Diplomacy’s ultimate challenge

(London Free Press — Wednesday, August 11, 2004.)

GLEN PEARSON

News from Sudan is all the rage these days. The deeply troubling developments in that country’s western region of Darfur have been labeled “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity.” The disturbing reality about what appear to be extreme statements is that they are ultimately true. The horrors emanating from Darfur at present have international observers labeling it “the next Rwanda.”

For those who have been involved in Sudan for a number of years there is really nothing new here. The authoritarian Government of Sudan has been the result of a military coup that isolated moderate Muslims, obliterated all forms of opposition, and has kept its nation in a state of permanent war since its ascendance in 1989.

What has been surprising to seasoned observers has been the sheer amount of media coverage devoted to Darfur in recent weeks. This in turn has led to some serious posturing by the United Nations, the U.S. administration and the European Union, demanding that the Government of Sudan forcefully disarm the now infamous Janjaweed militias that are currently terrorizing the countryside.

Lost in all the rush to deal with Darfur are the identifiable steps towards peace evidenced in the rest of Sudan. Jane Roy and I were invited to key sessions of the peace talks in Kenya and witnessed a growing seriousness by leaders of both north and south Sudan towards the need for peace. Now approaching their culmination, these talks will achieve something in Sudan that observers thought impossible two years ago.

The solution for the present Darfur crisis will ultimately depend upon the implementation of these peace accords in the rest of the country — the two are related. Already delegates from both sides of the larger peace process are ruminating about extending peace’s reach in the near future.

While it is indeed tragic that 35,000 innocent civilians have already perished in Darfur, with another one million displaced, one must recall what was happening in the rest of south Sudan only three years ago. Two million people had already been killed, with another four million displaced — an even more serious situation. Yet through worldwide pressure, coupled with the inner pressure from moderate Muslim forces in the north, what appeared to be an intractable situation has worked its way toward a solution.

In many ways, the broader peace arrangements opened the door to the troubles in Darfur, as that region’s Muslim community demanded the same kind of peaceful intentions and sharing of oil resources from their northern government. When they were refused, the conflict erupted.

War clearly has its consequences and what is happening in Darfur is an historic tragedy. But peace also has its influence. The Government of Canada has recently agreed to our request to fund primary schools in the south of Sudan, as well as providing money for women’s literacy, the establishing of the YMCA/YWCA in south Sudan, and the rehabilitation of former child soldiers and slaves. As such developments take place, we will only be strengthening the peace templates that will eventually come to be applied in Darfur.

As human rights groups rightfully press world governments to intervene in Darfur, development agencies in that region are urging caution, lest the northern government renege on the recently signed peace accords. Admittedly it is a delicate situation. It is essential that the world respond to the Darfur tragedy, but following years of hard work by many governments, including Canada, peace is about ready to have its healing effect. Diplomacy’s careful hand is required and its ultimate test will be whether it can lessen the Darfur situation on the one hand while encouraging the larger peace process on the other. For the people of Darfur, rescue can’t come soon enough, but for the other beleaguered people of south Sudan who have struggled through even greater difficulties, all they are asking is that we give peace a chance.

Glen Pearson is Executive Director of Canadian Aid for South Sudan.