What you need to know

Since early 2003, when full blown hostilities began between rebel groups and the central government, Darfur has been sliding ever deeper into tragic cycles of violence.  Government-supported janjaweed militias have terrorized the local population, killing indiscriminately and committing rape on a massive scale. The survivors have been pushed to the brink of starvation, their property and livelihood destroyed, the earth scorched to prevent any return.

The statistics are stark: 

  • Over 300,000 civilians are reported to have died, a 50% increase from what the UN initially estimated; 
  • 4.2 million people have been categorized as “war affected,” dependent on international assistance; 
  • 2.5 million Darfurians have been displaced within Sudan; 
  • Almost 240,000 refugees are being hosted by Chad and the Central African Republic; and 
  • Thousands of villages have been burned and livelihoods destroyed. 

Despite the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006 the situation has worsened:

  • In a single attack in July 2008, seven UNAMID peacekeepers were killed and 22 injured. This added to other serious losses of peacekeepers including the killing of 12 AMIS peacekeepers in an attack on Haskanita in September 2008 and the killing of five AMIS troops in April 2007;
  • In the first six months of 2008, 135 humanitarian aid vehicles were lost in Darfur, almost totaling the figure for the whole of 2007 (which was 139); 
  • An estimated 180,000 Darfurians were displaced in the first five months of 2008, adding to at least 280,000 who were newly displaced between January and November 2007;
  • Between January and July 2007, 132 staff members of humanitarian organizations were temporarily abducted at gunpoint and aid agencies were forced to suspend operations and relocate staff due to security concerns 15 times.  Hundreds of tones of food has been stolen; 
  • As of May 2007, 34 aid workers were killed, 120 others had been injured in serious attacks, and 30 had been kidnapped; and 
  • In 2006, an estimated 1,800 of the estimated 13,000 relief workers in the region were subjected to security incidents, a rise of 67% from 2005, and attacks on the relief community increased 150% in 2007. 

In the summer of 2007, several developments brought new hope to Darfur. The approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1769 authorizing a new joint AU-UN force (UNAMID) was an important step towards providing much needed protection to civilians. And the political process appeared to be restarting. 

The international community must not, however, see its role as less urgent than before. It is critical to remember that this situation on the ground has not changed. The fighting and insecurity continue. 

There is an urgent need for the international community, and especially African states, to put their full weight behind effective deployment of UNAMID, urgent measures to protect civilians until UNAMID can be deployed and an effective and inclusive peace process.

This is a critical moment for Darfur—don’t look away now.

Background to the conflict

The conflict in Darfur has been raging for more than three years. 

At its core is a war between two main rebel movements and the central government of Sudan. The crisis began in early 2003 with the first successful rebel attacks against the government, which provoked a massive response. 

In 2005, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Darfur determined that “Government forces and militia conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement … on a widespread and systematic basis.” 

The rebels claim that they took up arms only in self-defense, to resist a campaign of ethnic cleansing which had already begun against certain tribes in the region.  Darfur is an ethnically diverse region, and its numerous ethnic groups have traditionally managed their conflicts through mediation. Recently, however, the manipulation of tensions has led to the polarization of these groups, with certain groups, such as the Baggara, identifying as “Arab,” differentiating themselves from the “African” ethnic groups, such as the Fur and the Massaleit.

On June 18, 2007, the international aid agency oxfam announced that it was permanently phasing out aid activities in Darfur’s largest camp, Gereida, due to insecurity. Oxfam’ staff was withdrawn after a particularly serious attack on personel in December. Commenting on the withdrawal, oxfam’s Caroline Nursey commented; “As usual in Darfur, the peole who will suffermost are the civilians who have already been attacked, forced from their homes and had thier lives thrown into turmoil. For the last six months they ahve not had the level of assistance that they need.

These groups have traditionally co-existed peacefully in Darfur, but tensions between the groups have been stoked by a number of factors. First, disputes over land rights have intensified as the area has grown drier and the amount of arable land has decreased. Second, following the end of the Cold War and as a result of various military operations moving across the area, weapons in Darfur have become readily and cheaply available. Third, the traditional labels of “Arab” and “African” have been manipulated and an ideology of “Arab” superiority has been expounded. Perceived and experienced marginalization has created a context for the manipulation of different tribes for political ends. 

Militias have been mobilized at the behest of the Sudanese government. Ostensibly formed as self-defence units, these groups have terrorized those elements of the civilian population presumed to support the rebels because of their ethnic background. These militias have committed murder and rape and seized the lands and property of those who fled. It has been reported that villages cleared in this manner have, in some cases, been resettled by tribal groups allied with the militia and increasingly, it is reported, by nationals of other states in the region, as far away as Niger and Mauritania.

