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William Hague, Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Andrew Mitchell, Shadow International Development Secretary, recently visited the Darfur region of Sudan.  They reflect on their visit in this exclusive article for ConservativeHome.com.

“We send our grandmothers to collect the firewood. We know they will be beaten. But we have no choice – if we send our men, they will kill them. If we send our women or our girls, they will rape them.”

A despairing resident of Abu Shouk displaced person’s camp in Northern Darfur described to us the danger of venturing beyond the relative safety of the camp. She explained how her community faces attack from the mounted Janjaweed militia – and the cruel choices that she is forced to make every day.

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This Monday we visited two camps near the dusty town of El Fasher, and heard first-hand accounts of the violence and intimidation suffered by the people living there. We spoke to newcomers to the compound, who had been driven from their land near Shafiyee in just the last few days. The villagers were clear in their minds: the Janjaweed that forced them from their land had been armed, abetted and encouraged by their own government. Aid workers told us that despite assurances from Khartoum, the situation on the ground – especially in Western and Southern Darfur – is worsening. While the world watches, weeps and dithers, ethnic cleansing is continuing.

The international community’s strategy for dealing with the crisis in Darfur has never been anything other than anaemic. The deployment of the African Union force in 2004 left the task of protecting the civilians of a region the size of France to 7,000 peacekeepers who are seriously under-equipped and overstretched, and who lack the mandate to do anything other than monitor the country’s tenuous cease-fire. The implication was that their presence alone would prevent further violence. Meanwhile the political process has been caught in limbo between warring factions not interested in peace, a government wishing to ward off foreign involvement, and an international community hoping for the best.
Today different agencies estimate that between 180,000 and 300,000 have died in the Darfur region and more than 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes. Some 200,000 refugees are estimated to have fled westward into neighbouring Chad, while the majority remain trapped in camps in Darfur.

In the context of such suffering, and the blatant and immediate need for humanitarian help on a massive scale, the decision by the Government of Sudan to bar UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland from Darfur is as perverse as it is deplorable. It is not, however atypical. The Government appears to pursue a systematic policy of making life difficult for the NGOs and international organisations working to help the people of Darfur. Visa applications for humanitarian workers take weeks to process. Access to essential fuel is limited. Movement between regions is impeded. The obstruction and harassment is subtle but immensely insidious, and seriously affects the ability of the aid agencies to do their job. Such difficulties underline the heroism of the aid workers we met, many from British organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, who are delivering essential services and saving lives in a dangerous and hostile environment. 

The diplomatic, military and humanitarian assistance provided by the international community has managed to stem but not stop the ethnic cleansing, persecution and violence. Some progress has been made: compared with a year ago, casualty rates in Darfur have fallen and humanitarian assistance is reaching displaced peoples with greater consistency. Yet millions of Sudanese still live under the constant threat of violence, hunger and disease; and killings, rapes and other abuses of human rights in Darfur continue to threaten the peace in Sudan as a whole. And we were repeatedly warned that a new crisis is just around the corner – a result of reduced aid funding, restricted access to many camps, and renewed fighting between rival rebel groups, the Government of Sudan, and the Janjaweed militia.   

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The Sudanese government is making little effort to stabilise the region, rein in militias or protect civilians. Indeed it seems that it continues to provide military support to the militia scourging Darfur.

On the political level no significant progress has been made in advancing the peace talks in Abuja. Three years after they started a seventh round of peace talks is no closer to ending the war in Darfur. Jack Straw was right to deliver a forceful message to both the Government and the rebels in February. Such pressure should be maintained.

Unfortunately however, international diplomatic initiatives intended to decisively influence Khartoum continue to be thwarted by other countries more interested in pursuing their economic or political advantage than in promoting human rights. Sudan’s status as an Islamic government, oil exporter and a significant importer of arms has proven to be a successful deterrent against any united international action.

The need for security, an inclusive political settlement and an end to impunity

While the Darfur crisis is complex, it was not unexpected, and it is certainly not hopeless. It has unfolded gradually, providing plenty of opportunities for decisive action by the international community. And although many nations have responded, the resolve and unity of the international community have not been commensurate with the seriousness of the crisis. Our strategy for dealing with Darfur is in need of urgent resuscitation. A lasting solution to the Darfur conflict can only come of a strategy that delivers three outcomes:  security, an inclusive political settlement and an end to impunity.

Security on the ground is paramount. The people we met in the camps are Sudanese citizens on Sudanese soil. The Government in Khartoum has systematically rejected its basic responsibility to guarantee their security and meet their humanitarian needs. It is therefore little wonder that the people we spoke to made it clear that they would not feel safe enough to return to their homes until the arrival of an international force with the mandate, capacity and political will to keep the peace. The only practical way to guarantee this is through the UN. The African Union has made a reasonable start. But it clearly lacks the expertise and experience to do the job properly. It should be transformed as soon as possible into a UN-led operation with a beefed-up Chapter Six mandate, backed by extensive logistical help – including air support as necessary- from NATO. Any handover will take at least six months. In the interim, the AU forces should be fully funded, and if possible expanded.

The only way to guarantee security in the long term is through a meaningful ceasefire, observed by both the Government and the rebels. This is a pre-condition of an inclusive political settlement that would address the grievances of all groups in Darfur.

Members of the Government operate in a culture of impunity. This must be challenged. Asset and travel sanctions against individuals responsible for planning and assisting ethnic cleansing in Darfur should be robustly applied. We should insist on Sudan’s cooperation with the special investigations of the International Criminal Court in Darfur in accordance with UN resolution 1593.

If the much-vaunted responsibility to protect, so enthusiastically embraced by the international community last year is to mean anything, we must take decisive action in Darfur. Ethnic cleansing is happening before the eyes of the international community. At the main airport used by the AU forces, we saw Sudanese Government helicopters that, we were told, were being used in attacks. In future years, when we look back at the terrible crimes that were committed in Darfur, we may be able to find excuses and explanations for failing to take sufficient action. But we will certainly not be able to plead ignorance.

Related links: The new website of the Conservative Human Rights group, David Cameron answers ConservativeHome.com’s leadership contest question on Darfur and these blogs: Coalition for Darfur, the Darfur blog and The Passion of the Present.

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