U.S. advocacy groups concerned about Sudan are calling on President Obama to reverse course on his administration's strategy for dealing with the crisis in the Darfur region and conflict between the north and south. In a letter to the President this week, the advocacy groups called the current approach "fundamentally flawed." In an interview, two prominent leaders of the campaign, John Prendergast and Omer Ismail, both part of the ENOUGH Project, explained why they disagree with the administration's approach and what they believe U.S. policy towards Sudan should be.
Q: What are your points of disagreement with the way this administration is handling Sudan? Is your criticism focused specifically on Scott Gration, the retired major general who is the President's Special Envoy to Sudan?
Prendergast: We feel there is serious diversion between the rhetoric we heard from President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton, when they were candidates last year for president, and what is happening on the policy today. This is not a personal thing. i think Scott Gration is extremely hardworking. We just disagree with the tactics and need to speak clearly and publicly about the criticisms and also about alternatives. We don't want to be destructive; we want to be constructive.
Q: What is your assessment of the current situation on the ground?
Ismail: In Darfur, the humanitarian situation has worsened, especially since 13 organizations were thrown out (by the government). The situation in the South is deteriorating. This is the plan of the government of Sudan - that is to disturb whatever the south is focused on in terms of the coming elections and the referendum.
Q: You're referring to the upcoming elections in Sudan, scheduled for April 2010, and the 2011 referendum, as stipulated in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government in the north and the rebel movement in the south?
Ismail: Yes, after the CPA the government of Sudan found a break. They took the army and concentrated on Darfur. What is frustrating is, after seven months with all the rhetoric of the campaign, nobody is doing anything close to what they have promised they were going to do. After the U.S. presidential election, they were shaking in Khartoum. Very nervous! But nothing happened. Now, they're emboldened because there's no coherent policy. General Gration is trying his best. But you need people who really know Sudan, who engaged through the years.
Q; How would you redirect policy?
Prendergast: it's great that Obama administration has seized on Sudan. We're not saying 'Obama ought to care'. He cares! His administration is working hard. We're saying there needs to be a united, all-Sudan, holistic policy. On the north-south issue, the administration is pursuing a policy of de-facto re-negotiation of the CPA by revisiting the terms of how to implement each of the specific points and giving lots of room for the National Congress Party (which controls the government in Sudan) to delay and obstruct each decision leading up to the referendum. We think the opposite ought to happen.
The CPA is a very solid deal, and we ought to build a coalition of countries that would hold either party responsible for disrupting, undermining, or not implementing provisions of that deal. That means if you don't meet the time-lines for introducing legislation and passing legislation for the election and referendum, if you provide arms to ethnic-based militias in order to attack neighboring communities to create the impression of an ungovernable South - whatever the violation is, there would be consequences.
On the Darfur process, and Omar can elaborate because he's been involved, we think the Obama administration is helping to support with energy a process that has failed. They're going around meeting everyone. but they don't produce a proposal. They need a very clear proposal to take to the IDP camps (for internally displaced people), to the refugee camps, to civil society groups and rebel factions, and say:, 'This is our first draft, react to that. And here's our clock. It's ticking. And if you don't, there will be consequences.'
You create momentum toward some kind of solution. Instead, they're spending tons of time trying to reconcile the rebels. These guys are deeply divided. They have all kinds of allegiances. Khartoum is showering money on people who are willing to be part of the government and fight against the JEM and SRA and other factions. You need to start pushing a specific proposal and build international leverage to support a solution. That's a different approach than the Obama administration is taking.
Q: Don't you have to reach agreement with the rebels to stop the violence and isn't it a problem that they are so splintered?
Ismail: They are going to be a problem. However, is gathering them in one place necessary? We can have tracks - building the approach to peace, like John said, and, at the same time, work on minimizing the differences.
Q: So how does this move the process forward? Won't there still be resistance by the parties that fear they will lose something by agreeing?
Prendergast: You build it [and] they will come. Build it on the basis of the substance. After all these years of [diplomacy], there is no lack of clarity about what Darfurians want. You get a technical committee to help shape what general aspirations exist into specific codifiable provisions, and get the show on the road. What are we waiting for? Omar and I have taken seven or eight trips into Darfur since the genocide began in 2003. I am utterly appalled by that situation.
Q: Coming back to your current efforts – the advertising campaign, the letters. How do you hope this will influence the policy process?
Prendergast: We want to spotlight the divergence between the words of the Obama administration and their actions. We'd like to see Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, Vice President (Joseph) Biden, and Ambassador Susan Rice, raise significant objections to the directions that policy is going. We want to see some alternative ideas introduced into the picture.
Q: Are you also working to recreate the grassroots activity on Sudan that was so effective in focusing media and Congressional attention on Sudan during the past decade?
Prendergast: People had high hopes [following the election]. After they saw the champions of the anti-genocide movement in Congress get jobs in the administration, they were like, 'Wow, what are we needed for anymore?' Now, we're seeing a re-gathering of citizen sentiment and activist actions and, in a fairly united way. Activist groups are retouching with those constituencies and But it's going to take time to rebuild after this interregnum.
Ismail: Some are angry. We are saying don't be angry. It's not personal. We're not attacking the administration. We have policy differences. We have differences in looking at the same issues. We want a different policy approach.