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Darfur: Searching for a Peace Process

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Darfur: Searching for a Peace Process

Posted by Colin Thomas-Jensen on July 10, 2008

To anyone tracking the international community’s muddled efforts to broker peace in Darfur, last week’s decision to appoint a new mediator, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, is welcome news. But it is only a small first step in building a peace process that can end more than five years of genocide and bloody conflict.

The joint United Nations/African Union mediation has ground to a halt in recent months, and the Government of Sudan, its militia proxies, and several rebel factions remain convinced that military victory in Darfur is possible. Mr. Bassole is an experienced mediator–he helped broker a 2007 peace agreement in Cote d’Ivoire–but jump-starting Darfur negotiations will require vision, leadership, consultation, and, above all, the support of the international community.

Since 2004, peacemaking efforts for Darfur have been hamstrung by competing initiatives and a lack of leverage. The negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria, that led to the failed 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement are illustrative of all that has gone wrong. The African Union mediation team and the 16 international "observers" quarreled over how to structure the talks. High-level U.S. and European diplomats opted for "parachute diplomacy", dropping in on the talks and making demands with minimal follow through.

The negotiators in Abuja also failed to take into account the concerns of the victims of the conflict–particularly women, internally displaced persons, and non-aligned Arab groups. In the end, only one rebel leader signed the agreement, which accelerated the splintering of Darfur’s rebels and pushed the conflict in dangerous new directions. If Mr. Bassole is going to chart a new course, he must quickly learn from his predecessors’ mistakes and demonstrate leadership from day one.

– First, Mr. Bassole must demand the support of a full-time team with expertise in all of the relevant areas under negotiation. The issues are complex–power and wealth sharing, disarmament of militias, return of displaced persons to their homes, land rights, etc. He must establish a clear end-state for negotiations (perhaps through a draft agreement), set the agenda, and drive it forward.

– Second, Mr. Bassole must demand backing from a small group of countries with leverage on the government and the rebels. Ideally, these would include the United States, United Kingdom, France, and China. It is especially critical that the Chinese are at the table. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, activists have demonized China for its policies in Darfur, and deservedly so. But that window of opportunity to pressure China will be over in less than two months, and the international community must urgently build consensus for lasting solutions in Sudan.

– Third, Mr. Bassole must adopt the perspective of a much broader array of stakeholders than just the Khartoum government and the rebels. Internally displaced people, refugee populations, and Darfurians in the Diaspora have consistently and clearly articulated workable solutions to the challenges facing Darfur.

The United States been rightly focused on the deployment of a UN-led peacekeeping force to protect civilians, but it must pay equal attention to a peace process that has careened off the rails. Absent U.S. support to get that process back on track, Mr. Bassole’s could be the latest failed attempt to end Darfur’s five year nightmare.

John Prendergast contributed to this post

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.