Interview concerning Darfur

Reuters, 16 March 2005

Following is a transcript of Reuters interview (Opheera McDoom) with SRSG, Jan Pronk, on 16 March 2005.
Q: I wanted to just get an update on the security situation in Darfur. What exactly is happening down on the ground?
A: We are speaking now in mid-March. It is a bit more quiet at the moment since a couple of weeks already. Not completely and not in the whole of Darfur.
In western Darfur there are quite a number of difficulties at the moment because the Janjaweed militias have said that they will target now all foreigners and all UN humanitarian components. So we have withdrawn all people from certain parts to el-Geneina. And also the NGOs have been withdrawn to el-Geneina in order to find out to which extent that threat is real. But we can not give assistance in el-Geneina area outside of the el-Geneina camps.
In Jebel Marra, which is the mountainous area more or less at the border between western, northern and southern Darfur, there is ongoing tension. That is structural, that has been the case since September, between tribes, SLA which is having its stronghold over there and governmental troops. There is improvement at the moment in North Darfur as well as in South Darfur - around Nyala and el-Fasher. That is important to say because it was very bad in December until January over there and I do not know to what extent it remains quiet before the storm and I do not know to what extent we are going around in circles - that once the situation is very bad in one of the provinces and then a couple of weeks later elsewhere. So there is no structural reason at the moment to base a positive expectation on. But the number of clashes between the government and the SLA has reduced with the exception of the Jebel Marra activities. And the number of attacks by the militia on civilians has also reduced in southern and northern Darfur.
So the picture is mixed. It is a bit better in March than in December but whether it will be the same in April, I don't know.
Q: When you are talking about the Janjaweed in West Darfur, where did this come from - did you have contacts with the Janjaweed in West Darfur?
A: Yes, we have contacts of course and, at the same time, you never know exactly what is going on because our contacts with the militia in particular are not daily. Moreover they are adversaries of the people whom they are attacking and the UN and the AU are protecting.
However, what has happened around el-Geneina is the following: many attacks on convoys and on, in particular, trucks. Many have been taken and they said to drivers that they will take all of them. They didn't kill but that was a very clear warning. One of the reasons we have been told is the following: the government has given them in the past cars which they have to use to attack people in the villages. You put a gun on a small vehicle and you drive and you shoot. The government of course knows now that the Security Council is demanding from the government that some action against the militia has to be carried out. They tried in West Darfur. So they have said to the militia, “we want all these cars back”. It was a good step. And, of course, these people have said, “you don't get them back” and the government is now being seen by them as turning against them. Rightly so, the government has to turn against them. That is why the militias said, “and now we are going to threaten attack - every body, every foreigner”, and that is the reason why we have withdrawn the people to el-Geneina.
Q: When you are talking about the militia in el-Geneina, when I went to West Darfur people were saying who is the leader. Who are the people, who are these militias, what tribes are they from, who is the leader?
A: They are from different tribes and I don't want to name individual tribes and individual leaders because, then I accuse people. For me it is a group and to a great extent, to us they are anonymous. That is why I am also speaking to the Security Council about the kind of invisible hands, because who is responsible for the instructions being given. There are also people in Khartoum. That is why I am speaking about hidden forces; I don't mention names; I should see them first, and they have to be stopped. I approach officials in the government whom I ask to take action. Sometimes they take action - of course that is good - but of course action sees reaction.
Q: Also I want to get an update on the south. Some people suggested that because of the delay in the Security Council and of the delay in the SPLM in coming to Khartoum, tensions are rising again in the south. Isn't that a danger?
A: There is some delay. I am not too worried at the moment at this phase. The signing was on the 6th of January. They gave themselves a huge task, all those deadlines which have to be met. They were available to do so. The delay was to be expected. The question is: will that give rise to irreversible incidents? Fighting which can not be stopped, which cannot be monitored in order to act to stop it. That has happened on one location which worries me - in Akobo around three days ago, then it will be very difficult to stop it because we cannot monitor them so it can not be discussed in the official bodies which have been established by the Peace Agreement but which is not functioning. That worries me.
But it is still, I think, possible to contain that. In the rest of South Sudan, there is no uprising against each other - north and south. I have been to a number of places where people still expect peace to continue.
There is another worry of course and that is the fact that the course of the delay is also that the South-South Dialogue has also not yet even started. It is a very important issue because the SPLM/A who was at the negotiating table claimed to represent the whole of the population there. Clearly there are not two wings alone - there are other movements. They didn't talk with them substantively before the peace agreement; they want to do it after the peace agreement. That was their right; it has been accepted but it has not really come off the ground. Is SPLM to blame? Maybe partly. I think also the other units but I understand the other units because they were not at the negotiating table and that is a good start. And if that takes too much time you lose the political momentum of the peace agreement.
