NAIROBI, Kenya — A glimmer of hope to resolve the Darfur crisis — in which more than 300,000 have been killed and over 2.7-million people have been made homeless — has appeared with the announcement that Sudan's government will hold talks with the main rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement.
The declaration of intent for talks between the two groups, signed on Feb. 17 in Qatar, could pave the way for a wide-ranging peace agreement.
Significantly it comes just days after it was reported that the International Criminal Court (ICC) plans to indict Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir for crimes in Darfur. Further, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of a "dramatic deterioration" in security in Darfur.
"The escalation in the level of violence in Darfur signals an investment in conflict rather than a serious commitment to peaceful negotiations," Ban told the Security Council on Feb 12.
The Darfur violence has gone on since February 2003, when rebel groups launched a rebellion in the name of the marginalized tribes of the western region against the Islamist government in Khartoum. The Sudan government responded with military force and then brutal suppression including a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the army and its allied Janjaweed militias (meaning "devils on horseback").
A humanitarian catastrophe was ignited and it has continued to burn. Sudan's government has pursued the violent campaign in open defiance of criticism from human rights groups, western governments and the UN.
What has finally brought the Khartoum government to the negotiating table is the looming arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, expected to be issued soon by judges at the ICC in The Hague.
In July the court's chief prosecutor, the vigorous Argentine lawyer Luis Moreno-Ocampo, charged Bashir with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. Since then a "pre-trial chamber" of three judges has been weighing the evidence and is shortly expected to issue an indictment on some or all of the charges.
ICC arrest warrants have already been issued for Ahmad Harun, Sudan's minister for humanitarian affairs, and Ali Kushayb, a pro-government militia leader.
Only the UN Security Council has the power to suspend an arrest warrant, for 12-months initially but the deferral can be renewed indefinitely. Experts say it would only do so if there were real progress towards peace in Darfur. Given the collapse of all previous deals and the absence of other rebel factions at the talks in Qatar, diplomats will be skeptical of this new pact.
Even if Sudan managed to muster the required votes at the Security Council — nine out of 15 members — any of the five permanent members can veto the deferral. These five include America, Britain and France, all of whom are keen to see Bashir arrested.
The killing in Darfur — called "genocide" by former U.S. President George W. Bush — has been going on for six years.
The $1.5-billion-a-year joint African Union (AU) and UN peacekeeping force (known as UNAMID, the United Nations African Mission in Darfur) has done little to halt the massacres, rapes and displacement since it began operating at the end of 2007. Its paltry 12,500 troops — less than two-thirds of its mandated strength — are headquartered in the North Darfur town of El-Fasher and are tasked to provide security across a vast swathe of mountain and desert the size of France.
During this time Bashir has mostly ignored international pressure to halt Sudanese army assaults and rein in pro-government militias.
Despite economic sanctions imposed by America and the European Union. Sudan's capital, Khartoum, on the banks of the Nile, is booming helped by the financial and diplomatic aid of China (which buys oil), Russia (which sells arms), Arab countries (which support Bashir's Islamist regime) and the AU (in solidarity with a fellow African state).
All these have called for the suspension of charges against Bashir as has an influential bloc of developing nations, the G-77 and China, which chose Sudan as its chair in 2009. In January at its biannual meeting in Addis Ababa the AU unanimously called for the ICC investigation to be dropped.
All four of the ICC's current investigations are in Africa, giving rise to allegations that The Hague court is racist and biased. However, it was the governments of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic who referred their cases to the ICC while the UN Security Council asked the ICC to investigate in Darfur.
Critics argue that an arrest warrant against Bashir would scupper all chances of a peace deal in Darfur and could also undermine the shaky Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between north and south Sudan in 2005 which ended decades of civil war that killed over two million people.
Under immense diplomatic pressure, led by America, it was Bashir who signed the agreement with southern leaders against the wishes of many in his hardline Islamist government.
Under that agreement Sudan should hold elections in July this year and a referendum on secession in 2011 which could see Africa's biggest country split in two.
In Darfur itself there are fears of a backlash against aid workers and peacekeepers if the warrant for Bashir's arrest is issued. In Khartoum foreigners worry they will be the targets of revenge attacks. Some Sudanese officials have threatened as much leading secretary-general Ban to urge the government to "react responsibly to the International Criminal Court decision" when it is announced.
Underlining the importance that the Obama administration attaches to resolving the Darfur conflict Susan Rice, in her first press conference after taking up the post of U.S. ambassador to the UN, spoke of "the ongoing genocide in Darfur."
She added, "We will continue to look at what is necessary to deal with any obstruction, continued violence or reprisals that may occur or may emanate as a result of a potential indictment.
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