U.N. Darfur Force Aims for Cease-Fire

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Stuart Price / AFP / Getty

Rwandan soldiers of the African Union Mission in Sudan in southern Darfur, 24 July 2007.

Anyone wondering whether the world's largest peacekeeping force will be enough to end the conflict in Darfur already have their answer — from the people who created it. The new force, a hybrid U.N.-African Union contingent, was approved by the U.N. Security Council Tuesday, and one of its key backers, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told the Council that the plan was to "achieve a cease-fire, including an end to aerial bombings of civilians; drive forward peace talks and, as peace is established, offer to begin to invest in recovery and reconstruction." Simultaneously, however, officials accompanying him were briefing reporters that the new force alone "can't solve the problem."

Critics will decry the fact that the U.N. has taken so long (four years and counting) to consider meaningful action, and even then to not do enough, but the British assessment reflects reality. The fighting in Darfur, which pitches Arab supremacist militias backed by the Sudanese army against Darfur rebels, has killed an estimated 200,000 people and left 2 million homeless. Against that, the U.N. has authorized a force of 26,000 peacekeepers whose mandate is limited to monitoring — but never seizing — arms, and which can only act defensively to protect civilians and the free movement of humanitarian workers. What's more, the force's command structure is a recipe for confusion: The U.N. will provide "command and control structures and backstopping," but day-to-day decisions will be taken separately by an African Union general. To be effective, peacekeeping forces need to be towering buffers too intimidating for the combatants to challenge; this one is barely knee-high.

The British and other Western powers are hanging their main hopes for ending the conflict on talks with Darfur's various rebel groups in Arusha, Tanzania, due to begin in the next few days. That appears a slim hope. For one thing, the rebels are a fractious bunch. On Monday, a new split was reported in the ranks of the hardline Islamic Justice and Equality Movement (J.E.M.) over who would represent them in Arusha. And even if they can agree a common platform, the Sudanese government still has to agree to meet them. Khartoum's preferred method of dealing with Darfuris can be guessed at by this week's announcement from the World Food Program that gunmen have attacked nine food convoys across Darfur in the last two weeks, as many as in the first five months of the year. Kenro Oshidari, the WFP's Sudan representative, refrained from identifying who might be stopping aid from reaching Darfuris, but said that as a result the WFP had been unable to reach 160,000 refugees in June, up from a previous high of 60,000 in March.

That's not to say there's an easy fix in Darfur. Resolving the conflict would require ridding the Sudanese government of its xenophobia in the short term, and, in the longer term, reversing climate change. (The Darfur conflict has its roots in the expansion south of the Sahara desert, which has pitched Arab nomads in competition with African-Arab pastoralists for ever decreasing fertile land.) Until it is fixed, however, Darfur will haunt the international community. Sometimes the U.N. isn't enough, as Rwanda demonstrated 13 years ago. The question is: What is?