By Quang Trinh
From 2003 the Darfur conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, long before the fallout of Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan. In 2004, Jan Egeland, the Under-Secretary-General of the UN for Humanitarian Affairs, described the situation as “ethnic cleansing.” The conflict that arose between rebels and government-backed Janjaweed militias over the treatment of non-Arabic ethnic groups in Darfur has displaced up to 2.7 million people and pushed 300,000 Sudanese refugees into neighboring Chad.
Recent estimates during the Syrian refugee crisis put the average cost to host one refugee to be roughly $3700 a year. Adjusted for inflation, the cost that Chad had to bear each year would reach 900 million dollars, around 20% of the state’s total GDP. While the reality of Chad dedicating a fifth of its production to refugees seems far-fetched, two implications stand out. First, no matter the actual cost that Chad spent on the Darfur refugees, the amount of financial strain on its economy would be substantial. Second, Sudanese refugees are also likely to be living in poor conditions with significant impact on sanitary and health among many others.
The question now is what the international community could do to alleviate this crisis. The US, EU, and the African Union started the diplomatic processes in 2005 that culminated in the Darfur Peace Agreement. Despite the provisions for the sharing power and a referendum, they proved not to be enough for some rebels. The lack of control over arms meant that conflict resumed. In 2008, the ICC proceeded to accuse al-Bashir of war crimes in Darfur among many others. However, the prosecution would prove to be futile as Sudan did not recognize the ICC.
In 2011, an even more elaborate attempt as the West, the African Union, and Sudan’s Arab allies came together with the Doha Agreement. With more concrete dialogue between the government and the rebels, things seemed to turn to the better. Once again, the resolutions emphasized power-sharing and the issue of arms limitations, counting on the good faith of both sides. Unfortunately, by 2014, the Sudanese government has reinstated the Janjaweed militias into the region. In 2016, Amnesty International released compelling reports of the use of chemical weapons. Darfur was once again a battlefield.
What went wrong?
The violent aspect of Darfur came from the difficulty in controlling the means to perpetuate violence, i.e., weapons. The Sudanese government under de facto dictator Omar Al-Bashir maintained unchecked power to execute the war at their discretion. On the other hand, the rebels allegedly received arms from their African allies, including Chad and Libya. As the Sudanese government denies the entry of UN peacekeeping forces to the region, it remains impossible to police the use of force meaningfully.
While this violent aspect at least provides some forms of solvency in terms of arms limitation, the ethnic aspect proves to be formidable. While some wars might be a conflict over material resources such as land or oil that are qualitatively divisible, there is no such division in ethnicity. In other words, fighting for one’s ethnic groups means fighting for the highest concession, i.e., sovereignty, with little value in gaining a partial victory.
On top of these setbacks, one must ask the relevance of the role of aid in conflict resolution. While the political logic of ensuring peace before granting aid has sound reasoning, the possibility of using aid as a tool to alleviate the conflict might be equally compelling, given the poverty in the region, as well as the dependence on the arms trade.
In particular, while Western states have been eager to ensure that diplomatic processes took place, there has been surprisingly little cooperation in terms of foreign aid by the international community. While the US, EU, and UN have separate programs to support the area in conflict, the lack of cooperation could limit the scales that aid could have achieved.
The sobering reality of Darfur should provide a point of reflection for the ongoing horrors in Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria, among others. Dialogue and diplomatic means can only go so far to bring a halt to a conflict. But, they are no match against the underlying forces of ethnic tension, unaccountable control of arms, and structural deficiency in welfare. Darfur is a reminder of the limitations of diplomacy, but it should not be a discouragement; the future of South Sudan or Yemen relies in part on our understanding of Darfur.