Rice does Darfur

Signals continue to be mixed on Sudan’s tentative return to Washington’s good graces. On an official visit to the country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped at Darfur’s Abu Shouk refugee camp, which houses some 55,000 displaced people, and demanded “action not words” to stop the violence in the war-torn region. Rice earlier met Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and John Garang, the former rebel leader who is the new vice-president under the recent peace deal whch ended the war in Sudan’s south. She next flew on to Israel, to hold talks on the planned Gaza Strip withdrawal. (BBC, July 21) The Sudan stop was marred by overt tension—Rice demanded and received an apology after officials and press accompanying her were “manhandled” by security staff at President al-Bashir’s residence. (AFP, July 21) Darfur’s principal rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), immediately issued a communique expressing “shock and disbelief about the humiliation and insult meted out by the Khartoum regime on her Excellency Condeleza Rice the US Secretary of state and her entourage during her visit to Khartoum.” The SLA may be uncertain on the spelling of Her Excellency’s first name, but not on whose side they’re on in this heavily symbolism-laden “manhandling.”

Rice earlier stopped in Dakar, Senegal, where she called for quickly boosting the African Union troop presence in Darfur. “We believe this ought to be an AU mission,” Rice told reporters on her plane en route from Washington. “But we also believe the AU has to move. And it cannot get caught up in any bureaucratic or political concerns.” (Lebanon Daily Star, July 21)

The rights group Africa Action issued a statement about the “manhandling” incident, entitled “Sudan Scuffle Not News: Genocide Is!”:

Africa Action today expressed outrage at the misplaced priorities of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her first visit to Sudan. This morning’s fracas between Sudanese security officers and Rice’s entourage has generated greater attention and indignation from U.S. officials and international media than has the ongoing genocide in that country that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the past two years. According to Africa Action, Dr. Rice’s visit to Sudan should be assessed in the context of three competing U.S. foreign policy priorities – (1) support for the newly formed government of national unity as part of the North-South peace process, (2) ending the genocide in Darfur, and (3) collaboration and intelligence-sharing with the Sudanese government as part of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Salih Booker, Executive Director of Africa Action, said, “Dr. Rice’s juggling of these three U.S. interests reveals that, for Washington, stopping genocide is the least important issue, promoting the North-South peace process ranks higher, while the most important, but least discussed, U.S. priority in Sudan is collaboration with the genocidal regime for larger geo-strategic purposes.”

The New York Times marks Rice’s Sudan stop by noting claims by the US and aid workers in the area that Sudan’s government is continuing to pay the Janjaweed militias accused of genocide in Darfur.

The International Crisis Group, a private organization, said in a report two weeks ago that militia leaders “remain on the payroll of the state governments,” which are branches of the federal government. Colin S. Thomas-Jensen, media assistant for the group, said the information came from “interviews with government officials in Darfur who oversaw the payments to the militias.” (NYT, July 21)

Making considerably fewer headlines than the “manhandling,” the NGO ACT International has launched an emergency relief drive for Chad, noting “the presence of around 213,000 Sudanese refugees in the east, as a result of the Darfur (Sudan) crisis, strains the country’s already over-stretched capacities as Chad is also prone to humanitarian emergencies such as recurring droughts and floods.” BBC reported April 23 that the camps in Chad were running dangerously short of water. Now the rainy season is beginning, and the UN is racing to relocate the camps from areas prone to flooding. While some internally displaced within Darfur are starting to return to their villages, the refugees in Chad still fear repatriation. A new report to the UN Security Council notes that Darfur is less of a war zone than it was a year ago, but violence between guerillas and Janjaweed continues, as do attacks on civilians. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “sexual violence committed by soldiers, police, and government-aligned militias remains a widespread feature of the Darfur conflict.” He urged the government to end “the culture of impunity” behind the sexual abuse. An estimated 2.9 million have now been displaced by the violence in Darfur, including both refugees in Chad and the internally displaced. (AP, July 21)

See our last post on Sudan.