15 MAY 2008

A recent attack in Khartoum by a Darfur armed group should be ONE MORE WAKE-UP CALL to those around the otherwise-preoccupied Secretary General who have been advising him that all was within manageable range in Sudan. It is not just that over 500 people were killed in the Umm Durman neighbourhood, but relations between the governments of Sudan and Chad -- two focal points of the U.N. Envoy's strategy -- are by now very tense. Instead of working together under the auspices of the puzzled Mr. Eliasson, they are now more likely to escalate a side war by proxy, if not directly.

Many observers on the ground are coming to the frustrated view that despite all talk about priority given to salvage Darfur, the interest of U.N. Headquarters is based on totally different perceptions. When faced by the local media on April 19, both envoys of the U.N. and A.U. had to admit their failure. "If we had succeeded, it would have shown on the ground," said Salem Salem, adding that "a peace agreement in Darfur did not depend on the envoys but on the 'parties' to the conflict," and normal relations between Sudan and Chad. U.N. Envoy Eliasson pontificated about "three layers of consultations" with parties concerned: agreement to a ceasefire by everyone, confidence building measures in the field to allow the operation of the Hybrid Force, and ensuring humanitarian assistance to refugees. He sounded monotonous and irrelevant, as if lecturing to students in Stockholm rather than handling a murderous catastrophe on the terrain. What we are witnessing are more clashes, wider involvement by regional parties, unfettered attacks on defenseless civilian populations, and bombing of civil locations including schools, water installations, and markets in Northern Darfur. The villages of Um Sidir, Ein Bessar, and Shegeg Karo received the cruelest hits. The Secretary General is fully aware of these criminal acts which he rightly condemned, expressing serious concern about the increased banditry which is complicating humanitarian operations and making it impossible for UNAMD to carry out its mandate.

Immediately after taking over in January 2007, Mr. Ban Ki-moon highlighted Darfur as a priority. In describing his approach, he repeatedly stressed his interest mainly in results. By all accounts, the conflict has widened to neighbouring participants and triggered once-dormant military conflicts, from Chad to Somalia to Ogaden. Revived Eritrea-Ethiopian tension was not far behind. We have repeatedly, in every issue, cautioned about the disastrous results of a dysfunctional and counterproductive approach. As we continue to do so, we have in mind -- in addition to saving lives -- salvaging the U.N. image and regaining an effective U.N. role.

We modestly suggest to our distinguished Secretary General the following steps:

  1. Expand the Abuja Accord. That agreement reached in the Nigerian capital was a very good initial step. It was backed by Nigerian troops who bore the brunt of sacrifices in performing a very difficult task. Now it needs additional substance to take into account additional developments -- and players.
  2. Involve ALL neighbouring countries. A selective attitude toward only some of them has antagonized the others. Suspicious of U.N. motives, those overlooked did their utmost to stress their own potential, even as spoilers. U.N. representation has to regain the trust of those countries and work co-operatively with all the governments.
  3. Former Colonial powers, the U.K. and France, maintain strong through sometimes discreet influence in their former territories. Some rebel leaders and chiefs of various groups often use Paris and London as a regular platform. In a studied, measured way, involve these governments to the extent they feel comfortable. Give them full credit for their help. There is no point for an Envoy trying to hog the limelight when there is nothing to show for it. Spread the good offices; at least some good may come out of it.
  4. Ensure that hard-working, dedicated staff in the hardship areas are treated in a relatively comfortable, though not luxurious atmosphere. This is mentioned specifically because while general staff are hardly able to shower, senior visitors stay in their own air-conditioned, specially-contracted trailers while deprived supporting staff look on. Clearly, that is not helpful to their morale.
  5. Don't take Sudanese officials at their word. Pursue them. Nicely, politely, correctly. But firmly. President Bashir may have disappointed the Secretary General on several occasions; mainly because Sudanese officials found it easy to take U.N. envoys round and round in circles. If you can't hold their feet to the fire -- and you shouldn't try to -- watch them as closely as they watch you. Call them on their points of disorder. They need you as much as you need them.
  6. In order to accomplish the above, the Special Envoy will have to be someone other than Jan Eliasson. That area is not his natural habitat. Initially, his designation may have been a tranquilizing compensation for losing his government post, concluding the General Assembly Presidency, and losing out on his bet for Secretary General. In brief, Mr. Eliasson seemed visibly distressed by November 2006. Darfur was available. So was he. But then the issue is much more complicated, much more tragic. The lesson of Jan Pronk should have been learned. Those distinguished diplomats would need not only linguistic translation but also cultural interpretation and political orientation. Someone knowledgeable with that very rough neighbourhood who speaks English, French, and Arab would also help. At least three candidates come to mind, but we will not get into the name game at this point. The Secretary General would have a number of options when he decides that the time has come to clear the deck for making real progress in Darfur.