15 February 2008

The same day actor George Clooney was ceremoniously anointed in New York as Goodwill envoy to Darfur, military clashes in that region expanded with rebels reaching the capital of neighbouring Chad. A Saudi diplomat was mysteriously killed in Ndjamena while a vulnerable President Deby was offered gracious refuge in Paris by President Sarkozy before the locally stationed French Falcon strike force restored temporary order. Libyan leader Ghaddafi, whose country presided over the January meetings of the Security Council, rushed to pre-empt a victory by militants friendly to his old enemy, former Chad president Hussein Habre. In the Eighties, both fought a border war in which French troops helped overwhelm an internationally isolated Libya, investigated by a French magistrate in the downing of a French African passenger airplane.

Times change, of course. Countries adapt to their new changing interests. What concerns us is the pathetic state of clueless U.N. envoys who would not know the difference between a Zagnawan tribesman from Qaran or a Messira -- or, indeed, a Janjaweed. Our forever optimistic U.N. characters have been counting on the "good offices" of president Deby to help them out because of a link with some tribesmen in Darfur; and on Libya because of its former connections (mostly financial) with certain rebel figures -- who by now have abandoned their desert fatigues. They are said to be "very disappointed" at Sudan's President Omar Bashir, as if they had seriously counted on him to deliver. Anyone with ABC knowledge of that crisis would have known how he was taking them round in circles since the first visit by former Secretary General Annan and the overnight disappearance of the refugee camp he was officially scheduled to inspect. The purpose was to make the U.N. look like a bungler; and unfortunately they are helped in that by senior U.N. officials themselves.

When it is announced that Special Envoy Jan Eliasson will be briefing the Security Council on Darfur, like he did last week, a veteran observer wondered what would the earnest diplomat be adding to the table. While he goes from meeting to meeting, that desolate region goes from tragedy to catastrophe to regional wars. Over a year and three months now, despite experienced advice including that from the prestigious Crisis Group, the U.N. leadership remains adamant in pursuing its obviously futile, clearly counter-productive approach. Every other month we are told about an upcoming "accomplishment" which fizzles into a desperate photo occasion (not even an opportunity) -- like a "historic" telephone call by a "hybrid" representative from a desert outpost to New York; a failed conference in Serta where some elderly "rebels" were paraded; the release of a presumed leader who was supposed to moderate a settlement but went hotfoot straight to Nairobi; the announcement of a force on the ground without effective helicopters nor operational logistics. Every announcement of a "success" was immediately followed with tragedy. Politicians recalculate their positions while innocent victims pay the price.

Back to George Clooney. He's a wonderful actor with a good positive reputation -- unlike some others; but that's another separate issue. His designation will propel him to sharpen the focus on Darfur. That would prove helpful only if there were positive efforts to solve the problem. Otherwise, it could draw more attention to the FAILURE. A photo opportunity in New York will not cover up incompetence on the ground.

We tried to couch it in so many ways over the last year but the risks in the field have increased enough for us to say outright that the current U.N. approach to handling Darfur has failed. Either change the approach or change the negotiators. Perhaps more direct involvement by the Secretary General would help; when he did intervene earlier on in January and February, things seemed to move forward a bit. But a thorough open and frank review is inevitable. We understand why the outgoing Secretary General agreed to give two close friends (suddenly out of a job) a chance to try and why the incoming Secretary General went along -- awaiting a promised outcome. Ban Ki-moon regularly stresses his interest in RESULTS and in REGAINING the U.N. role. What is happening at U.N. hands in Darfur is the complete opposite. It is difficult to understand why he should stick to proven failure and risk losing the U.N. (and his own) stature while conflicts on Darfur expand. Some would claim that it would be unwise to change horses in midstream. But his are no horses and there is no midstream. It's a DESERT!