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Promoting Peace in Sudan: The Devil is in the Details

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Promoting Peace in Sudan: The Devil is in the Details

Posted by Laura Heaton on August 28, 2009

In the three days since the Sudan Now initiative launched, I’ve seen a number of bloggers and journalists qualify their reports of activist frustration by noting that the Obama administration has indeed been active in trying to address the multiple crises in Sudan. Even the top U.S. diplomat for Sudan has sought to emphasize the common goals he shares with the increasingly agitated Sudan activists. (This post by Chris Good on Marc Ambinder’s blog at The Atlantic captured Gration’s response to this recent push to hold top administration officials accountable for their past tough words.)

Without a doubt, the decision by President Obama to appoint a special envoy to Sudan was a good one. And as his appointee for the post, retired Maj. General Scott Gration, touches down in Washington today after his seventh trip as Sudan special envoy, there is no doubt that he is hard working, well-intentioned, and facing some very real challenges.

But the consensus starts to crumble when we look at how the Obama administration is approaching Sudan and the nuts and bolts of the diplomatic strategy. Based on the direction Special Envoy Gration has taken these past five months, it is hard not to conclude that in some important respects the U.S. approach is simply wrong-headed.

With regards to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the North-South war, the United States is now spending a lot of time getting the parties to renegotiate and re-agree to things that are already in the CPA, such as the timeline for the independence referendum in the South. The U.S. and it allies have not made it clear to Khartoum that there is a price to pay for failing to live up to commitments agreed to in the CPA. So with no cost for failing to implement existing agreements, it is no surprise that the ruling party in Khartoum is doing everything it can to go back on its word on a whole range of issues, thus threatening to push the country back toward a full-blown civil war. Since it has not faced any real costs for its actions to date, Khartoum is again arming proxy-militias and threatening to engulf the South in violence in an effort to derail the 2011 self-determination referendum.

Equally corrosive, the NCP now believes, apparently correctly, that it can revisit every aspect of existing agreements. Yet, if Khartoum hasn’t lived up to its end of the CPA, which garnered far more international attention than any recent agreement, why would we expect the NCP to abide by the provisions of this new, re-purposed CPA timeline? As one colleague puts it, “Khartoum will sign anything.”

The other area of major disagreement is the administration’s approach to the Darfur peace process. As my colleague John Prendergast has argued, “The Obama administration is not leading a new peace process for Darfur; it is more energetically supporting a failed one.” The current approach for resolving the conflict in Darfur bears far too much resemblance to the one that produced the dead-on-arrival Darfur Peace Agreement of 2006. Instead of working only with the rebel groups, the U.S. must give members of Darfur civil society a prominent place at the negotiating table so that the process has their buy-in from the start. When Khartoum quashed the Mandate Darfur peace conference – which would’ve brought together Darfuri civil society leaders in Addis Ababa back in May – the Obama administration didn’t even react. Rather than give the ruling party in the North a pass when it so brashly obstructs movements toward peace, the administration must take a firm line with Khartoum. The bottom line: Rather than rally around a Darfur peace process with such deep flaws, the U.S. needs to lead a brand new one, with backing from key actors both domestically and internationally (think Egypt and China).

The Obama administration will announce its new Sudan policy in the coming weeks, and in the meantime it’s clear that the special envoy’s office is doing what it can to reassure advocates that Gration wants everyone to “work together and speak with one voice in favor of peace, stability, prosperity, and justice for the people of Sudan.” But while we may share the same end goal, getting there is the trick. Given the stakes – the break-up of one of the largest countries in Africa, strategically located on the Horn – there’s little room for error.