The top United Nations envoy for Sudan today painted a "dismal picture" of the situation in the Darfur region, even if not as bad as in early 2004, with the Government and rebels violating the ceasefire, atrocious crimes still going unpunished and humanitarian workers increasingly subjected to intimidation from both sides.
"Often it was like an Echternach walk: two steps forward and one step back," Special Representative Jan Pronk told the Security Council in presenting Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report on the last six months of progress in ending the conflict in Sudan's western region, which the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
"Often it was worse: one step forward, two back, net regression," he added, calling for a much larger and more robust force than the current African Union (AU) monitoring troops to end a conflict in which tens of thousands of people have been killed and up to 1.85 million others displaced since rebels took up arms in early 2003, partly in protest at the distribution of economic resources.
"Peace will take a long time," he said during the session. But he took courage from the recently signed accord between the Government and rebels in the south which ended a decades-long separate war in that part of the country, hoping the political momentum generated there would spread to Darfur and allow an agreement to be reached by the end of this year.
In his report, Mr. Annan notes the Government's "uneven" compliance with its commitments. While humanitarian access to Darfur, where the number of people affected overall and in need of relief has risen to 2.3 million, has improved dramatically, action on human rights, in particular efforts to end impunity, have fallen far short.
"The Government has shown willingness to make progress in the political talks in Darfur," he writes. "However, fighting on the ground continues and those responsible for atrocious crime on a massive scale go unpunished. Militias continue to attack, claiming they are not part of any agreement. The Government has not stopped them," he adds, in reference to the Janjaweed, who have been accused of the worst atrocities.
Over the same period, the rebels have become less cooperative in talks, and their attacks on police increased, while some groups directly impeded humanitarian work by looting cars and trucks, and even abducting national staff, severely reducing the delivery of assistance. But the Government is primarily guilty for such humanitarian hindrance.
"The number of civilians affected by the conflict has continued to grow at a rate that has outpaced the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide for their basic needs," Mr. Annan says, noting that humanitarian workers also face random dangers from military action, banditry and armed robbery.
He notes that despite a Security Council call on the Government to stop such flights, helicopters and other aircraft previously used for bombing have continued to be used to support operations, and reports of bombings continue up to the present.
On impunity, he says the Government has informed the UN of a limited number of convictions of Janjaweed and members of regular and semi-regular security forces, "but they apparently were not persons with leadership responsibility for major human rights abuses."
Mr. Annan, too, notes that the new accord between the Government and southern rebels "could radically alter the political context" and offer "a unique opportunity" for a quick settlement in Darfur since a more representative national government with southern participation would be "more attentive to the grievances of marginalized people."
Mr. Pronk brought a first-hand account to the 15-member Council. "During my visit to Darfur 10 days ago, I saw the dramatic consequences of tribal or ethnic cleansing of dozens of villages, carried out by the militia during the month of January," he said.
"After six months of going to and fro we must conclude there is a stalemate. We urgently need a breakthrough," he added, though he did chalk up as good news the fact that the Government has shown a "willingness to negotiate, toughly, but seriously," while quite a few rebel leaders really do care for the people they claim to represent.
Calling the proposed 3,000-strong AU military and police force far too few, he said: "I appeal to all parties concerned, the AU as well as members of the Security Council, to find a creative way to expand the present third force into one which can stop all attacks."
With the help of such a force it should be possible to reach an agreement in Darfur after 10 months beginning at the end of February, even if it took 10 years of negotiations to reach the peace accord in southern Sudan, he said. "That would mean that on the Sudanese Day of National Independence, 1 January 2006, Sudan could be one of the first countries in Africa to look back in peace on half a century of independence after colonial rule," he concluded.
The Security Council expressed its grave concern over "the dire situation" and called on the parties to do their utmost to end the conflict as quickly as possible, the Council President for February, Ambassador Joel Adechi of Benin, said in a press statement.
The Council also condemned the continuing ceasefire violations and the attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers and is considering an increase in the number of human rights monitor in Darfur as part of a comprehensive peacekeeping operation, Ambassador Adechi said.