The Multilateralist

Sudan: Is there any leverage left?

I spoke recently with Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur, an engrossing account of the influential Darfur activist movement and its impact on Sudan policy. In the book, she melds the story of these activists with developments on the ground in Sudan, often reported personally. Her account is nuanced and, at times, quite critical. ...

I spoke recently with Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur, an engrossing account of the influential Darfur activist movement and its impact on Sudan policy. In the book, she melds the story of these activists with developments on the ground in Sudan, often reported personally. Her account is nuanced and, at times, quite critical. She credits the movement with generating resources and attention but argues that the intense rhetorical focus on genocide also had the effect of reducing policy options and, in some moments, mischaracterizing the situation on the ground. Hamilton returned to Sudan recently to report on developments in South Kordofan and the disputed town of Abyei.

Multilateralist: As events in Sudan take an ominous turn, what’s your assessment of the current danger and likely outcomes?

RH: I’m more worried about the prospects for peace in Sudan than I have been in years. The question is not whether the country will partition on July 9; it will. The question is how high the costs will be for the civilian population if the kind of violence we have seen across the border areas in the past month continues. And there is every chance it will continue unless the underlying issues are resolved at the political level.

The violence we are seeing right now stems in large part from the fact that a number of the thorniest issues were not properly resolved between the parties back when the north-south peace agreement was signed in 2005. Negotiators decided to punt the trickiest issues forward in order to get an agreement signed. That would have been fine if the intervening six years between the signing and the end of the peace agreement period had been used to work on those issues. But instead, and in part because Khartoum started such a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur, and the world – belatedly, moved all its energy over there, many north-south issues were never worked through. Issues like who will Abyei belong to, and how will the rights of those remaining in the north who have traditionally been opposed to Khartoum’s rule be protected – like the Nuba, were left unresolved.

Are the UN forces on the ground able to make any impact in terms of controlling the violence and protecting affected populations?

The evidence to date is fairly bleak. UN forces in the south and the hybrid UN/African Union force in Darfur have had a positive impact in limited areas against limited threats. But whenever any group – government or rebel – is determined to use force against civilians, the peacekeepers have usually shown themselves to be no match.

But there is a bigger issue here than the individual peacekeepers deployed in Sudan. I think the international community needs to take a much deeper look at the peacekeeping model. Too often the UN Security Council sends in peacekeepers – people who have the capacity and will to monitor a peace agreement between two well-organized sides – when what the situation demands are peace enforcers who will protect civilians from direct attack. In such situations, where the political pieces to support a peacekeeping deployment have not been put in place, the peacekeepers are set up for failure and the losers are always the civilians.

The answer is to either hold off deploying peacekeepers until the political level has been worked to the point where the parties genuinely consent to the peacekeeping presence – something that Khartoum has never done; or if the countries with the leverage to move that political piece forward are unable or unwilling to do so, then to be realistic about the fact you are in a peace enforcement situation. The trouble then, however, is that you are confronted with a harsh truth: virtually no country is willing to send their sons and daughters into harms way to protect strangers unless there is a so-called ‘national interest’ at stake.

In your book you discuss some of the dilemmas involving ICC involvement. Is your sense that the ICC has had any deterrent or mitigating effect or has its influence been played out with the indictment of President al-Bashir?

The ICC is such a new institution. They haven’t even completed their first trial yet, so it is far too early to tell if it will have the deterrent impact that everyone hopes for. Even in established domestic criminal systems deterrence takes time and is hard to verify. What we know is that deterrence is greater the more that would-be perpetrators view the likelihood of punishment as certain. The ICC, unlike the previous ad hoc tribunals, could – over time – contribute to increasing the perceived certainty of punishment because it is a permanent court with pretty wide-reaching jurisdiction. But it is clearly nowhere near that point since it has not even handed down a single punishment yet. And it will not ever get to where it needs to be unless nation states are willing to support it. With no police force of its own, it cannot execute its own warrants. It relies on states to do that.

In terms of Sudan, many argue that the ICC arrest warrant caused al-Bashir to expel a large number of humanitarians from Darfur, which is exactly the framing that Khartoum was hoping for. But in truth, Khartoum had been obstructing humanitarian work, as well as expelling certain individuals and suspending operations long before the warrant was issued, and has continued to do so ever since. Did the warrant give al-Bashir a great PR opportunity to kick a large number out at once? Absolutely. And there should be no question that the cost of that has been borne by civilians in Darfur, most especially women. But to say the ICC “caused” the expulsion seems like a misattribution of where the primary responsibility lies. Any deterrent impact in Sudan? No. I think deterrence is a long-term goal for the ICC. It’s not something you will see after one as-yet-unexecuted warrant.

Is China’s recent invitation to President Bashir a significant rebuke to the ICC?