What has been the international response? 

The international community has, at times over the past four years, recognized the crisis in Darfur as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The most vehement rhetoric initially came from the West. The United States Senate was the first governmental body to declare the ongoing tragedy a “genocide,” followed shortly by a similar declaration being made by the Bush administration.

In July 2004, however, as the US Senate was making its genocide declaration, the African Union explicitly stated that it did not consider the crimes occurring to be genocide. Similarly, the League of Arab States announced that it could not find “any proof of allegations that ethnic cleansing or the eradication of communities had been perpetrated.”1

These differing portrayals of the conflict allowed the Sudanese government and other regional actors to decry the characterization of “genocide” as a politically-motivated American attempt to demonize a Muslim state—possibly as a pretext for invasion. Throughout the crisis the government of Sudan has been able to exploit this interpretation and, coupled with the current very polarised global climate around the so-called “war on terror”, has used it as a pretext for resisting various levels of international intervention.

“I cannot give a starker warning than to say that wea re at a point where even hope may escape up and the lives of hundreds of thousands could be needlessly lost. The Security Countil and member states around this table with influence on the parties to the conflict must act now.”

Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, August 28, 2006

In addition, the West’s actual response to the crisis has too often not matched its rhetoric. The international community until recently left the lead role in responding to the crisis to the African Union (AU). The AU that has acted as mediator, facilitating negotiations between the rebel movements and the government, deployed military monitors to observe the April 2004 N’djamena ceasefire agreement and acts as guarantor for the Darfur Peace Agreement which was agreed in May 2006.

“Let all the countries collectively punish the guilty. They will put him in his limits so he can’t come to us again. We need our land to be restored again. Who is governing us?  To whom do we go if we have a problem?”

Darfurian Refugee

Under funded and unable to fulfil its mandate the beleaguered African Union force in Darfur has been unable to successfully protect civilians in Darfur. Further to a request for assistance from the AU, in August 2006 the UN Security Council authorized a UN deployment in support of the AU mission, conditional on the consent of the Government of Sudan. Rejecting the decision Sudan opted to build up its own forces into the region. 

In 2007, intensive international mediation resulted in a series of agreements culminating in an agreement to deploy a hybrid AU-UN force under AU command (UNAMID). This force was endorsed by the AU Peace and Security Council on June 22, 2007 and by the UN Security Council on July 31, 2007 in Resolution 1769. 

Planning envisioned deployment of a 26,000-strong force. The mission is expected to cost up to $2bn a year and if deployed at the levels authorized will be the world’s largest peacekeeping force. The force will be authorized to protect civilians, facilitate full humanitarian access and the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes.

Resolution 1769 has brought new hope to the population of Darfur. Only time will tell, however, whether States in Africa and internationally will contribute their troops and whether the agreement actually leads to the deployment of a successful protection force. At a minimum, the experts say that the force is unlikely to be deployed before the end of the year as initially envisioned. With this inevitable delay, there is an need for urgent measures to protect civilians in the interim. 

“Some were killed at the war, some of them killed when they attacked the village. They burned the village. All that means you are staying at the village and you have nothing And then the horses attack you. You have nothing to do but run. They killed them without reason.”

Darfurian Refugee

The peace process

In the meantime, the AU and the UN continue to try to expand and reinvigorate the Darfur peace process in the context of the manifest failure of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) to receive support from the people of Darfur and most of the key opposition factions. It is only with genuine movement on the political plane that the new AU-UN mission will be able to function effectively.

AU Special Envoy Salim A. Salim and UN Special Envoy Jan Eliasson are now working collaboratively to move forward the political process for Darfur. An initial meeting for rebel leaders to discuss a common negotiating platform in the first week of August 2007 led to a joint communiqué reflecting common positions agreed on several key issues. Key leaders, however, remain outside this process. Nonetheless, jointly sponsored AU-UN Peace talks have been scheduled to begin on October 27 in Tripoli, Libya. 

Even as these efforts are underway, the conflict threatens to expand; the violence has already expanded into Chad and the Central African Republic. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned that further displacement could strain the surrounding region to the breaking point and draw them further into the crisis: “Resources in neighboring Chad have been stretched to the limit. An already bad situation is worsening by the day.”2

1 See Report Abstract, League of Arab States Mission to Sudan, 29 April to 15 May 2004: informal English translation. 
2 UNHCR. “Worsening Darfur Crisis Threatens Entire Region,” September 8, 2006.