David Bosco accompanies the UN Security Council on its visit to Darfur and finds that even meeting the victims of the conflict can’t stiffen the Council’s resolve
Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem was holding court last Thursday in the VIP lounge at Khartoum International Airport. Sudan’s voluble United Nations ambassador was accompanying the UN Security Council as it prepared for the short flight to northern Darfur. Many hoped that the Council’s visit to the war-torn region would bring diplomats of the member states face to face with the suffering, and so provoke a strong condemnation of Sudanese war crimes. Instead, all our mission really served to highlight was the lack of resolve among UN officials and the lack of contrition from the Sudanese.
From the outset, Abdalhaleem cast the Darfur crisis as little more than a Western plot to weaken Sudan. ‘If Darfur is over tomorrow, they will find a new Darfur. They want to keep us in the intensive care unit.’ The images of horror that prevail in the West are a fabrication, he said. ‘We don’t think there’s a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.’ (The death toll in Darfur is calculated at some 210,000, and 2.1 million people have been forced from their homes by the fighting.) The refugee camps are ‘five-star camps’, he said with a laugh. ‘You’ll see.’
Across the room, America’s deputy UN ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, took in the spectacle. ‘I’m not sure why anyone would be proud of hosting the largest humanitarian operation in the world,’ he said. Wolff and several of his Western colleagues hoped that the mission might help convince Khartoum to remove obstacles to the deployment of peacekeepers. The Council has authorised a force of 20,000, but sluggish contributions and Khartoum’s blocking tactics have kept them from reaching full strength. Just 8,000 mainly African peacekeepers are struggling to secure the region. Several Council members also wanted to remind Sudan of its obligation to comply with the International Criminal Court’s rulings. The court has indicted two Sudanese officials — one a serving minister. But the Council was not united in its determination to ratchet up the pressure. Moscow and Beijing have consistently opposed confrontation. They dispatched diplomats on the trip, but they kept a low profile.
The Council’s visit came at a delicate moment. New fighting is threatening the fragile peace between Khartoum and semi-autonomous southern Sudan. In Darfur, humanitarian agencies warn of disintegrating security. Two weeks earlier, the Darfur-based rebel Justice and Equality Movement raided the outskirts of Khartoum, killing dozens of Sudanese police and soldiers and rattling the regime’s nerves. Then came word that ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was ready to condemn the entire Sudanese leadership for complicity in the atrocities. Costa Rica’s UN ambassador, Jorge Urbina, announced that his country was drafting a statement condemning Khartoum for its refusal to co-operate with the ICC Tribunal at the Hague.
In the VIP lounge, the sparring continued. ‘Costa Rica is like a village compared to Sudan,’ Abdalhaleem boasted. ‘We don’t interfere in banana republics. Why should they interfere with us?’ ‘At least we’re a republic,’ replied Urbina, from across the room. The call to board the flight ended the exchange.
Khartoum made sure that the Council ambassadors witnessed plenty of its muscle; a move designed to dispel any thought about a more robust approach to the Darfur crisis. Two Sudanese helicopter gunships sat not 50 yards from where the ambassadors disembarked. Their proximity could hardly have been accidental, but Sudanese security officials made, as officials of totalitarian regimes will, an elaborate show of prohibiting photographs of the war machines. ‘Big problem, big problem,’ one yelled at a journalist who pointed his camera at the helicopters. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police agents watched the Council’s every move.
The UN’s struggling peacekeeping force in Darfur, Unamid, did its best to showcase its own capacity. Pickup trucks full of well-kitted peacekeepers wearing blue body armour and toting rocket-propelled grenade launchers escorted the Council throughout the day-long visit. A helicopter — a precious commodity for peacekeepers these days — kept a watchful eye on the diplomats from above. After a quick briefing at the UN’s headquarters, the Council piled into four-wheel-drive vehicles for the 45-minute journey to the Zam Zam camp for displaced persons.
Hundreds of the displaced had lined up to witness the arrival of their potential saviours. A few held up makeshift signs depicting planes bombing helpless civilians. As security agents with Kalashnikovs watched nervously, the Council walked quickly through the camp’s wooden gate and ducked into a large hut for a planned meeting with selected representatives of the camp’s residents. The ambassadors sat cross-legged on the ground, and they sweltered in the hut’s heat. A donkey brayed loudly a few metres from the hut.
‘The hour we have been waiting for has finally arrived,’ intoned a camp leader. ‘In the name of Allah, we welcome our honoured guests.’ For the next half-hour, the Council heard about rampant insecurity and the inability of the peacekeepers to curtail it. ‘Unamid can’t protect us and they can’t protect themselves,’ one refugee told the Council. Another Darfurian demanded that the Council force Khartoum to accept peace. ‘If we die today, you will be responsible.’ The ambassadors asked a few questions, but there was no time for a walking tour of the camp; instead they had to head off to an entirely pointless meeting with the Khartoum-supported governor of North Darfur and then fly back to meet with President al-Bashir. South Africa’s ambassador apologised for the brevity of the visit. ‘It was better to hear you for a short time than not to hear you at all.’ The Council could barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk.
Security agents propelled the ambassadors through a throng of camp residents and into the convoy’s vehicles for the drive back to El Fasher. The UN helicopter again circled overhead, and Sudanese police raced alongside the convoy. One building the Council passed bore a large sign: ‘Sudanese Armed Forces: Construction and Protection.’
The brief encounter with Darfur’s victims was over. Had the consciences of Sudan’s protectors on the Council been pricked by the refugees’ tales? It was difficult to tell.
By nightfall, the Council was back in the capital for a planned meeting with Bashir. Police blocked off intersections as the Council entourage sped through darkened streets and along the Nile River to the Friendship Hall. A large conference room had been set up for the encounter. The Council members were on one side of the long table, Sudan’s ministers on the other, and Bashir’s seat was at the head. Everyone stood as they waited for the president to arrive. Five minutes passed, then 15. The duly authorised guardians of international peace and security shifted their feet. The Sudanese ministers bantered among themselves.
Finally Bashir arrived, resplendent in white headdress and robe. He smiled at the ambassadors and thanked them for coming. ‘Sudan is fully committed to the path of dialogue,’ he said. ‘Peace has become an irreversible strategic choice.’ But he warned the delegation that Sudan had become the victim of an ‘unfair and ill-intentioned campaign’ and he complained that the UN, not his government, was responsible for the slow deployment of the peacekeepers. In the private meeting that followed his speech, he made it clear that Sudan would never surrender any of its citizen s to the ICC.
Early the next morning, the ambassadors boarded their plane for the trip to neighbouring Chad. As the plane left Khartoum in the distance, Costa Rica’s ambassador appeared deflated. The statement condemning Sudan for its defiance on war crimes had stalled. Several Council members, including China, apparently thought that its language was too tough.