Oslo — Amidst reports indicating the imminence of another flare-up of violence in southern Sudan, Norway is among few European countries ready to contribute to a peacekeeping force.
Norway is committed to sending only about 170 specialist troops at present. That is a small fraction of a force of several thousand envisaged. But Norway has committed to key specialists for vital tasks. Its willingness to take a hand is also a political signal indicating the need to save Darfur from another conflagration.
As the United Nations negotiates hard to convince the Sudanese government to accept the world's largest force of UN troops in its war-torn Darfur region, Norway is making clear that its own contribution will only be sent with a robust mandate that allows use of military muscle to protect civilians.
"This goes for Sudan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan and pretty much anywhere we might send troops. We will only send them to participate in something we believe is do-able," Norwegian State Secretary Espen Barth Eide told IPS.
"There has to be a set of realistic resources related to troop strength, logistics, the security apparatus and so forth to help all the parties, such as the rebels, the Sudanese government, and particularly displaced civilians."
According to Eide's colleague, State Secretary Raymond Johansen, Norway has an important contribution to make despite the modest number of soldiers pledged.
"Our contribution has great value, as we are offering well-trained military personnel with extensive specialised expertise. We are not India or Bangladesh, in the sense that we are not contributing large numbers of soldiers, but we contribute vital expertise that is less available to others," Johansen said.
The UN is trying to convince the Sudanese government in Khartoum of the need for a so-called Chapter VII mandate with beefed up UN troops that have the right and capability to use force.
On Thursday the Security Council of the United Nations voted in support of a proposal to send 17,500 mainly African and Asian troops and 3,000 police to Darfur, making it the largest UN force in the world.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had earlier accepted the possibility of a force with a weaker Chapter VI mandate, which only allows for observation of a peace agreement signed May 5. The agreement did not include several rebel factions, and has been broken repeatedly by all sides.
However now al-Bashir is refusing to accept any UN force at all, strongly rebuffing the vote in the Security Council.
"As we know, certain elements in the Khartoum government are still sceptical and are expressing it in quite a clear way," Eide said.
"We and others have repeatedly told them that the UN will be committed to the territorial integrity of Sudan. Implications that the UN plan resembles what was done in Iraq by the U.S. are completely false. If Sudan looks at neighbouring experiences with UN assistance in countries such as Burundi or Congo, that should be evident."
A long-running Darfur insurgency exploded into rebellion in 2003, with brutal counterattacks by the Sudanese army and Arab Janjaweed militia causing massive displacement and civilian deaths. The government is accused of still supporting the Janjaweed, which continues to target civilians.
A 7,000-strong African Union peace monitoring mission has been beleaguered by recruitment problems and lack of finances. It has struggled to offer adequate protection to Darfur's civilians.
Eide believes the earliest date for a UN force in Sudan will be delayed until January 2007.
However, Johansen calls that date "an almost unbelievably optimistic scenario."
He told IPS that most international deployments by the UN take "at least" six months to materialise after first receiving a mandate..
Johansen called Thursday's Security Council vote "a positive first step".
He held a meeting with representatives from the EU, the UN, the United States and the Netherlands on Wednesday, discussing ways forward to break the impasse.
According to Johansen one participant described the current situation on the ground as going from "very bad to catastrophic", referring to Khartoum's deployment of new troops in Darfur.
The Sudanese government claims the soldiers will restore order. However, according to Johansen there are estimates that Khartoum's move can create an additional 100,000 new refugees on top of the two million that have already fled.
"The government in Khartoum is doing almost everything it can to prevent UN involvement in Darfur. Now it must realise the need to be cooperative and the need to receive help from the international community."
Norway's domestic debate has highlighted quite different questions about its ability to contribute to the UN force even with consent from Khartoum.
The promised contribution of an engineering and transport unit with 170 specialists has exposed the extent to which Norway's resources and personnel have been downsized in recent years.
Apart from a standing army of 2,200 soldiers, Norway's army now relies on no more than a few hundred compulsory military service personnel and certain other specialists. The plan is to increase the army strength to 3,350 by 2009, made of mainly elite forces that could be deployed at short notice.
With 480 mostly army personnel already stationed in Afghanistan, some in the military maintain that Norway simply does not have enough personnel to secure its interests at home, never mind on other continents.
"Our forces must be significantly strengthened to defend Norway's own security and control of resources, such as the 25 percent of global sea-based fossil fuel, fish and protein riches, that is, food and oil and gas resources that we lay claim to in our areas. Only then should we contribute to international operations," chief of Norway's Union of Military Officers Peter André Moe told IPS.
Moe says Norway needs an army of 4,500 to have a satisfactory local and international capacity.
"We can't always rely on back-up from larger international forces such as those of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in territorial disputes, as other countries interested in the same resources might also be members of such organisations. Conflicts of interest may arise," Moe said.
He nevertheless admits that Norway can commit personnel to Sudan in certain circumstances.
"Stabilising the forces at 4,500 personnel will take time. In the meantime we can contribute forces to Sudan for some years given that these are derived from suitable categories of expertise that will not endanger our domestic priorities. But it is a balancing act."
Eide is confident that those categories of expertise are available for the Sudan mission.
"Nothing undermines sending a robust company size engineering and transport unit. I have just visited army forces that are preparing very professionally. It is the variety of sources available to us, such as reserve officers and from construction, which makes me confident. We are focusing on skills, not size."
He said the larger forces will come from African countries, but it is important that the West shows solidarity, and contributes with expertise.
"Now there is a situation in the Middle East that needs to be addressed, but every time this region comes up Africa is forgotten. The recent elections in Congo have been mostly ignored. Millions have been killed in Congo and Sudan while the West has looked elsewhere," Eide said.
Chief of the Army Staff Major General Robert Mood has commented in the Norwegian media that he fears the domestic political consequences if Norwegian forces end up battling child soldiers in Darfur.
But Eide does not think this will be a major issue. He points out that most child soldiers in Sudan are located far away from Darfur.
"I think Robert Mood was trying to highlight ethical dilemmas in general. These will crop up everywhere we go. In Sudan one challenge might be how to distinguish between civilians and combatants without uniform," Eide said.
"An argument for going there is trying to make it better, it's not paradise now. That's why we are sending soldiers and not aid workers."