For at least 18 months now, Western governments have quietly stood by as the non-Arabic-speaking black farmers of the Darfur region in western Sudan have borne the brunt of a vicious ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by state-sponsored bandits known as the janjaweed.
Refugees report that attacks on farming villages are often preceded by raids by Sudanese air force fighter-bombers and attack helicopters. The janjaweed, recruited from Arabic-speaking pastoralist tribes, then routinely murder any male villagers they can get their hands on, systematically rape or kidnap the women, and plunder and destroy the villages and crops. The attacks and their consequences have resulted in the deaths of up to 50,000 people and the displacement of 1.5 million; aid agencies warn that hundreds of thousands may die from disease or starvation in the coming months.
Why then have the governments of the United States and the European Union (EU) only now begun to express concern over the fate of the people of western Sudan and demand that the Islamist military regime in Khartoum bring the janjaweed under control? The answer — as it most often is when rich countries threaten to intervene in the Middle East and Africa — is access to invest in and extract profits from Sudan's burgeoning oil export industry.
Pressure on Khartoum
Beginning in earnest in July, Washington, backed by the EU, began to ratchet up the pressure on Khartoum to rein in the janjaweed. On July 1, US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Khartoum, where he sternly warned Sudan's government: "Unless we see more moves soon ... it may be necessary for the international community to begin considering other actions, to include Security Council action."
Three days later, with Powell's threats still ringing in their ears, Sudan's rulers issued a joint communique with UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in which they promised to "immediately start disarming the janjaweed and other armed outlaw groups", "allow the deployment of human rights monitors" and "ensure that all individuals and groups accused of human rights violations are brought to justice without delay".
The Sudanese government committed itself to "ensure that no militia are present in areas surrounding internally displaced persons camps" and pledged to "deploy a strong, credible and respected police force in all areas where there are displaced people, as well as areas susceptible to attacks". It was also agreed that an African Union military force of 300 troops would be allowed into Darfur to protect AU officials there to monitor a cease-fire negotiated in April between Khartoum and the main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
In mid-July, Powell circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution that threatened Khartoum with unspecified "sanctions" unless it implemented the July 3 UN-Sudan communique.
Despite the fact that the draft UN resolution did not authorise the use of military force and there were no public plans for a UN intervention force in Darfur, the British and Australian governments added to Washington's pressure on Khartoum by letting it be known that they were prepared to send troops to the region if called upon. Britain's top commander, General Mike Jackson, said on July 26 that he could send 5000 troops to Sudan if needed, while on July 25 Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, claiming to have received a "request from the United Nations", declared that "there's a good chance that [Australia] will send some troops to Sudan".
On July 22, the US Congress unanimously called on President George Bush to consider "multilateral or even unilateral intervention to prevent genocide should the United Nations Security Council fail to act".
Agreement on a Security Council resolution remained stalled until late on July 29 when Washington finally dropped specific mention of the imposition of "sanctions" from the fourth draft. Eight of the UN Security Council's 15 members — including veto-wielding China and Russia — had opposed the specific threat of sanctions.
In its final form, the resolution warned that unless Khartoum made progress in implementing the July 3 communique within 30 days of the resolution's adoption, the Security Council would "consider further actions, including measures as provided for in Article 41 [of the UN Charter]". Article 41 excludes military action but allows economic and diplomatic sanctions. The resolution was passed on July 31, by a margin of 13-0, with China and Pakistan abstaining.
Some left-wing commentators have interpreted the motive behind Washington's newfound concern for Darfur — as well as the British and Australian governments' volunteering of troops for a phantom UN intervention force — as an effort by Washington to justify an Iraq-style invasion of Sudan to achieve "regime change" and seize control of its potentially massive oil reserves.
