Deadline looms in Sudan crisis

Khartoum agreed Wednesday to allow more African Union troops and monitors in Darfur.

Four days from a United Nations deadline to disarm and punish those responsible for killing an estimated 30,000 people during the 18-month crisis in western Sudan, two key questions remain: Has the Sudanese government made sufficient progress to stave off possible UN sanctions? Probably. And, critically, does the UN have the will to follow through with its threats? Probably not.

"Khartoum remains adept at saying and doing just enough to avoid a robust international response; but the fact is they have not satisfactorily fulfilled their obligations within the time period established by the [July 30 UN] resolution," charges John Prendergast, an Africa expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG), based in Washington. "What we need now is direct, concerted pressure - otherwise, the Security Council risks being part of a long cycle of threats that have rarely been followed up meaningfully."

In a report released this week, the ICG called on the UN to impose sanctions against specific government officials and the key businesses of the rul- ing party; slap an arms embargo against the government; name and shame human rights violators; and even possibly put boots on the ground.

But all indicators here point toward far milder consequences.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, traveling this week to Darfur, emphasized the world's "collective interest to see a safe, secure, and more prosperous Sudan." But one aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more blunt. He sensed a "slackening of will among international partners" to impose harsh sanctions. Next week, added another Western official, "is not exactly a deadline." Security Council diplomats in New York, meanwhile, said punitive measures are unlikely because of political differences in the 15-member body, with China and Pakistan in particular favoring mild, if any, action.

This outcome could have been predicted early on when, five days after the Security Council resolution was passed, Jan Pronk, the UN's special envoy to Sudan, moved the goalposts. In a "Plan of Action," he acknowledged that Khartoum would be unlikely to meet its commitments within the time allotted. Good faith in working toward implementation, suggested Mr. Pronk, would be enough for the time being.

Still, while even goodwill and preliminary progress might be in short supply, say observers, there are some positive steps.

Humanitarian progress

The main area of progress is on the humanitarian front. Back in June, aid groups were waiting months to get visas and travel permits, and supplies were getting blocked by customs. But this month at least six new nongovernmental organizations were given permits to operate in the region, and existing ones added staff and programs. Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced plans to launch a major airlift to the region. It said it intends to make six trips into the region, carrying equipment and medical supplies, by Sept. 5.

"Pressure on the government has worked," says Adam Koons, director of Save the Children-USA in Sudan. "As horrible as the situation is, and much effort is still needed, we have averted enormous loss of life."

But in other key areas, progress has been far less evident. Several last-minute gestures and statements made by the government have been found hollow by critics when scrutinized closely.

For example, on Monday, after months of denying ties to the janjaweed, the Arab militias largely responsible for the Darfur atrocities, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters that 200 janjaweed had been arrested and were being tried in batches in Darfur. A good sign - if not for the fact that, reportedly, most of them were either minor figures or not janjaweed at all. Many were already in jail for other offenses.

Likewise, eyebrows were raised a day earlier when Justice Minister Ali Mohammed Osman Yassin handed over to the UN's Human Rights Commission a list of 30 Janjaweed suspected of serious human rights abuses, including rape. Previously, the government had denied reports of systematic rapes; now they were asking for "help from international observers" in passing along any information. But again, none of the leading janjaweed, suspected of having ties to the government, were mentioned.

And on Saturday, Khartoum signed an agreement with the International Organization for Migration, encouraging the voluntary return of refugees, who number more than 1.2 million, to their homes or safe areas protected by an expanded police presence. A welcome but useless move, say observers, because most displaced people are still terrified of leaving the camps because the janjaweed, who sent them fleeing in first place are still armed and running free. At a meeting in New York on Tuesday, UN Assistant Secretary-General Tuliameni Kalomoh confirmed that attacks were indeed continuing.

Finally after days of rejecting additional African Union troops and monitors to help disarm the janjaweed and maintain the fragile cease-fire, Sudan backpedaled Wednesday at peace talks in Nigeria, saying an unspecified number of troops and monitors would be allowed in. The UN and AU are asking for a 3,000-strong force to start with. Right now there are only 150 troops and 80 monitors on the ground. But Agricultural Minister Majzoub al-Khalifa Ahmad, Khartoum's envoy to the talks insisted that the number and timing was still to be determined. According to Mr. Prendergast and others, however, the janjaweed are being integrated into security bodies, making a mockery of such self-policing, they say.

Sudan optimistic

The situation in Darfur began back in February 2003 when rebels captured several cities in the region. The government responded with a bombing campaign, along with allegedly arming the janjaweed, exploiting historical rifts between the area's Arabs and ethnic Africans. Many cease-fires have been violated along the way.

Still, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail is "sure that the Security Council will announce there is total cooperation from the Sudanese government to achieve peace." He is generally optimistic about the upcoming deadline, he said Sunday.

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