Is West now looking past Darfur genocide to engage Sudan?
President Omar al-Bashir is charged with mass deaths, but he may not last forever. Are Barack Obama and John Kerry starting to count on that?
To the south, in the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, civilians cower in caves cut off from international aid as military planes, sent by their own government, bomb their fields and villages. The air force is ostensibly hunting for rebels.
These are actions allegedly carried out in the last few weeks on the orders of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, a fugitive from international charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.
So why, activists and campaigners working on Sudan are asking, is the West and especially President Obama’s administration seemingly moving towards an ever closer engagement with Mr. Bashir’s government?
Germany, in a break from the European Union’s official cold-shouldering of Sudan, held an international conference in Berlin in January to encourage global investment in the country.
In May, Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs coordinator, met Bashir in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in an unsuccessful bid to have aid blockades lifted.
Days later, in Ethiopia, US Secretary of State John Kerry held extended talks with Ali Karti, Bashir’s Foreign Minister, not long after he was courted by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, during a visit to London.
Perhaps most controversially, Mr. Kerry has invited a delegation of senior officials from Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to Washington.
On the list is Nafie Ali Nafie, a Bashir adviser and head of internal intelligence when Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s, and a man with “blood on his hands,” according to Sudanese activist group Girifna.
Many have questioned what appears to be a move towards “normalization of relations” with Sudan, as the term is known in diplomatic circles.
Most recently a question came from the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, in a June 5 briefing to the UN Security Council on the continuing crisis in Darfur. So far this year, 300,000 people have fled their homes there, she said.
“My Office shares the concerns of this Council that business relations with the Sudan, if not monitored carefully, could have the effect of facilitating, funding and supporting crimes against civilians,” she told the Council’s members.
“Normalization of relations with the Sudan should not come at such a high price to victims.”
Amnesty International, in a report June 12 accusing Bashir’s government of war crimes in Blue Nile state, criticized the UN and “influential states” of showing “no great eagerness” in their pursuit of justice for victims.
“The ongoing violations in Blue Nile demonstrate yet again that it is civilians who pay the price when impunity for war crimes goes unchecked,” Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, the author of the Amnesty report, said in a statement.
The West’s desire to remain influential in a region that is increasingly looking to the Gulf and the Pacific rim, and the West's yearning for sustained peace between Sudan and South Sudan, are the reasons why Bashir’s arrest warrant remains unserved, and why his allies are guests of Western politicians, activists and analysts say.
Ahmed Soliman, an Africa analyst at the Chatham House think tank in Britain, says that any efforts to engage with senior ruling party officials may be happening with an eye to Sudan after Bashir’s rule is over.
The 68-year-old president has been in the hospital twice in the past year and has reportedly cut back on official engagements. He has promised to step down in 2015.
“Any moves to normalize relations with the NCP may be to attempt to increase future influence there because of the strategic importance of Sudan and South Sudan,” Mr. Soliman says.
“It indicates the international community’s concerns over the trajectory of the country if Bashir goes and leaves behind a vacuum.”
The root fear is a return to conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.
The two countries were one until 2011, when they agreed to split under a 2005 peace treaty, part-brokered by the US, that ended their 22-year civil war.
“Everything the West does, or doesn’t do, is seen through the lens of stabilizing South Sudan,” says Dismas Nkunda, co-chair of the Sudan Consortium, a coalition of 60 civil society organizations.
“Global diplomatic efforts are so focused on that that they seem willing to turn essentially a blind eye to what Bashir is up to in other parts of Sudan," says Nkunda. “That is the distinction between geopolitics and demands for justice.”
Nonetheless, the supposed peace between the former foes is wobbling amid repeated accusations of armed incursions into each other’s territories and alleged South Sudanese support for rebels in Sudan, which it denies.
Oil that should flow between the two countries, and feed their national wealth, is stalled amid arguments over sharing the bounty.
But by signing occasional agreements pulling back from outright conflict, Bashir “gives the West the impression of progress,” according to another international campaigner on Sudanese politics.
“There are those who swallow this propaganda and say that because there is some improvement, now is the time to engage more,” she says, refusing to be named because her comments may affect her ability to work in Sudan.
“This is why you get this bizarre two-track approach from the US. On one side, it leads with strongly worded resolutions [at the UN] condemning Bashir. And on the other, you have Kerry inviting Nafie Ali Nafie to Washington.”
Still, it is risky to reward the Sudanese regime with investment conferences and welcomes to Western capitals, says Nico Plooijer, program manager for IKV Pax Christi, an international church-based peace organization.
“Bashir and his allies don’t seem to see that they are doing anything wrong in Darfur, in Blue Nile, in Southern Kordofan,” says Mr. Plooijer.
“To me it makes no sense to politically engage with a government that continues to bomb its own people. It’s like providing a bully with the incentive to continue, and I think it strengthens them. That is the gamble that is being taken.”