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June 7, 2006

How Can War Be Prevented?

Living Room Dialogue with Maggie Ray

The question for the evening was "How can war be prevented?" and our guest was Maggie Ray, a program assistant at the International Crisis Group (ICG). Since Maggie most recently has been immersed in researching and writing about the crisis in Darfur, that issue became our focus for the evening as an example of how ICG goes about its work."

Participants had many questions for Maggie: Just who is fighting who in Darfur? What is the difference between "black Africans" there and those "Arabs" who have been recruited into the marauding Junjaweed that we hear about on television? What does the ICG do there? What are the chances for the end of the fighting?

Maggie explained that the conflict in Darfur began in 2003 as a rebellion by the indigenous "black Africans" against the central government based in Khartoum. Although Sudan has wealth from oil and other resources, only the area around Khartoum has been developed and the Arab elite there control power tightly, leaving the rest of Sudan deep in poverty. The rebels in Darfur demanded that some of the revenue from the sale of resources be used for development in Darfur and that they be represented in the government.

The Sudanese government responded by attacking the village base of the rebels, bombing villages and funding the Junjaweed to enter the villages, kill people and drive them away. The Junjaweed have been drawn from a nomadic people who are also black, also poor and also live in Darfur but are usually referred to as "Arab" because they migrated to Darfur from the north long ago. They have been under increasing pressure because spreading deserts produced by global warming have reduced the amount of land where they can find food for their animals. Some of these "Arabs" were recruited into the Junjaweed by the central government, which promised them land if they would get rid of the villagers. This is not an ethnic or tribal conflict. All parties are Muslim.

The Junjaweed have been very successful – Between 250,000 and 400,000 people have been killed and around two million displaced.

As a result of pressure from the U.S. and others in the international community, a treaty was signed last month between the central government and one of two rebel groups. It calls for wealth and power sharing, unifying Darfur, disarming the Junjaweed, and setting up a Darfur-Darfur dialogue in which people across the region will discuss how they can live together. The rebel group that did not sign the treaty refused because they did not trust the government to fulfill its obligations. In addition, they felt the amount of compensation allotted to victims was insufficient, wanted a stronger role in the government and wanted to be involved in disarming the Junjaweed.

At present, the African Union is the only peace-keeping force in Darfur, with just 7,000 soldiers to police an area the size of Texas with few roads. The situation is dire – already meager rations to the refugees were cut in half two months ago. The United Nations is sending an assessment team soon and will send a peacekeeping force to support the African Union if the treaty goes forward. However, the central government has already violated the terms of the treaty and must continue to be pressured by the international community and especially by the U.S. if there is to be a resolution.

If the treaty can be agreed upon and enforced, the Darfur-Darfur dialogue should be a key piece to aid in reconciliation among the parties and to help build civic competence.

The ICG aims to defuse conflicts by providing information and advocacy to contending groups and to the international community. In the case of Darfur, field representatives have met regularly with people in the various groups to gather information. Reports containing that information and recommendations for action are forwarded to key officials in various countries and at the UN. ICG's assumption is that information is one key to conflict resolution.

In answer to a question about the effectiveness of this, Maggie said that last July ICG called for a NATO intervention in Darfur until such time as the UN could become involved. UN peacekeepers are not permitted in a wartime situation, but are restricted to monitoring a ceasefire. At first no one paid attention to this recommendation, but by November it had become the conventional wisdom that NATO forces should be asked to go in. This is an example of the way that ICG's advocacy can be effective.

ICG has 25 offices in or near conflict zones where field representatives "talk to everybody." Most intense involvements presently are in Africa and Asia. Advocacy offices are in Washington, DC, London, Brussels, and Addis Ababa. Funding comes from governments and large foundations. In answer to a question about how bias is kept out of reports, Maggie said that the report-writing process is very collaborative, with each report reviewed by eight people.

Participants agreed that Maggie had given us an excellent briefing on Darfur. Leslyn Rigoni, our hostess for the evening, commented afterward that she "had never learned so much in such a short time."


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