Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sudan: New US Envoy Facing Uphill Struggle

Khartoum knows it will not face punitive measures from the international community no matter how grievous its violations, say analysts.
By Fawzia Sheikh
With his appointment last month as the US envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios has been asked to sup from a poisoned chalice.

As the United States becomes increasingly concerned about the continuing killing of civilians by government forces and government-backed militias in Darfur, President George Bush will be hoping Natsios, who has been in Sudan this week, can find some way of resolving the violence and humanitarian disaster in the country’s vast western province.

Bush, who has labelled as "genocide" the killings and rapes of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur over the past three years, is lost, along with the rest of the world community, for an answer to the tragedy short of a full scale international military invasion.

The US president is clearly looking to his special envoy to try and persuade all combatants to renew peace negotiations.

But the challenges facing Natsios - a former administrator for the US Agency for International Development who has also served as special humanitarian coordinator for Sudan - are plentiful.

Sudan’s Arab-dominated Islamist government refuses to allow a United Nations force to operate in Darfur, a semi-desert region the size of France, citing a loss of sovereignty and fears that Sudan, once ruled by the British, will be "recolonised".

However, a bigger fear almost certainly lurks in the minds of President Omar al-Bashir, his ministers and generals. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Argentinian chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, launched investigations in June 2005 into the possibility that crimes against humanity have occurred in Darfur, where 400,000 have died and three million have fled their homes since fighting began in February 2003.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is believed to have given Moreno-Ocampo a list of 51 people who could be charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity under the 1998 Statute of Rome that brought the court into being in July 2002.

The conflict stems back to rebels in Darfur wanting greater autonomy, an increased role for Darfurians in central government, an end to violent encroachment on black traditional farming land by Arab pastoralists and a fair share in the country's increasing oil wealth.

Al-Bashir's National Islamic Front government, fearing calls for independence in other parts of the country if the rebels succeed with their plan, launched a brutal campaign of air strikes supported by ground-based attacks carried out by an Arab militia recruited from local Arab-dominated tribes and known as the Janjaweed (which translates from Arabic as “evil spirits on horseback”).

The Africa Union brokered the Darfur Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the largest rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement, in May this year. The deal establishes security, wealth-sharing and power-sharing arrangements but has been signed by only one of the three Darfur rebel movements.

Although a poorly-equipped and under-financed AU force of 7,200 has been charged to enforce peace in Darfur until the end of the year, the international community is lobbying for a UN operation of more than 20,000 international peacekeepers to take over with a stronger mandate to end the war. The UN Security Council in September passed Resolution 1706 authorising such a force, but it can only be deployed if the Sudanese government agrees. Sudan's defence minister, Abdel Rahmin Mohamed Hussein, has warned defiantly, "Darfur will become the graveyard of the United Nations and foreign intervention."

A UN mission in Sudan comprising 10,000 personnel is already monitoring a separate Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Arab-dominated north of the country and the Christian and animist African south.

The US administration, which has paid particular attention to the tragedy unfolding in Sudan, has talked tough on Darfur. And on October 13, President Bush signed an executive order that stiffens sanctions on Sudan and its oil industry in an effort to persuade the government to accept UN peacekeepers and stop the Darfur killings.

The order specifically imposes sanctions against those responsible for genocide, backs measures to protect civilians and humanitarian operations and supports peace efforts. It continues a countrywide blocking in the US of the Sudan government‘s property, and prohibits transactions related to Sudan’s oil sector.

Bush’s move expands on an earlier executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in 1997. The sanctions imposed by Clinton include a ban of defence exports and sales and controls over US exports to Sudan of dual-use items.

Critics say sanctions are unlikely to be able to bring the Sudan government to heel. "Sanctions have a horrible track record over time, particularly sanctions that are not widely supported throughout the international community," argued Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, DC. "So long as Sudan is able to sell oil and other natural resources on the global market, then the effect of sanctions is going to be extremely limited."

American tactics on Darfur have been criticised by others too. Outgoing UN deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown blasted the US and United Kingdom's use of what he called "posturing and grandstanding" in pressuring Sudan to accept UN peacekeepers. He recommended creating a set of incentives and sanctions that Sudan understands and which are backed by a diplomatic coalition representing a cross-section of countries that Sudan respects and trusts, including China.

The latest US strategy to appoint Natsios to a specialist role might allow for a more consistent and meaningful approach to Sudan, in which all the parties will be held accountable to their various commitments, Dave Mozersky, an analyst covering Sudan for the International Crisis Group based in Nairobi, told IWPR.

But, said Mozersky, it will be far from easy, “"Natsios and the broader international community are now operating in the context of three years of empty international threats. The Sudan government knows that it will not face punitive measures from the international community no matter how grievous its violations."

He pointed to a massive new government offensive in Darfur as an indication of how little regard the Khartoum government has for international opinion.

He said Natsios faces other problems too: no progress has been made to disarm or identify the Janjaweed; the government continues to launch aerial bombardments and manipulate tribal divisions on the ground; the National Rebel Front, the main force opposing the government, is still pursuing a military solution against the government, with support from Chad and Eritrea.

"There is a limited amount that can be done when countries do not have good diplomatic relations, which clearly characterises the US-Sudanese relationship, even though Washington has not formally cut off diplomatic relations with Sudan," said Preble.

Although the Americans have engaged in a lot of high-profile talk on Darfur, there has been "little tangible follow-up to date", said Mozersky. And although the ICC - which the US government has not joined for fear its own military will one day be tried for war crimes - may deter future attacks and atrocities in Darfur, it could also spur the Sudan government to adopt an even more isolationist approach to the international community, he went on. Already Khartoum fears a UN peacekeeping force will enforce future ICC indictments.

The only way to change the dynamic in Sudan, added Mozersky, is to begin to implement some of the unfulfilled threats against the Sudan government for non-compliance, "beginning with what's already been threatened in UN Security Council resolutions".

The Security Council in 2004 identified potential sanctions against an uncooperative Sudanese government that included partial interruption of economic relations; obstruction of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communications; and severance of diplomatic relations. But the implication has been that China, with huge oil investments in Sudan, will not support sanctions and Russia, a major arms supplier to Khartoum, "may also be difficult", said Preble.

Fawzia Sheikh is a regular IWPR contributor.