UN leader on right track on Darfur

Last week was a good one for the UN secretary general, and perhaps for Darfur. Ban Ki-moon has made solving the crisis in Sudan’s western region a top priority, and last Thursday he achieved a significant breakthrough. On a six-day swing through Sudan, Chad and Libya, he announced that Darfur’s rebels would sit down to peace talks with the Sudanese government in Libya next month. For journalists travelling with him, as I did, the former Korean foreign minister’s delight was tangible, even though his carefully controlled face does not relax easily. He wanted to give people in Darfur “a message of hope”, he said, and he clearly felt he had done that.

Ban entered office in January, more than a touch touchy about the charisma of Kofi Annan, his predecessor. He soon decided that Darfur was the area where he would try to make a mark early in his tenure. It was less intractable than the Middle East. The world’s power blocs were not heavily engaged on one side or the other — the west paid lip service to the need for peace in Sudan but constantly took its eye off the ball; Russia was not interested, and China, ever eager to develop and to buy Sudan’s oil, kept mum about the politics of the conflict.

So Ban’s constant refrain in his public speeches last week, that the world had stood by over the previous four years “like a seemingly helpless witness” as 2 million people in Darfur fled their homes during a vicious civil war and a brutal counter-insurgency, had a lot of truth in it — even if Kofi Annan might not agree, given his efforts.

The west’s answer has been to concentrate on trying to get foreign troops into the region. This culminated in July with the decision by the UN Security Council to send in 26,000 soldiers and police with a mandate to protect civilians. But, in spite of their tough talk, the United States, Britain, and France were happy to leave the issue to the African Union. The “hybrid” AU/UN force, which will have tougher powers than the African monitors at present in Darfur, will still be manned mainly by Africans — as the Sudanese government insisted. What Ban did last week was to shift the international focus on to peace talks. What can peacekeepers do, he repeatedly asked, if there is no peace to keep?

The Sudanese government claims that large parts of Darfur are free of violence and thousands of people have already gone home, either as entire families, or by having the men return to till their land while wives and children remain in the camps.

The trouble is that these movements are not coordinated with the United

Nations agencies, raising suspicions that the numbers are exaggerated and the notion of people streaming home to their villages is propaganda on the lines of “Crisis? What crisis? Why do we need all these peacekeepers?”.

Independent aid workers worry about encouraging returns before there is a Darfur-wide ceasefire and some measure of political reconciliation, since “safe havens” often become targets. Nevertheless, the need to plan for voluntary returns deserves more attention than it has received. Peace talks are about to start and an expanded international force will deploy in the next few months. Getting people out of the camps is the third pillar of the solution, and programmes to make it possible should be prepared soon. — The Guardian