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Darfur: Time to Let the People Speak

Although Darfur has been a priority issue for both the Bush and Obama administrations and their European counterparts, Western efforts have not yielded a payoff in peace and well-being for the people of Darfur.

Located in the heart of a poverty-stricken region of Africa, with no history of tourism or known exports, Darfur has nonetheless become a familiar name in American and European households. Numerous rallies, campus activities, documentary films, speeches and op-eds have kept Darfur at the forefront of the political agenda to an unprecedented extent. Despite the relentless attention, the underlying causes of the conflict in Darfur remain unresolved. Worse, they are becoming more difficult to untangle with time.


Although Darfur has been a priority issue for both the Bush and Obama administrations and their European counterparts, Western efforts have not yielded a payoff in peace and well-being for the people of Darfur. Although much has been made publicly about the violations of human rights of Darfurians, one key right - their ability to shape their own political future – has been missing. Now is the time to pay attention to this critical right and it may be the only way to break through the complex web of politicized agendas surrounding the conflict.

In some ways the extraordinary attention surrounding Darfur has actually made the solution to this violent conflict trickier. When an issue becomes as publicly known as this one, celebrities and politicians are anxious to join the movement. Many of them are committed and informed, but the sheer number of activist voices on Darfur has reached a historically high level, developing a kind of momentum that on its own is unlikely to be controlled productively or effectively. Groups have different agendas, for instance whether to focus on the term genocide, holding leaders accountable, humanitarian responses, or on the shape of the political process.

Some groups oppose the policy of the US Special Envoy to Sudan to engage with Khartoum while others support more active discussion. While the competition for ideas can stimulate the policy process, the high visibility and fund-raising potential of the Darfur issue have raised the stakes for those involved, increasing the likelihood of posturing for political gain.

All of this has politicized the response to Darfur, both in the United States and in and around Sudan. Everyone (the US, the AU, the UN, Qatar, Egypt, Chad, Libya, China, France, Russia, among others) wants a piece of the peace – or at least to be seen trying. Solving the Darfur crisis has become the brass ring of international peacemaking. But the lives of those on the ground remain relatively untouched by all of this attention to their plight.

Nearly three million Darfuris live away from their homes in camps, their families, social structures and livelihoods gone or severely disrupted. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow, the ability of these Darfuris to pursue happiness in their own lives has been wrecked. That helps to explain why -- with so many international actors involved in trying to make peace -- real peace on the ground remains so elusive.

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The number of involved actors, while raising Darfur’s profile, has made resolution of the conflict far more complex. When the Darfur Peace Agreement was negotiated in 2005/6, there were only three significant armed rebel movements in Darfur. At that point, the fighters maintained connections to their communities and thus had reasonable claims of legitimacy as negotiators for peace. Now the factions have splintered into more than 20 groups, frequently unifying and breaking apart in frustrating and usually temporary patterns.

Even official efforts to identify and understand the Darfurian “rebels” often fail to yield definitive results. Deep mistrust and poor leadership skills have left many of the groups vulnerable to infighting and the constant poaching of men, equipment and support (from each other and from humanitarian groups operating in the region). Some of the groups are alleged to have found support from the government in Khartoum, which has found it all too easy to avoid making painful or costly concessions in an increasingly murky peace negotiations process.

It is true that peace negotiations – in the immediate imperative to stop a violent conflict – are frequently disconnected from the causes of justice and human rights. However, the recent downshift in the intensity of violence in Darfur actually suggests an opportunity to try for a more complete solution to this conflict. Because the number of armed actors in the negotiations has become so unwieldy, it is less and less obvious that they present an authentic voice for the Darfurian people. Now is the time to invite carefully selected civilian actors from a cross-section of Darfurian tribes, regions and social groups to join in the process as negotiating partners and guarantors of social peace.

Bringing civilians to the negotiating table will add much-needed legitimacy to the Darfurian side and give credibility to the claims of the international community that human rights are not to be sacrificed. Long-term decisions are going to be made at the Darfur negotiations that will affect the political rights of Darfurians immediately and in the years to come.

Both the Joint AU/UN Mediator and the US Special Envoy for Sudan have emphasized the importance of involving civil society in the solution to the Darfur crisis, so there is some reason to be optimistic that the current unproductive dynamic will change. This involvement needs to be done with care, so that those who are selected have the trust and the ear of their communities. Such processes cannot be guided by the calendar or the news cycle. If leadership and representation truly grow from the ground up in Darfur, the peace process will progress faster than it has in years.


Linda Bishai

Linda Bishai is a contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Human Rights (August 2009).

Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.