15 March 2007

Over the last two years, we have repeatedly cautioned against the useless approach to Darfur. Overconfident U.N. officials with little clue about the region were taken round in circles. Even the Secretary General, an African expatriate, seemed to make little progress when he decided to act after two years of pondering the catastrophe. When he eventually visited with a planeload of reporters, Sudanese officials changed refugee camps on him -- and his team (particularly that fellow with an African garb and aviator sunglasses looking suspiciously important) spent their time "sorting things out." A photo op with older women was arranged elsewhere to everyone's satisfaction.

Special Envoy Jan Pronk is a very prominent player in the area of development and environment. But, with all due respect to his commitment and experience, he had no real knowledge of the intricate situation and thus played it by ear -- hot and cold, so to speak -- and ended up packing his baggage (and his blog) and going home.

Another Special Envoy Jan Eliasson was designated by the outgoing Secretary General with obvious agreement of the incoming successor who indeed made a point of highlighting how much he was counting on ongoing efforts. It has been three months of claims but no real movement. The "hybrid" force is still not on the ground, the local forces on the ground are still vague on their commitments and the roles of the U.N. officials (whether Special Representative, Special Envoy) are still unclear in Khartoum, as in New York. By now, not only Sudan, but neighbouring Tchad is upping the ante by not cooperating, even with advance teams.

Admittedly, there are many handicaps on the ground. But one of the biggest handicaps is the political expediency in New York. The approach to appointing a Special Envoy has been to find a job for an outgoing government official rather than picking someone who could have a practical impact on the ground. Apparently, in order to solve the problem of Darfur, there seems to be priority to solve an unemployment problem of the designated envoy.

Don't get us wrong on personalities. Jan Eliasson is a very distinguished internationalist with a track record of devotion to U.N. principles. A former General Assembly President; former Foreign Minister of Sweden; Ambassador to Washington; Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Relief; transient envoy between Iraq and Iran before being railroaded by the wily electronic surveillance expert; standby Acting Secretary General in Plan B; and many other postings would certainly qualify him for so many assignments. But, quite frankly, not Darfur. He could easily replace Terje Roed Larsen in the Middle East, for example. He could very well do Iraq, Reform, Environment, and so many others. But why Darfur? He neither speaks Arabic nor is he familiar with the players on the ground. His prestige could get him to meet the President of Sudan; even then it would be in "a personal capacity" as he was told. But he could hardly spend that currency in the embattled zone. He has no strings to pull, except by proxy. He not only needs multiple translations, but -- more important -- he misses the cultural interpretation. The upshot of it is that our Secretary General is caught in an awkward position. How many times can he proclaim awaiting the outcome of his Special Envoy's contacts? How many announcements can his office relay about a flurry of telephone calls he is making to players in the region? How many letters can he write to the General Al-Bashir in Khartoum?

Darfur could uplift the U.N. and its new Secretary General if a successful outcome is achieved. Equally it could inflict further damage if its mishandling continues. It is not merely a question of perception to be approached by announcements to the press; it is a reality of a catastrophe that has to be faced with knowledge and courage, on the ground. As an announced priority of the Secretary General, he will need to have a visible impact through a credible presence there. Otherwise, we will have the continuity of frustrating, embarrassing failure where the Secretary General would be a convenient scapegoat.