Why long-term ceasefires will not lead to peace and security in Sudan

On Monday, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber judges issued a second arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, this time for three counts of genocide. Darfur activist groups here in the U.S. welcomed the news while calling on world leaders to prevent the type of retaliation against the people of Darfur that Bashir ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

On Monday, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber judges issued a second arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, this time for three counts of genocide. Darfur activist groups here in the U.S. welcomed the news while calling on world leaders to prevent the type of retaliation against the people of Darfur that Bashir masterminded after the first arrest warrant in March 2009. As the world responds to the ICC's milestone decision, it's worth highlighting why this case and the overall push for justice for Darfur is so essential and urgent: without accountability, a negotiated peace will be little more than a long-term ceasefire.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber judges issued a second arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, this time for three counts of genocide. Darfur activist groups here in the U.S. welcomed the news while calling on world leaders to prevent the type of retaliation against the people of Darfur that Bashir masterminded after the first arrest warrant in March 2009. As the world responds to the ICC’s milestone decision, it’s worth highlighting why this case and the overall push for justice for Darfur is so essential and urgent: without accountability, a negotiated peace will be little more than a long-term ceasefire.

Some might say the genocide warrant comes at the worst possible time. The current environment in Sudan is already tense following the recent April elections. The security situation in Darfur has deteriorated over the last few months, with some of the worst fighting, civilian causalities and displacement witnessed in the last two years. Equally troubling, jitters abound about the possibility of a return to civil war between North and South Sudan as the referendum on southern secession approaches in January 2011. In the midst of this tumultuous environment, shouldn’t justice take a backseat? Wouldn’t it be more important first to broker an end to the conflict in Darfur, and to prepare for the upcoming referendum? After all, both will require working with the regime in Khartoum, which responded to yesterday’s ICC warrant by declaring: "We condemn this in this [sic] strongest terms; it will only harden our resolve."

However, we need look no further than Sudan’s own Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended its decades-long civil war, to understand the consequences of neglecting justice and accountability when negotiating "peace." In 2005, the parties to the CPA signed an accord that has so far successfully prevented a return to full-scale conflict. Despite decades of mass atrocities and war crimes committed by both sides, justice was barely addressed in the agreement. As a result, architects of war and perpetrators of human rights violations have remained in power in both North and South Sudan. While Darfur is the most obvious example of their continued acts of brutal repression, even the Southern government’s use of authoritarian tactics during the recent national elections — including arrests and detentions of observers, a crackdown on media, vote-rigging and intimidation documented by Human Rights Watch — should give human rights activists some pause.

It was not supposed to be this way. International guarantors of the CPA hoped that by the time of the referendum on southern secession, Sudan would have begun the long process of democratic transformation that could have made unity an attractive option to Southern Sudanese. But the CPA’s crucial provisions on democratic transformation, including the reform of the judiciary and the national security laws, have been largely ignored in implementation. It is now expected that South Sudan will overwhelmingly vote for secession, yielding a new state that will be among the least developed in the world. In the North, when the interim period designated in the CPA expires six months after the referendum, the Khartoum regime will be free to replace Sudan’s interim constitution with the authoritarian constitution of its choice.

Ignoring justice, accountability and democratic transformation, the CPA has in many ways been little more than a long-term ceasefire agreement. And even this basic peace is now on the rocks, with the international community forced to focus on the far from lofty goal of simply getting through the referendum without a return to all-out war.     

So far, Darfur peace negotiations have fallen into the same trap of focusing on achieving a cessation of hostilities and resolving issues most important to the armed parties, such as dividing up power and wealth, while neglecting issues crucial for the civilian population, such as accountability and long term recovery. The recent framework agreement signed in February between the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Government of Sudan, for example, granted a general amnesty for the civil and military members of JEM — who, like other rebel groups, have also been accused of war crimes. The failed Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in 2006, was little better at addressing issues of accountability.

After surviving years of conflict and displacement, and decades of marginalization, the people of Darfur deserve more than a long-term ceasefire — even one that holds, as the February framework agreement did not. They deserve a genuine and lasting peace that prevents a return to war. To accomplish this, justice and accountability must be pursued in parallel with peace and security, and not traded away or postponed.

Lessons from recent Sudanese history should guide the Obama Administration’s present Sudan policy. Rather than viewing the ICC case against Bashir as an obstacle to brokering peace and protecting lives, the administration should recognize the impossibility of long-term success in achieving these objectives without prioritizing justice. The U.S. must therefore strongly support the ICC as well as other genuine accountability mechanisms, which could include the hybrid courts proposed by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The Obama Administration has taken welcome steps to positively engage with the ICC, but its response to Monday’s news — urging al-Bashir to turn himself over to the ICC — was underwhelming. The U.S. should work with the UN Security Council and ICC member states to apprehend al-Bashir and others wanted for atrocities in Darfur.

Secondly, in the Darfur negotiations, the U.S. must ensure that justice and accountability are pillars of an agreement that addresses the root causes of conflict. As part of this effort, negotiations must be inclusive of Darfuri civil society. If civil society voices are heard and given weight in negotiations, a resulting agreement is much more likely to address their primary concerns, including the need for justice. To be successful, negotiations must start by recognizing the experiences of the civilian population that has suffered the brunt of the consequences of war. As obvious as this may seem, it is amazing how rarely this occurs. For example, despite the painfully high prevalence of sexual violence in conflict over the last decade, a recent review by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) of nearly 300 peace accords signed since 1998 showed that only 18 even refer to sexual or gender-based violence in the agreement text. Any Darfur peace agreement must do better.    

Given the ongoing conflict in Darfur and other grave threats to peace in Sudan, certainly a diplomatic balance must be struck – a point indicated by President Obama in an interview yesterday. But no durable progress will be made by sweeping under the rug the mass atrocities perpetrated in Darfur — even temporarily. Such an approach could make negotiating a peace settlement in Darfur and a peaceful separation of the South more challenging. However, by not holding those in Sudan responsible for their past actions, Sudan’s history of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide is likely to repeat itself.       

Megan Flemming is a policy analyst at the Save Darfur Coalition.

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