China has never made any pretense of being on the side of international justice and accountability. Moreover China has not joined the ICC and has no plans to do so. (It’s worth noting that the U.S. has also not joined the ICC, but by contrast does like to be seen as supporting international justice, which is what accounts for its policy of not interacting directly with al-Bashir). One might argue the Chinese have an obligation to execute the ICC’s warrants in the Sudan case by virtue of their position on the UN Security Council since it was the UN Security Council that gave the ICC jurisdiction to look at the situation in Darfur. Although even then, China abstained to let the situation go to the ICC rather than actively voting for it.

To my mind, the decision of Kenya, which has joined to the ICC, to invite al-Bashir to their new constitution ceremony last year was a much bigger rebuke to the ICC. 

I’m going against the human rights orthodoxy here, but I see al-Bashir’s visit to China next week as a potentially huge opportunity for furthering peace in Sudan right now. Just imagine if Beijing were to say – We want to ensure you follow through on this commitment you have just made to withdraw from Abyei, and to cease military operations in Southern Kordofan. These issues must be addressed politically, not militarily. And if you don’t, there will be consequences for our relationship. They may be the one nation in the world right now that has enough unilateral leverage that Khartoum would actually listen. Now of course if China just pursues business as usual then it is the worst possible outcome and would signal to al-Bashir that his closest economic ally has no problem with the atrocities that have been occurring in Sudan. But as his visit seems to be going ahead, let’s hope all governments who care about peace in Sudan are doing their utmost to push Beijing to use the opportunity to positive effect. 

Is the activist community that you describe in the book able to make an impact as the situation evolves rapidly? Are there discrete policy proposals that they are supporting?

One of the challenges of any mass movement is that by its nature it is relatively inflexible. Most of your members are busy running round, organizing the kids, running projects at work, and fitting in activism on a volunteer basis in their spare time. So that means you are communicating to them in soundbites, and it also means there is a “stickiness” to whatever the schema was that you first engaged them on. If, as in the case of the Save Darfur movement, that schema emphasized that Darfur was the only thing in the world they should be paying attention to, it becomes hard to re-adjust the message to take into account crises in other parts of Sudan. Ultimately I think the movement managed to do that – although it took longer than expected. Today the leadership, certainly, are keeping up with the changes on the ground. How much of that filters through at the grassroots level is an open question. The call advocacy leaders seem to be making right now is much closer to a whole-of-Sudan approach than I have ever seen it, and that is a great thing. But they are, in my view, still too U.S.-centric in their thinking about where leverage lies.

How many levers of influence does the international community actually have at this point?

That’s a key question. If you start with the U.S. what you see is that they maxed out what unilateral pressure they could apply, short of military options, many years ago. Since the 1990s, Washington has had comprehensive economic and diplomatic sanctions on Sudan. There is already no U.S. Ambassador in Khartoum; no U.S. oil companies in the country. Some argue that the looming independence of South Sudan gives Washington some more scope for coercive approaches against Khartoum by giving support, including military support, to the South. But while South Sudan needs to be able to defend itself, sending more arms into a place where there are very serious command and control concerns just sounds like a bad idea. So if you set that possibility aside, then from a purely unilateral point of view Washington is back in the realms of carrots, which, notwithstanding some rhetoric to the contrary, is essentially their current approach. They say they are making efforts multilaterally, but we are yet to see any serious pay-offs. It’s also a question of just how important Sudan really is. You can say you care, but are you actually willing to put it at the top of your list of talking points with China, thereby pushing to second and third place issues like North Korea or the currency?

China, India and Malaysia are all important players in Sudan’s oil industry but China has the most leverage of them all by virtue of also being a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That means it can, and traditionally has, threatened to use its veto to shield Khartoum from U.S.-led western pressure. If there is a window of hope right now it is that it is in China’s own economic self-interest to see peace between north and south so that the oil can keep flowing.

I also think the regional bodies are crucial these days. Look at how you got UN Security Council action on Libya. It was because the Arab League requested a NFZ that China and those that tend to be lining up with China in the BRICS bloc, were willing to drop their resistance and let such a forceful resolution pass. The regional bodies like the Arab League and African Union don’t have much direct control at the UN, but if you had the regional players on Sudan move their support away from the ruling party, that would encourage the BRICS to follow their lead and then the dynamics would shift at the UN Security Council level. Unfortunately those regional bodies are feeling (and not without basis) that they were lied to on Libya. They were told it was just about civilian protection and now all of a sudden it’s about regime change. So I don’t think there is much hope from that angle for quite some time.

Ultimately, with the possible exception of China, the only way for external actors to accomplish any serious leverage over Khartoum is multilaterally. Until that piece is worked out, until the key players stand together, there is always room for the highly skilled diplomats in Khartoum to play one diplomat off against another.

Of course the best possible source of leverage would be from the Sudanese people themselves–many of whom are trying to push for a system of governance that would foster peace in Sudan. As yet though, they have not gained even close to the momentum they need.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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