SUDAN: US steps up pressure over Darfur crisis

Wednesday, November 17, 1993 - 11:00

Doug Lorimer

The Australian and British governments — Washington's partners in last year's illegal invasion of Iraq — have offered to send troops to Sudan as part of a UN "peacekeeping" force, despite the fact that there is no proposal before the UN Security Council for the setting up of such a force.

The UN estimates at least 30,000 people have been killed and some 1.5 million made homeless in Sudan's thinly populated western Darfur region as a result of fighting between rebel organisations based among the region's black African villagers and Arab tribal militias, collectively known as the janjaweed.

"There's a good chance that we will send some troops to Sudan", Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer told Nine Network television on July 26. The next day, Downer dishonestly told ABC Radio National that Canberra had received "a request from the United Nations for us to provide" troops for a UN force.

On June 24, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that his government had "a moral responsibility to deal with this and to deal with it by any means that we can". Two days later, General Michael Jackson, Britain's top commander, said he could send 5000 British troops to Sudan if called upon to do so.

UN resolution

The US had presented a draft resolution to the Security Council that made no mention of a UN-authorised military intervention into Sudan, but threatened the oil-rich African country with economic sanctions unless its Islamist military government acted to disarm the janjaweed. The resolution, however, has been stalled in the council by China, France and Russia — three of the five veto-wielding permanent members — which are opposed to international sanctions being imposed on Sudan.

Unable to get a resolution threatening UN-imposed sanctions to pressure Khartoum to disarm the janjaweed, in early July US officials began floating the idea of foreign military intervention. The idea was quickly endorsed by Republican and Democratic legislators. "We need to get an international peacekeeping force on the ground to save lives immediately", Democrat legislator Charles Rangel declared on July 13.

Two days later, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry called on the Bush administration to "stop equivocating" and push for a Security Council resolution approving military intervention in Sudan, including with US troops.

However, with its own army stretched to breaking point waging an unwinnable counter-insurgency war in Iraq, Washington is in no position to credibly threaten to send US troops to Sudan. The June 30 Christian Science Monitor reported that despite "growing desire in the [Bush] administration and Congress for action on Darfur, there's little willingness to put US boots on the ground to stop the killing or keep the peace. Republican senators like Mike DeWine of Ohio and John McCain of Arizona have advocated paying for other nations' troops — perhaps via a UN peacekeeping mission. But there's reluctance in the UN Security Council — reportedly among nations like China, Pakistan, and Algeria — to get too involved in Darfur."

Without other nations publicly indicating their willingness to contribute troops to a UN "peacekeeping" force, the threat that such a force might be created looked hollow, leaving Washington without much diplomatic leverage to pressure Khartoum to act quickly to disarm the janjaweed.

The US desperately needed some public backing from other countries for the idea of foreign military intervention in Sudan. Hence, the public sabre-rattling by London and Canberra.

Washington's concern about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is not motivated by the rising death toll there. Its indifference to the enormous humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo — where at least 3.5 million people have died over the last few years — demonstrates that its desire to see a quick resolution of the Darfar crisis does not spring from any humanitarian concerns.

The June 30 Christian Science Monitor reported: "Prodded by the Bush team, Sudan's government and southern Christian rebels have been inching toward a comprehensive peace deal for about two years. The war broke out in 1983 after the south took up arms against Khartoum. Insurgents are looking for more equitable treatment of southerners and a share of the country's oil wealth. Negotiators are currently meeting in Kenya to work out details on peacekeeping and demobilization of troops. Another round of talks is set for later this year.

"Such a deal would end Africa's longest-running civil war. It would also ... enable the US to proceed with lifting sanctions against Sudan and restoring formal diplomatic ties, which the US did on Monday with Libya, another Muslim country with past ties to terrorism.

"At one point in January, a north-south deal was so close that Sudanese leaders from both sides began applying for visas to go to the White House for a signing ceremony. But recently, southern rebels have said they won't join with Sudan's government if it's involved in genocide in Darfur."

It is this threat — which could stall Washington's moves to lift its sanctions on US corporate investment in Sudan — that has led Washington to elevate the humanitarian crisis in Darfur to the top of its immediate diplomatic agenda.

The current government of Sudan, headed by General Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, came to power in a military coup in 1989, and is based on an alliance between Sudan's military elite and the right-wing National Congress Party (formerly the National Islamic Front). After coming to power, Bashir quickly began implementing an International Monetary Fund restructuring program to privatise state enterprises and encourage new foreign investment.