While US and European governments' goal is renewed access by their countries oil corporations to Sudan's oil wealth, Washington's latest threats against Sudan are part of a "carrot and stick" approach that it has pursued with Khartoum since the 9/11 attacks. Knowing that Sudan is desperate to "normalise" relations with the US, Washington is attempting to lure Khartoum back into the neocolonial fold using the "carrot" of promises to lift US economic sanctions imposed in 1997 and the "stick" of the threat of further sanctions. Such an approach was successful with neighbouring Libya.
Washington too is eager to lift its economic sanctions. Since 1997, US oil companies have been excluded from profiting from the massive expansion of Sudan's oil industry since 1999, which has been dominated by Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Canadian and some European companies. Fighting in the 21-year-long civil war in Sudan's oil-rich south, as well as pressure from human rights activists, has forced Canadian and most European firms to sell off or suspend their operations in southern Sudan over the last two years.
Upon coming to office in 2001, one of the Bush administration's earliest foreign policy objectives was to secure a peace agreement between the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and Khartoum, allowing Washington to lift sanctions. Bush appointed former US senator John Danforth, now Washington's UN ambassador, as his "special envoy for peace in Sudan".
In July 2002, Danforth, who led an international "Trioka" made up of US, British and Norwegian officials, succeeded with bribes and threats in convincing the SPLM and Khartoum to sign a draft peace agreement that promised a referendum six years or so after a final peace agreement is signed and an autonomous secular government in the south (while Islamic law would continue to govern the northern two-thirds of the country). An informal cease-fire agreement was reached in October 2002.
In May this year, Khartoum and the SPLM agreed that government revenue from the export of oil from the southern oil fields would be split between the SPLM-dominated southern regional government and the central government in Khartoum. All that remained was for further talks, which were scheduled to begin on June 22, to finalise procedures for an internationally monitored cease-fire agreement and a timeline for implementing the peace deal.
Since February 2003, when the Darfur rebellion erupted, Washington and the EU all but ignored the atrocities taking place in Darfur in the hope that they would not impact on the main game. Only when the escalating crisis in Darfur threatened to derail the north-south peace deal and prevent the opening up of Sudan's lucrative oilfields to Western exploitation did the US start waving the threat of UN sanctions against Sudan.
According to the July 23 issue of Middle East International, SPLM leader John Garang "recently warned there would be no deal that ignored Darfur... Far from completing arrangements for a formal cease-fire by the middle of July as planned, substantive talks have yet to commence."
Washington's underlying policy approach was summarised in an article in the June 10 International Herald Tribune co-written by Chester Crocker, a former assistant US secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration: "Implementing Sudan's complex, six-year transition agreement will be far more difficult than negotiating it... The agreement will fly apart without sustained international attention... Peace will only have a chance in Sudan if there is active US leadership. The United States has the needed leverage, including through the potential to lift sanctions and normalise diplomatic relations. It can also provide serious resources and play a key role on the UN Security Council."
In this framework, Crocker recommended that the US "address the immediate crisis in Darfur, while aggressively nailing down the broader north-south peace agreement".
Apart from a few face-saving outbursts from Sudanese government ministers and army leaders soon after the Security Council resolution was passed, the Sudanese regime seems to have fallen into line. On August 5, Reuters reported that Jan Pronk, Annan's special representative in Sudan, was already telling reporters that "the government has to be commended for keeping its promise [on action in Darfur]. We have full access [for relief supplies]... They have deployed many more police in the region and they have stopped their own military activities against villages."
That same day, Brigadier Jamal al Huweris, police commissioner in northern Darfur, told the Sudanese Media Centre, a pro-government newsagency, that the janjaweed would soon be disarmed.
Meanwhile, the African Union announced on August 4 it will send up to 2000 troops, drawn from Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania, to Darfur with an expanded mandate to protect refugees, "disarm and neutralise" the janjaweed and allow the deliveries of aid supplies.
Sudanese foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told Reuters on August 5 that Sudan would cooperate with the AU force. The rebel SLM/A and JEM, as well as the opposition National Democratic Alliance, have also endorsed the "African solution" of an AU peacekeeping force in Darfur.
From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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