Negotiators quit Darfur, saying neither side is ready for peace

Steve Bloomfield,Africa Correspondent
Friday 27 June 2008 00:00 BST

The UN negotiators attempting to bring peace to Darfur have resigned, admitting that their mission has been a failure.

Jan Eliasson, who has been leading the UN's peace efforts in Sudan for the past 18 months, announced that he and his African Union counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, would stand down to make way for a new negotiator.

"It is a very, very sombre situation," Mr Eliasson told The Independent. "I don't believe the parties are ready to sit down and make the necessary compromises."

Since the start of the year the level of violence in Darfur has dramatically increased. Both the government and some of the rebel groups have intensified their military activity. Banditry is also on the rise and aid groups delivering much-needed food and supplies to Darfur's 2.5 million displaced are facing daily attacks.

The joint UN/AU peacekeeping force has failed to stem the violence. Just under 10,000 military personnel and police officers have been deployed – a total of 26,000 were supposed to be in place.

But peacekeepers need a peace to keep. Mr Eliasson and Dr Salim launched a fresh round of peace talks amid much fanfare in Libya last October, but it fell apart within days when the most powerful rebel leaders refused to show up. Efforts to revive it have fallen flat.

"The last six months have seen some very negative developments," Mr Eliasson said. "If we don't have a mobilisation of energy from the international community we risk a major humanitarian disaster again. The margins of survival are so slim for the people of Darfur."

Both Mr Eliasson and Dr Salim were criticised for basing themselves outside Sudan (Mr Eliasson in Stockholm, Dr Salim in Dar es Salaam), and not spending enough time in Darfur itself. The new negotiator, who has not yet been named, is expected to be based in Khartoum.

"We may have made tactical mistakes," Mr Eliasson said, "but you can never come away from the fact that it is the parties to the conflict that have the responsibility – the government and the rebel movements." One of the biggest problems Mr Eliasson faced was the fragmentation of the rebel groups. The two groups which had begun the rebellion in 2003 had split into at least 15 by the middle of 2007.

Mr Eliasson admitted he had been "hopeful" in August last year when representatives from eight rebel groups met in Arusha, Tanzania, to agree a common position. The Arusha talks came just weeks after the UN Security Council had agreed to send peacekeepers to Darfur.

Buoyed by the success of Arusha, Mr Eliasson urged the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to press ahead with the Libya talks between the rebels and the Sudanese government.

For the talks to be successful the rebel groups needed to stay united, Sudan's government of national unity needed to speak with one voice, regional powers like Chad and Libya needed to be fully on board, and the international community needed to give the talks their full support.

None of these things happened – and the situation has only deteriorated since then. There are now an estimated 30 rebel groups, one of which, the Justice and Equality Movement, tried to attack Khartoum last month. Sudan's coalition government, which includes former southern rebels, is struggling to remain united following the destruction of the oil-rich border town of Abyei by forces loyal to the north. Relations between Chad and Sudan are at an all-time low after each accused the other of backing coup attempts.

James Smith, chief executive of the Darfur campaign group the Aegis Trust, said the peace process needs more than just a new negotiator. "At the moment it is going nowhere, but unless a new negotiator has new carrots or sticks it's destined to fail. The situation is unbelievably bleak."

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