UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today called on the Security Council to take a firm decision on a peacekeeping operation to stop the suffering in the devastated Darfur region of Sudan, but acknowledged that only a political agreement between the rebels and government can bring longer term stability and allow 2 million people to return to their homes.
In an opinion article published in The Washington Post, Mr. Annan said he’d felt “hopeful” when he visited Darfur last May but contrasted that with a feeling of pessimism now “unless a major new international effort is mustered in the coming weeks.”
Recounting positive signs he’d observed during last year’s trip, the Secretary-General recalled visiting a village whose people had returned after fleeing violence and were living in relative safety, thanks to the presence of African Union (AU) troops. He also pointed out that a cease-fire, albeit shaky, was in place, while the Sudanese Government and the rebels were holding peace talks.
“I wish I could report that all these efforts had borne fruit – that Darfur was at peace and on the road to recovery. Alas, the opposite is true,” Mr. Annan noted in the editorial, adding that 2 million people had fled their homes and 3 million – half Darfur’s population – now depend on international relief for food and other basics.
At the same time, he said, the peace talks were “far from reaching a conclusion,” many parts of the region were becoming too dangerous for relief workers to reach, and fighting now threatens to spread into neighbouring Chad.
AU troops, despite facing a chronic funding crisis, were doing a valiant job, Mr. Annan said but added there were too few of them and they had neither the equipment nor the mandate to protect the people under threat or to enforce a cease-fire “routinely broken by the rebels, as well as by the Janjaweed militia and the Sudanese Government forces.”
Pointing out that the AU had decided earlier this month to renew its mission’s mandate until 31 March, he said the group’s members had also in principle expressed support for a transition to a UN operation this year.
Mr. Annan said this had put the Security Council “on the spot,” noting that last year, UN members had for the first time unanimously accepted responsibility to “protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, pledging to take action through the Security Council when national authorities fail.”
Calling the transition from the AU force to a UN peace operation in Darfur “inevitable,” he said: “A firm decision by the Security Council is needed, and soon, for an effective transition to take place.”
But he cautioned that this did not simply mean giving the present AU mission a “UN hat” because any new mission would need a strong and clear mandate and, given the situation on the ground, would need to be much larger and better equipped than the current force.
“Those countries that have the required military assets must be ready to deploy them,” Mr. Annan said.
In the meantime, because such a force would take the UN months to deploy, the Secretary-General said the AU mission must be maintained and strengthened. Towards that end, he looked forward to a UN and AU donor conference next month addressing issues of money and logistical support.
“Finally, and above all, much stronger pressure must be brought on all parties – the rebels as well as the government – to observe the cease-fire and commit themselves to the Abuja peace talks with a sense of urgency,” Mr. Annan concluded.
In a related development, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan told a news conference today that peace talks in Abuja were continuing but at the same time there was heavy fighting in West Darfur and insecurity elsewhere in the region.
Calling on all parties to “exercise restraint,” Jan Pronk said that in particular “humanitarian workers should be given free passage either to help the people or to withdraw for the sake of their own safety.” His comments came after an attack on a truck convoy on Monday that killed around 20 government policemen.
The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) was deployed in the middle of 2004 with the aim of supporting a Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
UNMIS said today that one of its helicopters had crashed shortly after taking off, adding that one of the passengers was missing but the rest survived with no life-threatening injuries.