The Darfur Consortium

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Minority rights, early warning and conflict prevention: lessons from Darfur

Minorities in Darfur and the imperative of prevention

In May 2006, the government of Sudan and one faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA) signed the Darfur Peace Agreement. This was two years after United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, marking the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide on 7 April 2004, stated that reports from Sudan filled him with foreboding that a similar tragedy could happen in Darfur. Since then, the number of displaced civilians has risen from roughly 900,000 to 2.5 million, up to 300,000 more civilians have died, and an untold number of women have been raped.

Rejected by another faction of the SLA and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Peace Agreement has failed to unite the war-torn and politically fragmented Darfur society. The Darfur peace process brought together only the armed groups involved. The exclusionary nature of the talks, disquiet over the key terms agreed, the ongoing insecurity and the fact that only one group signed up have all made the Peace Agreement deeply unpopular amongst the people of Darfur. Especially dissatisfied have been women and civil society (who were minimally involved in the negotiations), and the majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, who bear the brunt of the ongoing conflict.

The longer Darfur's conflict goes on, the more complicated is the task of ending fighting, resolving grievances and rebuilding lives and communities. Initial rebel demands for development and security have become far more politically complex. Groups have splintered and realigned, complicating peace-making. Nascent peace talks in eastern Sudan have been affected and the conflict has spilled over into Chad. Some aid agencies have suspended relief operations due to insecurity. In August 2006, an alarming rise in women raped in Kalma camp, Darfur's largest IDP camp, was reported. The government army, Arab janjawid militias and SLA fighters loyal to Minni Minawi, recent adversaries, were also reportedly coordinating attacks on hold-out rebels and civilians, and fears were voiced by the UN and others that a new 'scorched earth' campaign was being prepared.

Darfur has revisited political controversies over international intervention in conflict. While the success in referring Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) may have a valuable legacy, Darfur will also be remembered as an instance when debate over use of the term 'genocide' was in many ways a distraction, (1) and a time when the authority of the UN Security Council – in requiring the Sudanese government to disarm janjawid militias since September 2004, but failing to enforce this – was compromised. Insufficient support given to the African Union (AU) in its inaugural 'peacekeeping' mission amidst an active conflict has led to a failure to protect civilians in Darfur. Finally, the financial cost to date of the international response to the conflict dwarfs annual assistance to all of Sudan in any year prior to its outbreak. (2)

Preventing or substantially mitigating Darfur's devastating conflict in its earliest stages would have avoided huge costs in terms of human life, financial burden, destabilization beyond Sudan and damage to the reputation of the UN and the AU. The full value of prevention cannot be reckoned. We should use hindsight carefully, yet what was (or could have been) known, and what was (and should have been) done, demand our critical reflection.

As with most civil wars, this conflict in Darfur came after a long period of waves of violence. Minorities in Darfur were for decades pushed closer to the brink through marginalization, insecurity and under-development. Yet armed conflict on a massive scale was not inevitable: at every turn, the choice to fight had to be made and resourced; non-violent alternatives had to be discounted. The neglected plight of minority groups in the region was central to this trajectory – and to an understanding of how and why violence became and continued to be the dominant expression of grievance and state response.

The potential for major armed conflict was predictable since the 1990s, and certainly evident by late 2002. However, the situation received only limited international attention until 2004. This study shows there was a mixture of partial knowledge and inaction in the face of escalating human rights violations and insecurity. While it is widely recognized that 'prevention is preferable to cure', Darfur joins a long catalogue of conflicts where this wisdom has failed to produce meaningful early preventive action.

The aim of this study is to learn from the Darfur conflict and provide insights as to how better incorporation of minority rights can strengthen the work of institutions mandated with conflict early warning and prevention. Since the late 1990s, early warning and conflict prevention have become high-priority areas for multilateral organizations and, at the highest levels, there is growing political will for more effective institutional approaches. Recent efforts to enhance long-term 'structural' and more immediate 'operational' conflict prevention are encouraging, but a requirement for multilateral institutions to act as part of a 'culture of prevention' remains elusive.

There is a strong link between oppressed and marginalized minorities and contemporary conflicts, and conflict prevention needs to be geared towards addressing (often less visible and less 'strategic') minority issues. This is a particular concern in Africa, where discrimination against minorities is often present alongside other structural preconditions for conflict. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) emphasizes that while acceptance of the term 'minority/minorities' is contested in Africa, the prevalence of non-dominant distinct ethnic, linguistic or religious groups who are marginalized or discriminated against by the state presents a compelling reason for their recognition and protection. (3) The minorities in Darfur discussed in this report include ethnic groups which, although they are not necessarily numerical minorities within the region, satisfy this definition on the basis of their non-dominance (4) and experience of rights violations.


This report is based on the author's interviews with Sudanese and international staff involved in Darfur and conflict prevention, conducted in Sudan and Nairobi in 2005, and in Europe and the United States in 2006.

(1) The US declared that 'genocide' was occurring in Darfur on 9 September 2004, but the focus remained on continuing to require the government of Sudan to fulfil its obligations, whilst also pushing for a full international investigation: see Powell, C. 'The Crisis in Darfur', written remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 9 Sept. 2004. In January 2005, the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur determined that, while the government of Sudan was responsible for crimes under international law, 'acts of genocide', but not genocide per se may have been committed.

(2) Between early 2004 and mid 2006, recorded humanitarian assistance surpassed $2.5 billion, and the AU peacekeeping force had cost upwards of $500 million to January 2006. The costs of recovery and reconstruction, and a planned UN peacekeeping mission, will greatly increase this figure.

(3) Slimane, S., Recognizing Minorities in Africa, London, MRG, 2003.

(4) The essential elements of deciding who is a minority (and therefore should benefit from internationally recognized minority rights) are: (1) objectively, that a linguistic national/ethnic or religious group exists; (2) subjectively, that individuals choose to define themselves as members of a particular group – the right to self-definition is crucial; (3) when such groups exist, that they are in a minority situation and lack power to decide their own affairs.



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