Peace negotiations begin, but humanitarian crisis persists

Khartoum finally bowed to international pressure on 25 August and agreed to an increase in the number of foreign peacekeepers deployed to the Darfur region to police the shaky ceasefire between the Janjaweed Arab militia and black African rebel groups. The concession appears likely to head off the immediate threat of UN sanctions. However, improvements on the ground have been limited and refugees continue to arrive in overflowing and under-supplied camps. The UN in late August made an urgent appeal for international donations to the relief effort.

The decision by the government to permit a larger deployment of African Union (AU) peacekeepers, expected to number about 550, was announced during AU-sponsored peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja. Most of the new troops will be Nigerian. Khartoum’s move also followed a visit by UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on 24 August for talks with President Bashir, during which he urged the president to allow regional involvement.

The extent of the AU’s role will remain strictly constrained however, limited to monitoring the ceasefire and overseeing demobilisation of the two sides. Khartoum is insistent that protection of the civilian population is a sovereign issue. ‘The final role of peacekeeping in Darfur and the protection of civilians is the mandate of the government of Sudan only,’ said the government’s chief negotiator Majzoub al-Khalifa Ahmed on 25 August. About 120 Rwandan ceasefire monitors are already working in Darfur.

The Abuja talks got off to an inauspicious start on 23 August, when representatives of the Janjaweed and the two rebel groups immediately deadlocked over the process of disarmament. Negotiations resumed when delegates agreed to bypass the issue for the time being. The beginning of peace talks and Khartoum’s insistence that it is taking steps to disarm the Arab militia are expected to lead the UN Security Council to extend the 30 August deadline by a month to give the government more to time to restore stability or face unspecified sanctions. Straw said after his visit that progress had been made but warned that the situation in Darfur remained dire. UN special envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk began a three-day tour of the region on 26 August to assess conditions. Permanent security council member China is opposed to sanctions, and while Washington is exerting intense pressure on Khartoum, the US is wary of disrupting the tentative peace – after two decades of fighting – between the government and rebels in the south of the country.

As the diplomatic process edges forward, the fighting on the ground continues. Aid agencies reported a new influx of refugees into camps along the Chadian border in mid-August. The UN has come in for criticism for a half-hearted response to the humanitarian disaster, which has left some 1.2 million people displaced.

At camps within Darfur, attacks by the Janjaweed are still being reported and malnutrition among children is running at close to 40 per cent. However, the UN is constrained by bad weather, making the remote camps’ locations virtually inaccessible. And the international community has been slow to respond to the humanitarian crisis. On 25 August, the UN issued a desperate appeal for donations, saying that only 40 per cent of the $722 million requested had been received.