I would imagine the goal of today’s press briefing by Special Envoy
Scott Gration was simple: give a general, although bland, progress
report on the state of talks and set the table for the conference on
CPA implementation taking place here in Washington on June 23.
Unfortunately, the special envoy strayed off the mark in several comments, and those missteps will likely dominate the news cycle up until the conference. When asked if the situation in Darfur currently amounted to genocide, he parsed his answer to indicate that “What we see is the remnants of genocide.” In a follow up question, he cited “terrorist activities on these folks,” (presumably citizens), by “bandits, Janjaweed and warlords.” Reporters will have a field day with this given that both President Obama and Ambassador Rice have used language within the last two weeks suggesting that they view the genocide in Darfur as ongoing, and this will add fuel to the fire for those suggesting that there is a split in the administration with regard to how conciliatory it should be toward President Bashir – despite the fact that he is wanted for war crimes.
The second linguistic thicket into which Gration wandered was the expulsion of humanitarian aid groups. Gration noted that we have “three new aid groups returning to Sudan” – something of an oxymoron. Are they new aid groups, or are they returning aid groups? As has always been clear, Khartoum was willing to let three of the 13 groups return to work if they were rehatted under new names, a charade the international community apparently was willing to accept. Now Khartoum is expecting credit for its willingness to partially address a humanitarian crisis which it manufactured itself. Gration also insisted that aid capacity in Darfur was back up to nearly 100 percent of what it had been before Khartoum put so many lives at risk through its callous decision to expel aid groups. Lots of analysts, including the humanitarian chief at the U.N., have suggested that we are still well short of restoring previous aid capacity, and most aid groups still face a maze of restrictions that allow Khartoum to turn aid on and off at will.
On the bright side, Gration continued to emphasize the importance of addressing the situation in Sudan comprehensively and not simply bouncing back and forth between focusing on Darfur and the increasingly perilous situation in the South. But on balance, the communications people in the administration look to be doing some serious damage control over the next 48 hours.
Photo: President Obama and Sudan Special Envoy Scott Gration AP/Evan Vucci