UN's Ban, U.S. push to add Darfur peacekeepers – and soon

The secretary-general says the situation in Sudan's violence-torn province 'remains grim.'

Eight months after the United Nations Security Council authorized sending a peacekeeping force to Darfur, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is warning that security and humanitarian conditions in the violence-torn western province of Sudan are going from bad to worse.

Urgent efforts are needed to further safeguard the population, improve access to emergency food supplies, and increase the airborne mobility of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, say some Africa and aid experts. Without them, they warn, a new disaster could occur this summer when annual rains arrive.

Worldwide protest campaigns aim to pressure the international community to take action on Darfur, But they have yielded mixed results, at best, in two key objectives: building the UN peacekeeping force and enlisting China to strong-arm Sudan, with which it has close commercial ties, to cooperate more fully on Darfur.

Noting that it has been four years since the Security Council took up Darfur, Secretary-General Ban said in a recent statement that "the situation remains grim today, as then, if not worse."

According to Ban, some 15,000 humanitarian workers in the province are "keeping widespread mortality in Darfur below emergency thresholds." His spokeswoman on Darfur, Marie Okabe, says those workers are "having a really, really hard time" and face the same deteriorating conditions as the population.

Placing the number of internally displaced people in Darfur at 2.45 million and growing "at a rate of 1,000 per day," Ban said there is "no accountability, or end, in sight" for violence that targets women and girls in particular.

The peacekeeping mission approved last summer is to be a hybrid force of as many as 26,000 UN and African Union military personnel and civilian police. So far, 9,000 troops have been deployed to Darfur. The Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir has resisted plans for some of the peacekeepers to come from outside Africa, but Ban says the government has given the green light to troops from Nepal and Thailand.

The US government – spurred by President Bush's characterization of violence in Darfur that has killed more than 200,000 people as "genocide" – is calling on the UN to accelerate deployment of peacekeepers and to add at least 3,600 troops by June. The US is not offering troops or helicopters – which the Khartoum government would probably not accept anyway – but pledges $500 million to help train, house, and supply the mission.

While it's important to get more authorized military and police personnel into Darfur, say peacekeeping experts, it's more crucial to train and prepare the troops going in and to ensure they'll have the supplies and the mobility to do their jobs.

"For sure we need to have more troops on the ground, but it's not as easy as simply snapping your fingers," says one peacekeeping expert at the UN in New York who is not authorized to comment publicly on deployments. "At least as important as the numbers are questions like, how prepared are they for the mission? Are they trained? Is the air power going to be there to get them around?"

Mobility is key for peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. With the June rains come impassable roads and stranded, displaced populations. Those conditions might lead to an even bigger humanitarian challenge this summer, what Eric Reeves, a Darfur expert at Smith College, warns could be a "genocide by attrition."

So far, no UN member has stepped forward to offer any of the two dozen tactical and transport helicopters authorized for the mission by the Security Council resolution, the advocacy group Africa Action noted recently.

Africa Action and other groups are calling on the US in particular to provide "international leadership" by pressing all parties involved in the Darfur crisis to accept and join a peace process, noting that the real answer lies in implementing a political accord among the government and rebel fighters.

Grass-roots efforts for more action from the international community, especially in getting consistent cooperation from the Bashir government, explain the mounting pressure on China. Activists are playing on Beijing's sensitivity to its image as it prepares to host the Olympic Games this summer. Chinese officials counter that the pro-Darfur activists are exaggerating Beijing's influence over Khartoum.

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