Tricky Darfur Peace Key to Regional Stability

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick speaks with Renee Montagne about his role negotiating peace in the Darfur region of Sudan. He says the process requires negotiators to work through a complicated tangle of rebel loyalties and mistrust. He says that peace in Sudan is essential for stability in sub-Saharan Africa.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In Nigeria's capital today, African Union negotiators are meeting in hopes of persuading two holdout rebel groups in Darfur to sign onto a peace agreement. That peace pact has been signed by Sudan's government and the largest of the Darfur rebel groups.

It's the best hope yet to end the carnage in Darfur, but protests over the weekend by supporters of the two smaller rebel groups suggest the deal could fall apart if all the factions don't join. The peace agreement calls for militias and rebels to disarm. It includes compensation for Darfur's victims, and allows rebel leaders to join the government.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Peace negotiations got underway in 2004, and began with a ceasefire that's been ignored by both sides.

One man who's been at the very center of diplomatic efforts is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. He's been in and out of Sudan and led a last-minute marathon session aimed at getting the deal signed.

When I spoke with Robert Zoellick on Friday, he explained by the administration has invested so much in getting this peace deal.

Deputy Secretary ROBERT ZOELLICK (Deputy Secretary of State, United States): Sudan is--many people may not know--is the largest country in sub-southern Africa, and it's got nine neighbors. And, in many ways, the problems of Sudan have great potential to spill over to neighbors, whether it be Chad or Uganda or others. So it's very significant, not only because of the terrible tragedy, the genocide in Darfur, but it's important in terms of overall stability in the region.

MONTAGNE: Can you explain--now that a peace agreement has been forged with one of the important--most important rebel leaders, can you explain why rebel leaders were so reluctant to accept a peace agreement that might end the fighting, which, after all, has left thousands--tens of thousands of their own people dead?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Yeah. The story of Darfur is a terrible and sad one, and it extends a number of decades back. This has left a great residue of distrust and fear. So it's a fragmented, fractured situation.

I'll be also frank with you: this is a very difficult place. I mean, there's money under the table, there's threats, there's all sorts of things that are going on with some pretty nasty players in the region. So all those factors come in and--along with simply the personal power politics of some of the rebels.

MONTAGNE: Among the rebel groups, are there bad actors?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Well, there certainly are. I mean, not only are there--there's rebel on rebel violence. But just to give you a flavor, there's one group called JEM that is a smaller group, has fewer people in the field. Most of its leaders tend to live in London. This is a group that's associated with a man named Terabi--it's an Islamic fundamentalist group--and frankly, their aims really go to settling some scores with the Khartoum government that may be significantly separate from the people of Darfur.

So I don't mean to understate the cause and complaint that led some of the rebels to take military action, starting in 2003. But you've got conflicts here that are related to Chad, one of Sudan's neighbors. You have tribal groups that cut across those borders. You've got Eritrea on the east also playing a role with some of this. You've got Libya playing a role.

So there's a lot of rumors and stories about whether some of the other north African countries and east African countries, to try to assert their own control over some of these figures, supply them, either with needs for their rebel movements or particular support for some of these individuals.

MONTAGNE: This Islamist leader that you mentioned--Terabi. Are there reports that he's connected to Osama bin Laden?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Well, he had been in the past. He now makes statements that sound like he has a different purpose. But to be frank with you, in this set of netherworld of individuals, you know, you have to sort of try to learn as much as you can, and you have to try to create incentives and disincentives for people to try to find peace and help their own people, but also not to be taken in. You've got to watch these people like a hawk.

MONTAGNE: Two years ago, the government and the rebels signed a ceasefire and then, what they called a comprehensive peace agreement, neither of which stopped the fighting. What gives you hope that this particular agreement would be more successful?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Well, first, the agreement is structured to try to create incentives for behavior. So, for example, for the government of Sudan to be able to eventually demobilize the rebels, the government has to first neutralize and disarm the Janjaweed, these armed horsemen that were so vicious. Similarly on the rebel side, there's incentives in terms of their political participation in the movement, and their eventual integration back into Sudan, including into the military forces, and one of the things that I worked on was to structure this in a way that they would feel safer in doing so.

But then, also, ending the conflict is only one start. For all the support we provided of humanitarian aid and security for these camps, that's just a holding action. You have to create the context for these people to return home and make the peace have a chance to work.

MONTAGNE: Where does a United Nations peacekeeping force fit into this, now that there's a peace agreement?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Mm-hmm. Well, this African Union force, frankly, really did yeomen's work in very trying circumstances. But...

MONTAGNE: But it didn't work.

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: ...they're not big enough and they don't have enough equipment to do--for example, they don't have the intelligence to know where to move quickly. They can be outgunned, so it's a need to, again, get the government and the rebels to stand down, but also strengthen the capabilities of this force.

But the other thing is that, in the meantime, because it sometimes takes a while for the U.N. to gets its force up and running, we need to do things to strengthen the African Union force. So, for example, we're in contact with Rwanda, which has some troops already in Darfur, and ultimately, the African Union force will be the core of the U.N. mission.

MONTAGNE: And would these NATO forces involve U.S. forces, too?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: I expect they would in small numbers, and these would be people that would work at some of the headquarters and help with the planning, the logistics, the transportation capabilities.

MONTAGNE: Some of the refugees in the camps have come close to rioting, even since this peace agreement has been forged; shortage of food is one reason. What's the most immediate value to them of this peace agreement? What will happen just in the weeks to come?

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: Well, part of it is food. The World Food Programme announced that it was having to cut rations to camps. The United States had provided some 85 percent of the food, but others had fallen short; and so we're actually--the president announced we're sort of putting ships at sea and moving them from one location to another to try to add to the food, and I think, since then, the European Union has stepped up its supplies. We're trying to get the food in before the rainy season really starts in force in June.

So we've got to get the food in, but for a time period, other than food and, I hope, some lessening of the violence conditions, it's still going to remain very tough for these people in these camps. It's a tragedy to see them.

MONTAGNE: Secretary Zoellick, thanks for joining us.

Dep. Sec. ZOELLICK: You bet.

MONTAGNE: Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is just back from helping negotiate a peace plan for Sudan's Darfur region.

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