Four years ago this month, President Bush launched a bold peace initiative to end two decades of genocidal conflict in Sudan. The president’s appointment of a senior statesman, former Sen. John Danforth, as special envoy reflected the high priority he assigned to this enterprise.
The initiative has produced some impressive results: Peace–albeit fragile–finally prevails in southern Sudan and the adjacent Nuba mountains. Last January, Sudan’s Islamist government reached agreement with the southern-based rebels–the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)–on autonomy for the south, wealth- and power-sharing arrangements in Khartoum, and a referendum on southern Sudanese independence after a six-year interim period. The head of the SPLA, Salva Kiir, has been sworn in as Sudan’s first vice president, and is now overseeing–as regional president–the establishment of constitutional government in southern Sudan.
But, despite this remarkable achievement, Sudan is not yet at peace: During the past two years, the stage of genocide has switched from southern to northern Sudan. Khartoum has countered a black-African insurgency in Darfur with collective punishment, carried out mainly by the predominantly Arab janjaweed militias. The result has been over 300,000 deaths and the displacement of more than two million civilians, mainly non-Arabs.
And Darfur is not the only center of instability in northern Sudan. In the northeast, near Eritrea, a long-simmering rebellion of Beja tribesmen is escalating. Strife there has the potential to produce catastrophe on the scale of Darfur. Furthermore, in the central area of Kordofan, conditions appear to be ripening for a rebellion of Misseriya Arab nomads. As long as northern Sudan is wracked by war and instability, peace in southern Sudan will not be secure.
The African Union has taken the lead in the search for peace in Darfur. It has provided 7,000 monitors and is sponsoring negotiations in Nigeria between Khartoum and the two main Darfur rebel groups. In July, the belligerents signed in Abuja a declaration of principles for the resolution of the war. It calls for democracy, federalism, racial and religious equality, the free flow of humanitarian aid, and the right of return for refugees.
The Abuja Declaration provides a sound basis for peace–but negotiations are moving at a snail’s pace and are in danger of collapse. The Khartoum government’s obstruction of humanitarian aid and its failure to disarm the janjaweed militias cast doubt on its readiness to negotiate in good faith. As for the increasingly divided Darfur rebels, they are stalling the resumption of talks originally rescheduled for August 24.
If the flagging Sudan peace process is not reinvigorated, the promising Abuja Declaration will remain a dead letter, and the danger of expanded conflict will increase. The United States has the means to complete the work of peace. It can do so by investing substantial political and financial capital in the success of the African Union-sponsored negotiations. The conflict in Darfur requires at least the same level of U.S. commitment as was successfully devoted to ending the war in southern Sudan.
Senator John Danforth, with his direct access to the Oval Office and vast experience in public life, played a crucial role in bringing peace to southern Sudan. His retirement has produced a diplomatic vacuum. The appointment of a senior statesman as a successor would enhance the U.S.’s ability to influence the principal actors in the Darfur tragedy. If President Bush does not keep Sudan high on his agenda, he runs the risk of a costly foreign-policy failure–costly for the Sudanese victims of genocide, and costly for American power and prestige in a volatile region.