By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, June 17 -- President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, said Wednesday that the Sudanese government is no longer engaging in a "coordinated" campaign of mass murder in Darfur, marking a shift in the U.S. characterization of the violence there as an "ongoing genocide."
"What we see is the remnants of genocide," Gration told reporters at a briefing in Washington. "The level of violence that we're seeing right now is primarily between rebel groups, the Sudanese government and . . . some violence between Chad and Sudan."
Gration's remarks come as the Obama administration is finishing a review of its Sudan policy. The comments appeared to expose an emerging rift between Gration and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who accused the Sudanese leadership of genocide as recently as two days ago.
Last week, the Obama administration held a high-level "deputies" meeting to finalize a comprehensive policy plan to be presented to Cabinet members and later to the president. But those talks have stalled as a result of differences over how to strike a balance between rewards and penalties to bring about Sudanese cooperation.
Gration has advocated easing some American sanctions and upgrading U.S. diplomatic relations with Sudan's government to induce cooperation. He has also sought to position himself as a principal mediator between the Sudanese government and its adversaries in western Sudan's Darfur region, southern Sudan and Chad.
Speaking at the State Department, Gration announced plans to host an international conference in Washington on Tuesday to bolster a fragile peace deal between the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and leaders of the oil-rich southern region. Gration expressed concern that a landmark 2005 agreement ending Africa's bloodiest conflict is in peril as the country prepares for national elections early next year.
Bashir's peace envoy, Gazi Salah Eddin, and Malik Agar, a representative of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, were expected to arrive in Washington on Wednesday at the head of large delegations. They will be joined next week by officials from more than 32 countries and organizations, including the U.N. Security Council's five veto-wielding powers, and the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Gration said the administration needs to resolve a series of thorny political problems before a 2011 referendum determining whether the South remains a part of Sudan or secedes. Those include wealth-sharing agreements over the region's vast oil reserves. "We need to get into the sprint mode," he said.
Advocates criticized Gration's assessment of the human rights situation. "It is incumbent that the special envoy sing from the same song sheet" as the rest of the administration, said John Norris, the executive director of Enough, a human rights advocacy group.
Since his appointment three months ago, Gration has struck a far more conciliatory tone toward the Sudanese government than Obama's advisers did during the campaign, when they proposed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent Sudanese air raids on villages. "We need to have engagement with all parties to save lives in Sudan, to bring about a lasting peace," Gration said.
Gration said his initial contacts with Sudan have led to the resumption of humanitarian aid activities in Darfur, citing the recent arrival of several international charities. "We've essentially closed the humanitarian gap that existed in Darfur when the 13 [nongovernmental organizations] were expelled," he said.
Last week, John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, credited Gration's mediation with improving the humanitarian situation. But he said the latest aid workers "have not yet replaced, and cannot easily or rapidly replace, the capacity and skills lost."
On Tuesday, a U.N. human rights investigator, Sima Samar, accused Sudanese forces of continuing to carry out land and air attacks against civilians in Darfur, in violation of the world body's resolutions. She cited reports that Sudan's security forces have arrested and tortured human rights activist and aid workers.
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, said the U.S. invitation signaled a major improvement in relations between the two countries. He expressed hope that the conference would reinvigorate peace efforts in Sudan and lead to new development aid. "This is about raising money," Abdalhaleem said. He said donors had pledged "more than $4 billion but the amount received is . . . almost none."