Focus on Sudan's political referendum obscures trouble in Darfur

By Morton Abramowitz
Friday, November 19, 2010;

Reports are trickling in of increasing government-supported violence against Darfuris, deteriorating humanitarian conditions and widespread attacks on war-torn Darfur's beleaguered civil society. But the world has done little to acknowledge, much less address, this rapidly declining situation. Preparations for the North-South political referendum, which has potential for huge bloodletting, are sucking up all the oxygen. Even if Sudan peacefully splits, Darfur is headed for humanitarian and political purgatory.

Among some of the more dismaying events:

l In recent weeks Sudanese armed forces and elements of the Janjaweed armed militias have renewed attacks on villages throughout Darfur. Radio reports tell of targeted attacks on civilians in areas where Darfuri rebels claim they have no forces. Thousands of displaced people from razed villages are flooding westward into camps in Darfur, deepening problems for the displaced already there.

l Khartoum is likely to close a major camp for more than 80,000 displaced persons in South Darfur soon, reportedly to ensure better security for a nearby airport. Kalma is one of the oldest camps, and among its inhabitants are some of the most radicalized Darfuri rebels; in recent years, Kalma has been the site of intense clashes between rebel and government forces. There are not sufficient places to send the displaced or humanitarian aid to help them, so their future is uncertain. Efforts to move the displaced from Kalma could provoke still greater violence.

l Most ominous of all, the government of Sudan is reported to be concertedly reaching out to additional Janjaweed forces that have long operated in Darfur for participation in a "final conclusion." Information remains sparse, but according to Darfuri sources, the operation is to begin this month and conclude just before the January referendum. Armed supporters of the Sudanese government are being flown into the regional airport; at least one was heard declaring that he and fellow fighters had come to "clean" Darfur. Efforts to silence journalists include the closing of Radio Dabanga's offices in Khartoum. Humanitarian workers are afraid to say much publicly for fear of being ejected by Khartoum and having their lifesaving work ended.

While the international community has expressed deep concerns about Darfur, little has been done to resolve the situation. And failure to act makes things worse. After U.N. Security Council officials visited the area last month, people who spoke with the officials were soon arrested. Although the African Union/United Nations hybrid forces, known as UNAMID, have been monitoring the area, and Security Council resolutions have repeatedly called on Khartoum to change its policies, nothing has changed.

Since the genocide began in Darfur in 2003, the international community has provided massive humanitarian assistance. But the early carnage was largely stopped only after many deaths - then as now, many countries have focused on working out a peace between North and South Sudan.

Meanwhile, internationally sponsored negotiations between Darfur rebels and Khartoum have gone nowhere. Western rhetoric and threats against Khartoum over the past seven years have remained mere words. The International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity may have an important long-term effect, but it has contributed little in the short term - and arguably has made resolving the situation in Darfur more difficult. The biggest international achievement has been to keep several million displaced people alive in camps for years, no small feat, but that has not addressed the problems at their root.

The international focus on potential bloodshed as Sudan moves toward its January referendum is understandable. But while we worry about the impact Sudan's division may have on the rest of the world, Darfur gets the short end of the stick. Two weeks ago, Washington informed Sudanese leaders of its willingness to remove Sudan from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism without mention of the genocide in Darfur. This decoupling of the Darfur issue may prove the most dangerous decision yet for Darfur. This offer may not be enough to secure peace for the referendum, and the timing of this carrot could not be worse, coming just as Khartoum seeks to solidify its hold on Darfur through violence. By using this option, the Obama administration has lost an important tool in preventing an almost certain intensification of the genocide in Darfur.

Indeed, if the North-South split proceeds peacefully from the referendum, the worst for Darfur is likely still to come. With the loss of the South, Khartoum will certainly seek to cement its remaining domination of the rest of Sudan, which means more vigorous indiscriminate killings, more "cleansing" and more attacks by the government-backed Janjaweed. If the international community does not pay attention now, this will not be the end of conflict in Sudan but just the beginning of another equally horrible chapter. Unfortunately, it is hard to be optimistic that nations will find the means to prevent it.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research institution.

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