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The UN blinks on Darfur

Despite the UN action to save it, Darfur still needs a peace to keep before it can use peacekeepers.

August 3, 2007



Rather than plan for an invasion of Darfur to end a genocide, the UN Security Council decided Tuesday to send in 20,000 peacekeepers – not peacemakers. And the Blue Helmets will operate only without usurping Sudanese authority. Why the compromises? Two reasons: China and Iraq.

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First, China. With its veto power within the Council, Beijing has delayed tough UN action on Darfur for years. It treasures Sudan's oil for its booming economy more than saving hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Darfur. But with global activists launching a save-Darfur campaign against China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, it recently sent diplomats to its erstwhile allies in Sudan for a little arm-twisting.

That, and some limited sanctions on Khartoum by the UN, led to limited concessions for a much-constrained UN force to enter Darfur. The result is a complicated peacekeeping mission – the largest ever for the global body – that will take months, perhaps a year, to see if it can bring long-lasting peace to Darfur's survivors – just long enough for Beijing to finish up the Games next summer.

China, in essence, won a decent interval so it can use the Olympics to mark its ascendency as a world power.

Second reason, Iraq: Before the US invasion in 2003, many officials at the United Nations were moving toward a doctrine of intervening in any country where a civil war or a humanitarian crisis was getting out of control. That was the UN's main lesson from the 1994 Rwanda genocide. But then the post-9/11 "preemptive intervention" in Iraq to destroy then-alleged weapons of mass destruction put a bad name on such well-meaning meddling.

The UN now remains wary of acting in such an assertive, sovereignty-busting way – even in the face of another genocide. And the result in Sudan is global intervention by dribs and drabs – and with many doubts.

Sudan did allow in a force of 7,000 soldiers from the African Union in 2004. That proved ineffectual, as expected, and left more than 2 million refugees still vulnerable to attacks. But even with the new UN African Union Mission in Darfur (Unamid), peacekeepers won't be able to disarm militias or arrest suspected war criminals. They can only protect civilians. And they are allowed to operate only "without prejudice to the responsibility of the government of Sudan," according to Tuesday's UN resolution. That's a loophole for Sudan to block anything.

In addition, the UN officers must be African, no sanctions are threatened if Sudan doesn't comply, and the UN secretary-general is not obligated to report violations.

Perhaps this UN move is the baby-step needed to end Darfur's tragedy and provide enough security to feed the refugees. If it fails, and China agrees, the UN can move to tougher sanctions. Still needed is international pressure on Darfur's rebel groups to unite and negotiate a peace deal with Khartoum – one that equitably distributes power and wealth to Sudan's regions. It is that inequality that lies at the heart of the dispute.

Since 2003, the conflict has claimed more than 200,000 lives and has shown the weakness of the UN as a global body. To end both, Darfur first needs a peace. Only then can it use peacekeepers.

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