An 'incongruous' force enters Darfur

Daily News Egypt
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There is, at last, a “breakthrough in the crisis in Darfur. The Sudanese government has given “unconditional acceptance to a 20,000-strong force of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers. Under proposals put forward by UN and AU planners, the force will have a strong mandate and a protection capability. This is the force that Darfurians believe will end their suffering. But will it? The first problem is going to be getting the force on the ground in Darfur, where the UN estimates that more than 200,000 people have been killed since rebels took up arms in 2003, prompting Khartoum to launch a genocidal counter-offensive against civilians from the tribes accused of supporting the rebels. Another 4.2 million are “war-affected, half of them internally displaced. More than 200,000 others are refugees in Chad. The camps for the displaced are angry and overcrowded, constantly threatened by Janjaweed long since integrated into the government’s security forces. In recent months, although the incidence of violent deaths has decreased significantly, attacks on aid workers have increased. Experience in all the conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries, of which the Darfur war is just the latest, shows that Khartoum invariably says one thing and means another. Sudanese officials have said they expect the force to be deployed by October. Year-end seems more probable, at the very earliest. There are loopholes and ambiguities in the new agreement which Khartoum will exploit to hinder and delay the force whenever it deems it necessary. There will be delays, too, on the peacekeepers’ side as they struggle first to find and fund 20,000 troops, and then to house them in safety in a region where there is no ceasefire and where hostilities still rumble on, with occasional and hugely destructive spikes. Senior planners in both the UN and the AU acknowledge privately that creating and maintaining a unified force and unified command from two completely different organizations is not going to be an easy task. There are no guarantees that the hybrid will bring out the best – rather than the worst – in either organization. It could be an improvement on the current under-funded, under-experienced AU force. It could be as bad. Look up “hybrid in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A thing composed of incongruous elements. Now look up “incongruous : “Out of place, absurd. The UN’s record in northern Sudan is not a glorious one. In the past, it has been co-opted into the abusive policies of the government – to give just one example, by submissively relocating, in wretched desert camps outside Khartoum, displaced southerners forcibly driven out of the city by the regime’s police and security forces. In the present, it is underperforming – dismally, in the opinion of many – in the Kordofan region on Darfur’s eastern border, where it has a mandate to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate militias in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the North-South civil war in January 2005. A colleague recently returned from the region did not see one UN patrol in two weeks in the region, even though Kordofan is far safer than Darfur (for the moment, at least). What she did see was armed men and armed checkpoints, sometimes only a few minutes’ drive from UN barracks. Many relief workers in South Sudan doubt that UN troops will perform any better in Darfur. “The UN is not the answer, says a senior humanitarian planner in Juba, seat of the new government of South Sudan. “It is part of the answer if done properly. But it never is. And the UN is no substitute for an indigenous peace process – something that has been shamefully overlooked among all the emphasis on and hype about UN peacekeepers. The belief of those who have prioritized the deployment of a UN force seems to be based on the conviction not just that the AU is totally inadequate for the task, but that there is safety in numbers; that 20,000 peacekeepers will make a qualitative change to the tragic situation in Darfur. The experience of Kordofan shows that the solution lies not in numbers, but in a solid ceasefire that is supported by local reconciliation and community liaison, the only bases for a firm and durable peace. In the Nuba mountains region of Kordofan in the 1990s, the Joint Military Commission (JMC) disarmed fighters, stored weapons, facilitated the delivery of relief, encouraged local reconciliation efforts, and gave ordinary people extraordinary confidence by making regular patrols on the ground and in the air. The JMC was composed of fewer than 100 individuals – not thousands, or even tens of thousands. Its success was proven by the ease and freedom of movement between rebel-controlled and government-controlled areas and by the return to the Nuba mountains of large numbers of civilians who had migrated, because of war, to urban centers like Khartoum. The situation has deteriorated, dramatically, since the UN replaced the JMC. “I have never seen the Nuba so awash with weapons, says a veteran of the region. “The population regrets the JMC departure very vociferously. If the UN would just get out and make its presence felt it would be enough to reduce the pervasive levels of insecurity which predominate among some communities. The new hybrid force for Darfur may well improve the command and control and the logistics of the AU peacekeeping operation. What it will not be able to do is stop the war, disarm the Janjaweed and protect all Darfurians. For that to happen, far greater emphasis is needed on securing a cessation of hostilities and then helping the Darfur rebels to engage, as a cohesive unit, in a new effort to breathe new life into a new peace process. The promised hybrid force can, perhaps, be part of the solution. If deployed in the middle of an unresolved conflict, it will quickly become part of the problem. Julie Flinthas written extensively on Sudan. She is the author, with Alex de Waal, of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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