'The Elders' urge action on Darfur

The new group of former world leaders issued its first 'action plan' Tuesday.

The Elders came, they listened, and now they are recommending how to bring lasting peace to Darfur.

Drawing on lessons learned from an October trip to Sudan's restive southern and Darfur regions, a group of retired statesmen – South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Jimmy Carter, former Mozambique Minister of Education Graça Machel, and former UN Special Envoy and Nobel Laureate Lakhdar Brahimi – this week issued a report calling for rebel groups to participate in peace talks, for the government of Sudan to honor past peace treaties, and for the international community to give the money and manpower to a peacekeeping force that is struggling for credibility.

"We felt a moral imperative ... to protect the people who are so vulnerable and to make our contribution to the promotion of peace," said Mr. Tutu in a teleconference held Tuesday to announce the group's new report. "Our primary goal is to amplify the voices of people who are not normally heard. Peace is possible if we take action now."

The Elders, a group of 13 men and women, was formed by former South African President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel, earlier this year. They're supported by a group of private businessmen, including Virgin Air CEO Richard Branson, and foundations.

There were skeptics aplenty when the Elders announced earlier this year plan to take on the world's knottiest problems, starting with Darfur. Some felt, and still feel, that the intrusion of yet another peace initiative may complicate matters and give Darfur's warring parties another excuse to postpone cooperation. Yet with the current peace process in Darfur stalled – and few hopes of getting either the rebels or the government to the table in the near future – many experts hailed the Elders' initiative as a chance to break the impasse.

"The Elders have a unique contribution to make to the world," says John Prendergast, executive director of the Enough Project, a Washington-based advocacy group formed last year to "end genocide and crimes against humanity." "They have a moral gravitas and a clarity of voice that would be heard and heeded at this moment in history.

"With no real leadership from the United Nations, the African Union, and the United States, the Elders could and should provide a compass toward a solution," Mr. Prendergast adds. "The absence of that voice guarantees further deterioration in Darfur, and risks a return to war in the South."

The recommendations issued in the Elders' report, "Bringing Hope, Forging Peace," call for:

• An immediate cease-fire, by the government and its janjaweed militias, and the many rebel groups.

• International assistance for a national census, to allow the promised 2009 elections to be considered fair and representative.

• Rapid deployment of a mainly African peacekeeping force, along with the international funding and logistical support to make that peacekeeping force credible.

• An end to attacks on humanitarian aid groups working with displaced people.

Perhaps most important was the Elders' contention that peace in Darfur would be impossible if the current Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the 20-year civil war between northern and southern Sudan were allowed to falter.

"There is a real danger that this agreement will break down and war [between the North and South] will break out again," said President Carter Tuesday. "If this happens the plight of the people of Darfur will be even worse than it has been."

Mr. Carter said that his Carter Center has been invited by leaders of South Sudan to help mediate talks on the North-South agreement, but that Khartoum has rejected the idea.

Some experts argue that there are already too many peace initiatives on the Darfur issue, and that what the Elders should focus on is using their moral suasion to get all the parties to honor the peace agreements that have already been signed, but are all too often ignored.

"Opening up a new peace process is not going to help anyone," says Ted Dagne, a Sudan expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "If anything, it's dangerous. What is critical is to get the government of Sudan to honor the agreements they have already signed."

"For the past four years, the US, UN, the AU, and other governments have been engaged in negotiation efforts on Darfur," says Mr. Dagne. "The Government of Sudan has signed a number of peace agreements over the past decade, including the North-South agreement in 2005 and the Darfur Agreement in 2006. The problem remains that once agreements are signed, the Government of Sudan has a record of not honoring agreements."

Carter said Tuesday that the government of Sudan should stop putting obstacles in the way of the deployment of a joint AU-UN force (UNAMIL) that is supposed to be on the ground in Darfur by the end of the year, and that the Elders had "very frank and firm discussions" with the Sudanese government during their October trip.

"The most important thing the international community can do is to ensure that the pledges for UNAMIL be honored," said Carter.

Staff Writer Matthew Clark contributed to this report from Boston.

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