USA Secretary-of-State Colin Powell’s decision to describe the conflict in Darfur as a “genocide” 1 is set to damage prospects for peace in the Sudan. This is for several reasons. This action will damage Sudan’s faith in the Bush Administration as an honest broker in securing peace in Sudan, either in southern Sudan or Darfur itself. For Washington to chose to put electoral expediency - diverting media attention away from the Iraq fiasco and pandering to anti-Sudanese and anti-Arab pressure group politics - before the truth of the situation in Darfur will dramatically undermine its reputation.
The USA declaration on genocide jars with other, more trusted, positions on the issue. Mr Jean-Hervé Bradol, head of Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, has stated that the use of the term genocide is “inappropriate”. Mr Bradol said: “Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group."2
Mr Bradol’s observations echoed those made in April 2004 by Dr Mercedes Taty, the deputy emergency director of Médecins Sans Frontières. Dr Taty worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge in Darfur. Asked about claims of genocide, her answer was blunt: “I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target - targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself.” Dr Taty also questioned claims of “ethnic cleansing”.3
Washington’s hypocrisy is all too obvious. The Bush Administration’s previous commitment to ending the long-running civil war in southern Sudan is now also being called into question. It had been assumed that the Sudan policy of the Bush White House differed from the Clinton Administration’s active efforts to militarily and politically destabilise Khartoum. Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, has clearly criticised USA obstruction throughout the 1990s of attempts to peacefully resolve the Sudanese civil war:
Choosing to work for peace rather than war the Bush White House tested the Sudanese government’s commitment to ending the war in the south and found Khartoum as good as its word. From 2002 onwards Washington’s constructive engagement in Sudan saw the unfolding of a remarkably successful peace process, one that has resulted in unprecedented steps towards a comprehensive peace agreement.
It would appear that having realised that Washington would not be able to reap the electoral benefits of being seen to have brought peace to southern Sudan, because the final peace agreement may not be signed until after the election - and in any instance the Darfur crisis has reduced whatever political advantage there may have been in having secured a solitary foreign policy success - the Bush Administration is now choosing to play up the Darfur crisis in an attempt to divert media coverage of the continuing and deepening Iraq crisis.
In so doing Washington has caused considerable suspicion as to ulterior motives. It has not gone unnoticed, for example, that the genocide declaration has echoed one of the ways in which the Clinton White House obstructed peace in the 1990s which was by interfering with peace talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum. As one example, the Clinton Administration chose to impose comprehensive economic sanctions on Sudan in November 1997 just as the government and rebels had started a key round of peace talks in Nairobi. Doubtlessly bolstered by this American signal, SPLA leader John Garang, commenting on these talks in Nairobi, stated that “We intended not to reach an agreement with the [Sudanese government]. This is what we did and we succeeded in it because we did not reach an agreement.”
Secretary Powell’s decision to describe events in Darfur as “genocide” starkly mirrors the Clinton White House’s timing on imposing economic sanctions. The Government and the two Darfur rebel groups are in the midst of crucial peace negotiations in Nigeria, attempting to resolve the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis. These talks, brokered by the African Union, are aimed at resolving the 18-month old conflict in Darfur. Agence France Presse has described how the rebel groups have backtracked on earlier promises made to the Nigerian president, the African Union and the UN “to push forward with negotiations”.5 Coming as it did in the midst of these talks, Powell’s comments have made the rebels even more intransigent.6
In a further attempt to boost continuing media coverage of Darfur Washington has also sought UN sanctions to interfere with Sudanese oil exports. Given that the issue of wealth-sharing - specifically of oil revenues - between north and southern Sudan has been so pivotal to the delicate Sudanese peace process, the USA attempts to cut away the only real way open to the Sudanese people of developing themselves and building on peace in Sudan clearly demonstrates crass misjudgement in yet another foreign policy issue by the Bush Administration.7
In putting American votes before Sudanese peace, in both western and southern Sudan, Washington is playing a very dangerous game indeed.