On Darfur, Obama Offers Carrots, Sticks To Sudan

U.S. Special Envoy J. Scott Gration i

Scott Gration, the Obama administration's special envoy to Sudan, tells NPR that the new U.S. policy on Sudan is "based on positive, verifiable things we can see on the ground." Abd Raouf/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Abd Raouf/AP
U.S. Special Envoy J. Scott Gration

Scott Gration, the Obama administration's special envoy to Sudan, tells NPR that the new U.S. policy on Sudan is "based on positive, verifiable things we can see on the ground."

Abd Raouf/AP

The Obama administration's new Sudan strategy signals an interest in reaching out to a regime that Washington has mostly tried to isolate during the past six years of conflict in the ravaged Darfur region of western Sudan.

But in announcing the strategy on Monday, Obama used the term "genocide" to refer to the violence in Sudan and said that he would renew tough U.S. sanctions on Khartoum.

"If the government of Sudan acts to improve the situation on the ground and to advance peace, there will be incentives," Obama said. "If it does not, then there will be increased pressure imposed by the United States and the international community."

The results of the seven-month policy review suggest that the Obama administration is trying to change the dynamic in one of Africa's largest man-made humanitarian disasters by walking a fine line between engagement and punishment.

The Darfur conflict has been going on for six years, and United Nations estimates suggest that as many as 300,000 people have died and some 2.7 million more have been driven from their homes there. The fighting began when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in 2003.

U.S. officials declined to specify what kinds of incentives or additional sanctions might be on the table, but said they plan to regularly evaluate whether or not the Sudanese government is taking concrete steps toward ending the conflict in Darfur and to fight terrorism.

"This new strategy is not based on words," Obama's special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration told NPR in an interview on All Things Considered on Monday. "It's not based on agreements. It's based on positive, verifiable things we can see on the ground."

The Obama administration also wants Sudan to fully implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a two-decade civil war between north and south Sudan. The deal calls for a crucial referendum in 2011 in which southern Sudan will vote on the possibility of secession.

Many human rights activists, who were worried that the Obama administration might be too conciliatory toward the government of Sudan, cautiously welcomed the new direction.

"There is an incredible disappointment on the part of those that expected the administration to come out from the early days and set a new tone," says John Prendergast, a Sudan expert who co-founded Enough, an anti-genocide activist group. "What this policy statement does is get us heading back in the right direction."

In a particularly significant shift from the Bush administration, the new Obama strategy makes it clear that cooperation on counterterrorism efforts by itself is not enough.

"It must be clear to all parties that Sudanese support for counterterrorism objectives is valued, but cannot be used as a bargaining chip to evade responsibilities in Darfur or in implementing the CPA," says a new strategy document released by the State Department.

The Sudanese government tentatively welcomed the new strategic direction, with one official telling reporters in Khartoum that there are "positive points." The official welcomed a policy of engagement, but said that it was "unfortunate" that the Obama administration continues to use the word "genocide" to refer to events in Darfur.

One of the thorniest issues for the Obama administration is the question of war crimes, and particularly the status of Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in March for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has denied all charges, but remains in power.

Some activists had feared that Gration would push for a softer line on Bashir in order to make progress on other issues. But the new policy does not appear to make any concession on Bashir's status.

"We must have accountability and justice as part of the solution," Gration told NPR. "We understand that is the only way we can get a lasting peace."

The shift on Sudan is also significant for what it says about Obama's interest in issues on the African continent. When he came into office, there was intense speculation that as the first African-American president, Obama would place a new emphasis on Africa, but other issues have dominated the first eight months of his presidency.

Many activists are watching to see whether Obama will now take an active role in Sudan diplomacy.

"We need to see substantial personal involvement from President Obama," says Jerry Fowler, president of the activist group Save Darfur. "His presidency is the game-changer here. His ability to influence is the game-changer here."

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