the problem was heading toward resolution. When pressure is applied to the Sudanese government, there is always the perceived sense, much as there was in Vietnam, that just a little more and Khartoum will cave. Perhaps. But Bashir, admittedly no Ho Chi Minh, is sitting on growing oil revenue, and he can see that the international community is divided and that the demands for more aggressive action are going nowhere.

Moreover, many measures the advocates demand for bringing pressure on Bashir, such as targeted sanctions, an investigation of Sudan's business holdings or a threat of action by the International Criminal Court, hardly meet the standard of urgency, however much these things may be worth doing.

So how do we change course if the situation is so dire? Clearly regime change would be the best approach, though it's hard to believe we know how to do this without force. Failing that, we must accept that the Darfur Peace Agreement reached in May has collapsed and it is time to talk once again to Bashir about a more effective peace agreement.

To begin, the five foreign ministers of the permanent U.N. Security Council members and the head of the African Union should visit Khartoum immediately and tell Bashir that they intend to work with him to correct the flaws in the agreement and strenuously seek to get rebel groups on board. They will put trusted representatives at the negotiating site until a revised agreement is reached.

Bashir, in turn, must immediately stand down his forces, confine the Janjaweed militias and allow outside aid to flow to the displaced. China's government, no great humanitarian institution and a financier of Sudan, should be more willing to do this, since countries would be trying to work with Bashir, not pummel him.

This sort of effort is no easy matter. The diplomats might not like it, and it might not thrill the Sudanese government, even though Sudanese forces are performing badly in the Darfur area. Numerous practical problems would have to be worked out between the government and the fractious rebels, who are hard to corral. There is an unhappy history with the perfidious Bashir on negotiations. And even if an agreement can be forged, its durability is uncertain.

But this would constitute a serious and uncontentious effort to end immediately what we are told is a rapidly deteriorating situation. If it's not in the cards or doesn't work, Darfur advocates can again raise the decibel level, and perhaps part of the international community will finally get angry enough to match words with deeds.