A New Chance for Darfur

As the crisis in Darfur drags on, along with discussions between the Sudan and various governments and international institutions, world public opinion is congealing  around the need for a "muscular" policy based on public denunciation, severe economic sanctions, and, increasingly, on threats of military force. But none of these steps, taken alone or together, can bring about the ends that their often well-intentioned advocates seek. On the contrary, they risk reproducing the havoc that such measures have unleashed in Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.


In the United States, cautionary voices have been notably absent even among staunchly liberal newspapers like The New York Times. Foreign policy advisors to the Democratic Party and neo-conservatives have called for "action" against the Sudan and their cries have been echoed by an international group of intellectuals and celebrities ranging from Umberto Eco, Jürgen Habermas, and Harold Pinter to Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Mia Farrow, Matt Damon, Mick Jagger, and JK Rowling.


President Omar al-Bashir has now been indicted for war crimes in Darfur, a development that has both imperiled even meager progress in peace talks and, ironically, strengthened his popularity. Meanwhile, French troops, with the support of other European Union members — notably Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Romania, and Sweden — are now deployed for supposedly humanitarian reasons in the Central African Republic and Chad, where they have already clashed with Sudanese government forces. The International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and many other organizations also support the deployment, while Save Darfur, which describes itself as a non-political "alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy, and humanitarian organizations," has, in fact, been pivotal in setting the policy agenda.


This agenda’s interventionism is incremental: tougher economic sanctions, demands that China use its influence, creation of a "no-fly zone," and military force against the Sudanese army. The assumption is that only real pressure will finally force Sudan‘s government to embrace the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, end the violence in Darfur, negotiate with the West, disband the feared Janjaweed militia, allow refugees from the country’s brutal civil war to return to their villages, and make peace with Southern rebels.


Realizing any of these aims requires actual help from the Khartoum government whereas each policy proposal will heighten tensions. Or prove useless. Existing Western sanctions, for example, have merely driven the Sudanese regime into the arms of China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Indeed, investment in Sudan has actually grown $2.8 billion over the last year.  


Protests against China‘s abysmal human rights record can have symbolic importance. But China accounts for 20% of African trade, and buys 60% of Sudan‘s oil. Talk — both in Europe and America — about boycotting the the Beijing Olympics (or the opening ceremony) proved utterly ineffective in influencing China‘s behavior in Tibet. It’s hard to imagine any Western economic pressure on China proving any more successful vis-à-vis Darfur.


Even proponents of a no-fly zone are doubtful about its potential efficacy. After all, Sudan is the size of Western Europe, and Darfur is the size of France, with 158 refugee camps. Strategic constraints would almost certainly overwhelm enforcement.


Finally, there is the "military option." But air strikes or intervention by ground forces would merely justify fears in Sudan of Western "imperialism." Worse, given the splintering of rebel forces in the South, where an estimated 80 tribes and clans control their own militias, a military response could generate a power vacuum in Sudan and destabilize the nine countries — many of them fragile or failed states — on its borders.


Western analysts and activists should have learned by now that "pressure" and military threats produce only resistance, and that genuine diplomacy involves using carrots as well as sticks. Yet the emerging policy consensus has no positive incentives to resolve the Darfur crisis. Uncertainty even exists whether its aim is merely to "pressure" the Sudan for a change in policy or bring about wholesale "regime change."


I have been to Sudan twice, and, as part of a delegation organized by Conscience International, I have also visited the refugee camps in Nyala and El Fasher in Darfur. I have met with literally dozens of Sudanese politicians and diplomats, and I know that the regime in Khartoum is authoritarian, self-interested, and ruthless.


But I also know that it is not monolithic. Factions within the regime might prove supportive of new policies aimed at tempering the climate of violence in Sudan, decreasing its trade dependency upon China, improving conditions for refugees, and lowering international tensions. Such policies might include:


  • Normalizing diplomatic relations in exchange for removing obstacles to the deployment of UN-African Union forces in Darfur;  


  • Replacing sanctions on Sudan with new investment opportunities and gradually eliminating Sudan’s foreign debt in exchange for achievement of benchmarks tied to repatriating refugees, rebuilding villages, and demobilizing the Janjaweed;


  • Calling on not only the government, but also the rebel forces, over which the West has some influence, to bargain in good faith;


  • Engaging China‘s desire for international prestige by encouraging it to assume a public role in designing and overseeing repatriation, demobilization, and vocational programs;


  • Offering aid to the Sudanese in rebuilding the tribal reconciliation councils that were destroyed during the civil war;


  • Reintegrating Sudan into the international community through academic exchanges, conferences, political visits, and the like;


  • Strengthening the African Union, which Western analysts have consistently underestimated with almost indescribable arrogance, in order to foster African solutions for African problems.


The emerging consensus toward the Sudan is predicated on an approach that has already undermined respect for Western values throughout the non-Western world. Its policies won’t work. They are unrealistic and, ultimately, counterproductive. There is no time to lose in trying something new.



Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation. This is a slightly updated article originally written for Project Syndicate.

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