However, Bashir's regime earned Washington's hostility by siding with Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War. In 1993, the Clinton administration branded Sudan a "terrorist state", claiming that the Bashir government had allowed Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas to train on Sudanese soil, and in 1997 the US imposed a trade and investment embargo on Sudan.

The following year, Washington fired cruise missiles into what it alleged was a chemical weapons factory in Khartoum but which later proved to ber a pharmaceuticals plant.

However, since 9/11, Bashir — like Libya's military ruler Colonel Gaddafi — has moved to "normalise" relations with Washington. According to the US State Department website, Sudan "has provided concrete cooperation against international terrorism" and "publicly supported the international coalition actions against the al Qaeda network and the Taliban in Afghanistan".

A major motivation for Washington to find a pretext to drop its trade and investment embargo against Sudan is the country's emergence as a potential major oil exporter.

From the mid-1970s extensive oil exploration began in Sudan, with Chevron (Caltex) spending US$1.2 billion and discovering oil fields in southern Sudan. However, Chevron abandoned its concessions in Sudan in 1985 due to their location in an area where fighting was taking place between government troops and the guerrillas of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), a rebel force backed by the predominately Christian black population in the country's south.

Chevron's oil concessions were later developed by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a consortium dominated by the China National Petroleum Corporation, following the beginning of peace negotiations between Bashir's government and the SPLM in 1997. After the construction of an oil pipeline by GNPOC from the central-southern area to Port Sudan on the Red Sea in July 1999, Sudan began exporting crude petroleum (primarily to China and India). Last year, oil exports accounted for 70% of Sudan's export revenues.

In July 1998 the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that a Chevron representative estimated "Sudan had more oil than Iran and Saudi Arabia together". However, Washington's economic sanctions against Sudan meant that ChevronTexaco and the other US oil corporations have been unable to get their hands on this potential source of enormous profits.

The conflict in Darfur — which threatens to stall the signing of a final peace deal between Khartoum and the SPLA, and Washington's planned lifting of economic sanctions against Sudan — has been spurred by the drought and the near-famine conditions that have afflicted the region since 1984.

The government maintains that the conflict in Darfur is primarily a tribal one, centred around the competition for land between predominantly Arabic speaking semi-nomadic pastoralists and black African subsistence farmers. However, leaders of the black African tribes in Darfur insist that the depopulation of villages and consequent changes in land ownership are part of a government strategy to Arabise Darfur.

Intensified fighting

Fighting between the two main Darfur opposition groups — the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) — and the Sudanese military and Arabic tribal militias intensified in late 2003.

The Sudanese military has used aerial bombing to terrorise civilians whom the government alleges are harbouring SLM/A or JEM guerrillas. At the same time, black villagers have reported recurrent and systematic attacks, burning of buildings and crops, arbitrary killings, gang rape and looting by the janjaweed.

The SLM/A and the JEM claim to be seeking greater political autonomy for Darfur and a more equitable share of resources from the central Sudanese authorities. Khartoum, however, claims the Darfur rebels are only "bandits and armed gangs".

In April 2004, government mediators from neighbouring Chad persuaded Khartoum and representatives of the SLM/A and JEM to agree to a truce to allow humanitarian assistance to reach several hundred thousand people driven from their homes by the fighting. However, attacks by the janjaweed have blocked delivery of such aid.

In response to the threats of foreign intervention made by London and Canberra, on July 27 Ibrahim Mahmud Hamid, Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister, invited Western states to send more aid rather than troops, which he said would make the situation worse.

On July 29, US Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to mobilise more support for Washington's sanctions-threatening resolution by appearing conciliatory toward Khartoum. Powell publicly distanced Washington from the aggressive posture taken by its British bulldog and its Australian terrier, declaring that talk of military action was "premature".

"We should not underestimate what a difficult choice that would be in a sovereign country where there is no UN resolution for any such action and where the government, I believe, still has the ability to take action to bring this violence under control", Powell added.

On July 31, the Security Council passed by 13-0, with China and Pakistan abstaining, a version of the US-drafted resolution that warned Sudan it would face unspecified measures if it did not act to fulfill its promise to disarm the janjaweed.

From Green Left Weekly, August 4, 2004.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.


From GLW issue 592