Is there a road to peace in Darfur? The question has broad geopolitical implications. Sudan is the biggest country in Africa, it borders nine states, and is located at the crossroads of Africa and the Arab world. Its fate is tied not only to the region, but to the continent of Africa and the rest of the world.
Though earlier this year Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first national leader to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), he remains defiant and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur only deepens. Several hundred thousand people have died and 3 million have been displaced by fighting since 2003.
Is there a way to overcome the bloody tribal and ethnic rivalries that have become endemic in the vast western province over the past six years and are an essential part of the Khartoum regime's divide-and-rule strategy in the region? There may well have been a particularly promising opportunity, until Khartoum ended a bold and innovative effort by Darfurian civil society to forge unified positions on a broad range of key issues. If we want to seize such an opportunity again, the international community must push hard.
The initiative of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, a conference called Mandate Darfur, was to bring together some 300 representatives of Darfur from across geographic, ethnic, and political backgrounds, including traditional and young leaders and a strong contingent of Darfurian women.
Instead, discussions slated for this month have been aborted. Mandate Darfur announced that after months of working with Darfurian civil society to build a mandate for peace, the Sudanese government was obstructing the safe passage of Darfurian delegates from Sudan to the conference in Ethiopia and thus it had to be canceled.
Khartoum's obstruction of the Darfurian civil society initiative was greeted with appalling indifference by the world community. There have been none but the mildest condemnations from the United Nations, the US, the European Union, and the African Union. It hardly helps that Western news reporting on this significant development has been virtually nonexistent. Sadly, it is as though the international community has accepted Khartoum's premise that peace talks need involve only combatants.
But if past negotiations between Darfur's rebel groups and the regime have taught us anything, it is that nothing will be achieved if the only ones at the peace table are men with guns.
Without true representation of Darfurian civil society, meaningful discussions of fundamental issues are impossible. Land tenure, migratory rights, compensation for losses, wealth-sharing and development assistance, true power-sharing – all are fundamental to reaching beyond an uneasy cease-fire to attain a just peace.
This is of course well known to the brutal and calculating men in Khartoum, and precisely the reason why they obstructed the conference. The regime is interested in peace only on its own military and political terms. Its negotiating partners are the men with guns who threaten their stranglehold on national wealth and power. When speaking of the failed "Darfur peace process," international observers are talking about this version of negotiations.
Current discussions in Qatar between the regime and the increasingly powerful Justice and Equality Movement offer more of the same. Even a meaningful, well- monitored cease-fire seems beyond reach, especially given the gross inadequacies of the current UN/African Union peace support operation in Darfur.
All this comes almost three months after the international community acquiesced before Khartoum's expulsion of 13 international aid organizations that represented over half the total humanitarian capacity for Darfur. These expulsions, which have affected many distressed regions in northern Sudan besides Darfur, were in response to the ICC warrant that charged Mr. Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
But in conceding to Khartoum's actions and threats, the world simply encourages further defiance by the regime. And with the collapse of Mandate Darfur, we see yet again the consequences of an accommodationist policy toward Khartoum. Unfortunately it's a policy that seems increasingly attractive to President Obama's administration and his special envoy to Sudan.
Darfur needs serious and concerted international pressure on Khartoum to negotiate with both Darfuri rebel groups and civil society. There must be clear and robust support for a single mediator and a single process in order to prevent Khartoum from picking and choosing among various diplomatic forums. The West also needs to apply concerted pressure on the rebel groups to negotiate now, without waiting for potential improvement in the diplomatic climate.
And the international community must offer guarantees – including security guarantees – for any signed agreement. A cease-fire must be monitored with all necessary military resources, time frames and benchmarks for compensation and power-sharing must be clearly established, the brutal janjaweed militia must be demobilized, and humanitarian and development assistance must be allowed to proceed unfettered. These are the essential elements of a just peace.
Khartoum can't be accommodated but must be confronted – vigorously, multilaterally, unrelentingly. The regime must be convinced that there are serious consequences – diplomatic, economic, and political – for reneging on agreements, and for actions that threaten the prospects for peace and security in Darfur.
The regime's collapsing of Mandate Darfur works directly against positive efforts in the region. In turn, failure to respond by the international community undermines the chances for a just peace.
Eric Reeves is author of "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide"; he was invited by the organizers of the Mandate Darfur conference to serve as an adviser.