POLITICS: U.S. Officials Disagree Over Sudan Strategy

  • by Danielle Kurtzleben (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

Testifying at a Thursday Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Michael Gration stated that the Obama administration will unveil a new comprehensive policy stance toward Sudan in the coming weeks.

'We anticipate that in the next three weeks, that we'll be able to have a rollout of this strategy. I think you'll see from this strategy that it is very comprehensive,' said Gration, adding that the strategy 'includes incentives and pressures'.

Gration listed the U.S. goals in Sudan as including ending conflict between the north and south, ending human rights abuses, creating a functioning and stable Sudanese government, and seeking cooperation with the Sudanese government to counter terrorism.

Some senators expressed scepticism towards Gration's continued espousal of the use of carrots in addition to sticks towards reaching these goals. Critics of incentives believe that the Sudanese government will not respond, having been uncooperative toward the U.S.

The debate over a U.S. strategy in Sudan takes place as two key dates approach, making U.S. policy all the more vital. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, set 2011 as the date when south Sudan will be allowed to vote on secession from the north. Research performed by the National Democratic Institute indicates that southerners in Sudan will overwhelmingly vote to secede.

In addition, elections are currently scheduled for April 2010. Safe and fair elections would promote the goal of a democratic Sudan, but the government in Khartoum has been moving slowly towards preparing for these elections.

Voter registration only just began in late June, and during the rainy season, when millions of rural citizens are unable to access roads. Furthermore, a high illiteracy rate makes navigating a complex ballot difficult for many voters.

If elections or the referendum are unfair, or if the referendum is held before the CPA is fully implemented, it is feared that renewed violence will spread across the country, undoing what progress towards peace has been made.

The CPA was regarded at the time of its signing as a major step forward, ending a 22-year conflict between the Muslim Arab north and the Christian south. It is estimated that this conflict, Sudan's second major civil war in its 53-year history, killed two million and drove four million people from their homes.

Yet several elements of the CPA have yet to be fully implemented. Most notably, the border between north and south Sudan has yet to be firmly demarcated, and a wealth-sharing agreement between the north and the south has yet to be reached.

Tensions also remain high in the oil-rich region of Abyei. Earlier this month, the borders of this region were redefined by an international tribunal at The Hague, and both the government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the main political party in the south, agreed on the new borders.

However, the CPA ceasefire agreement has been breached on numerous occasions in this region, and fears remain that violence might again erupt.

Khartoum has a history of being uncooperative with the international community. In March, the Sudanese government expelled 10 foreign aid agencies in response to the ICC bringing charges against President Omar al-Bashir. General Gration has been successful in negotiating the return of several aid organisations, which are now operating in Sudan on limited capacity.

The emphasis on pressures over incentives towards the Sudanese government was especially strong from Senator Russ Feingold, head of the Africa Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Feingold asked Gration for reassurance that the Obama administration is considering 'meaningful punitive actions... in the event that the government of Sudan continues its historic foot-dragging.' Gration agreed to brief the senators on potential punitive actions on a later date, in a closed setting.

After the hearings, several members of the NGO community expressed scepticism towards the use of incentives toward Sudan's government, even as they expressed optimism for progress.

Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, issued a statement after the hearing that, while he was 'encouraged' to hear that General Gration and the Obama administration are using both carrots and sticks in their efforts, his organisation is 'seriously doubtful of Khartoum's true intention and ability to make good on their promises.'

He added that he 'urge[s] Senators to follow up swiftly with Gen. Gration on the classified details of this plan to ensure that it's sufficiently robust to get the job done.'

John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, a Washington-based group that advocates against genocide, emphasised the historical usefulness of pressure against the Sudanese government: 'We have 20 years of empirical evidence that when there are pressures, you get some kind of change of behaviour. When there has been pressure or credible threat of pressure, then you get change.'

Refugees International Advocate Melanie Teff likewise cautioned that 'it is important to stay vigilant to ensure that all sides continue to abide by their agreements.'

Yet even as many argue against the use of carrots, Gration also argued that 'sticks' have consequences of their own. Specifically, he criticised the U.S.'s economic sanctions, which are in place in part because Sudan is on a list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Sudan remains on the U.S.'s list of countries considered sponsors of terror because of Sudan's support of Hamas. Gration said that the decision to continue regarding Sudan as a terror-sponsoring state is a 'political decision', and that the consequences of sanctions are both inhibiting development work and the making the South's political development more difficult.

'We're hurting the very development things we need to do to help the South become able, if they choose to secede, to become a viable economic state,' said Gration.

One of the most contentious points of the hearing involved whether the current situation in Darfur can be considered 'genocide'. Though President Obama and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice have referred to it as an 'ongoing' genocide, Gration has continually refused to do so, a pattern he continued on Thursday.

When asked by Sen. Roger Wicker about Obama's characterisation of the Darfur situation as 'ongoing genocide', a seemingly irritated Gration said, 'You can read that how you need to read it. That's his statement,' adding that Darfur experiences the 'ongoing consequences of genocide'.

The one thing on which all seemed to agree is that forward movement on U.S. policy is necessary. As Senator John Kerry told those assembled on Thursday, 'Maintenance of a miserable status quo is not a solution.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service