Beyond Band-Aids for Darfur?

04/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Monika Kalra Varma Director, Center for Human Rights at the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights

A Regional Approach Is Needed to Stop the Bleeding in Chad and Sudan

A newly released joint assessment from the U.N. and Government of Sudan predicts over one million people will soon no longer have access to such essentials as water, food and medical care after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's disbanding the efforts of sixteen humanitarian groups from Darfur. The United States and international community are scrambling to fill these gaps, forced to focus on what U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes calls "band-aid solutions, not long-term solutions."

With all the focus on this emergency, a potentially larger crisis looms across the border -- an imminent attack in neighboring Chad. The U.S. has an opportunity to lead the international community beyond the band-aid solutions of the past to work to avert disaster, but the window is closing.

As the U.S. and international community tries to undo President al-Bashir's death sentence through starvation and disease for Darfur, thousands of well-equipped Chadian rebels supported by the Government of Sudan are stationed on the border of Darfur ready to attack Chad's capital, N'Djamena. Meanwhile, Chadian President Idriss Déby has been parading his weapons through the streets for several months now, leading most observers to fear the worst about the expected clash.

Chad and Sudan share a long porous border and are currently engaged in what is widely considered a proxy war, with both funding and emboldening rebel groups marginalized by their neighbor's political process. The Government of Chad harbors and funds Darfuri rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement while the Sudanese military has armed and trained Chadian rebels seeking to topple President Déby's government. The relationship between Chad and Sudan is further complicated by tribal and familial relations that pre-date the culturally tenuous border drawn between them.

Chad is already home to more than 250,000 Darfur refugees. Some analysts estimate between 100,000 and 250,000 additional refugees could flood U.N.-administered refugee camps in Chad due to the current lack of food, water and medical care in Darfur. Such an increase could overwhelm an already thinly stretched humanitarian infrastructure in Chad. The result would threaten the security and well-being of a nearly doubled Darfur refugee population, in addition to the 166,000 internally displaced Chadians living in U.N. run camps, forced from their homes by rebel and security force clashes, cross-border raids by Sudan-based militias' and internal violence.

Despite these inextricable connections, historically the United States has pursued separate solutions for Sudan and Chad. We have yet to devise a systematic policy capable of tackling these interwoven conflicts, without which there is little hope of promoting sustainable peace.

The height of the refugee movements and fighting are both predicted to occur before the rainy season begins in April. Some speculate President Déby may shut down the border in the event of an attack, and could begin to limit the actions of U.N. operations and international aid organizations in Chad, leading to a possible situation eerily similar to what is now occurring in Sudan, unless the U.S. and international community act now to avert the crisis.

This past week, I joined two revered civil society leaders and recipients of the RFK Human Rights Award, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Abdalla from Darfur and Delphine Djiraibe from Chad to share this message with officials of the U.S. Administration, U.S. Congress and the United Nations. They brought the message of their families, colleagues and neighbors agreeing that if the United States and the international community want to protect the people of Darfur and Chad, future diplomatic efforts need a regional vision to avert such crises.

Though the message was well received by the diplomatic community, little action is being taken to move beyond focusing on these conflicts and countries in isolation.

A strong U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, has been named, sending a message to Khartoum, but an equally strong message must be sent to Chad. The new administration must entrust Maj. Gen. Gration with a broad mandate to confront the interrelated problems in both Sudan and Chad to find regional solutions for peace, similar to the current approach to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He must be able to deal with all actors in the region, including not only governments and rebels, but also tribal, civil society, refugee and IDP leaders.

Regional peace will also require attention to the national political processes in both Chad and Sudan. The US must work equally hard to help move stalled political processes forward by helping to negotiate a path for rebel groups in both countries to be brought into the political process and facilitating meaningful and inclusive talks between all stakeholders. Without a space in the political process, these rebels will have no choice but to fight.

Any of these processes done in isolation will fail. Rebels reliant on rival nations for support can not be expected to come to the table and negotiate with their home governments in good faith. Any national disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process is bound to fail if it does not address the constant flow of weapons and combatants across borders. Sustainable peace in the region requires regional talks that bring together all the necessary parties, include strong accountability mechanisms, and will require a parallel and on-going political processes within each country.

Band-aid solutions can not be relied on to stop the bleeding in Darfur and Chad. The US must take this opportunity to lead in averting an impending crisis in Chad and begin to work towards finding a comprehensive sustainable regional peace.