So these two issues do worry me but at the same time we can also say that discussion of the constitution is leading to something. They have also now decided to set up a joint team - north and south - they have got to meet here systematically in Khartoum. Both have also appointed already delegations in the joint team at a high level so they take it quite seriously - so there is a delay but not reversal.
Q: What do you think is causing the delay?
A: Capacity problems. You have to transfer a liberation movement with a military culture into a political movement. And of course they were negotiating alongside the military activities but that did not make it a political movement. Now they have really to become a political movement. That is not happening overnight. It has consequences in terms of structure, decision-making processes within such an organization and also the culture. That is one thing.
Secondly; they have not yet decided who is who. So there is a, what I might call, power discussion in the movement that is taking place. But anyway only with words, in meetings, so give them time to smooth up. These perhaps are the two important reasons.
I must say that on the side of the government there is no delay and no activities and that is positive in itself because we know that there are forces here in Khartoum who don't like the agreement. They have not been given a chance to destabilize and that is good.
Q: When do you expect the SPLM to come into Khartoum - have you heard any word about that?
A: I have regular contacts either directly with, for instance, Dr. Garang and some other leaders. I expect, firstly, I hope, a mandate for the UN somewhere towards the end of this month which creates also a new political situation. I expect the team also to start its deliberations here also in early April. They could have a constitution somewhere in May and they could have a government of national unity on the base of that constitution in June. That may mean that the government of national unity, because John Garang is the third Vice-president, can only be sworn-in on the basis of a new constitution. There could be an office in mid-2005, which is later - maybe three months later - than the original expectations would have been met, if no important irreversible consequences emanate from that, then nothing has been really lost.
Q: What about the UN reaction straight after your meeting with the rebels in Asmara? They came out with a statement saying that they were not going back to Abuja talks until the 51, the ICC proceedings are starting. What is your reaction to that?
A:You really see Sudan now as a comprehensive whole because you are up from Darfur to the south and now again to Darfur.
Well, I had my opinion. I am pleased with one element of that statement, namely the negotiation position - they talk. They see something happening; they take a decision, take a position - politically. They could have said, “we don't trust the international community because they, in their view, don't take seriously the reports, so we start fighting,”. They didn't say so. They said, “we have reason to lose our confidence in the international community to which we don't talk”. And that is different - political positions and negotiation positions. And I argued with them: “please use the political momentum; use all your political powers at the moment. You are politically stronger than you think”, and this is what clearly they are doing. In my view they take a wrong negotiation position because it is totally impossible that these people are going to be prosecuted and punished within a very short period. It is totally impossible. We are still working in The Hague on the prosecution of the perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia ten years ago. What they could have said, and what they, in my view should have said, was, “we will come to the negotiation table as soon as there is a start with the process, as soon as there is a decision by the Security Council on who is going to do what - which court is going to take care of the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry”. Start - that is important - if it starts then you get, at a certain moment, these people arrested, brought to court, defended at the same time in due process and possibly also indeed put in jail. That would give confidence and in my view it means the Security Council should take a decision soon. It is not responsible, in my view, to continue deliberating, always going to talk, because it means two things: perpetrators think, “we got away with the killings, we can continue”, and it also means that the victims, as represented by the rebel movements, will say we lose all our confidence because it is vague.
These are two negative consequences of a delay. So I am more worried about the delay in the Security Council on this issue than I am worried about the delay in the SPLM with regard to the implementation of the peace agreement.
Q: How likely do you think that the decision will go to the ICC?
A: I don't know. It is a decision of the Security Council. The Secretary-General has said that it should be the ICC and at the same time he has said also let us find a solution, take a decision very soon.
I don't know what the outcome will be. I made some suggestions - I talked with the ambassadors, of course I can not go into it - but the issue is: take a decision, find a compromise and find a consensus and compromise. All the information which I get from New York is they are as stuck as they were on the first of February. That is, in my view, not good, for the highest political organ in New York. They should be clever enough to find a compromise so that you have a breakthrough. They share responsibility. If you want to be member of the Security Council, help finding a political solution rather than a military one, than allowing others to go for a military solution somewhere.
Q: On Darfur, Jan Egeland came out with some comments suggesting that there could be as many as 180,000 people who have been killed in Darfur. Counting the death toll of Darfur is such a contentious issue with so many people citing different figures and government is saying it is much lower. What kind of figures are we really talking about here?
A: I came here on the 1st of August last year and then so much has happened nobody thought at the time to take action. The world was only sending people to give assistance at the time and the world was not willing to stop the killing. Nobody was sent.
The important thing is that after the first of August, that was when I was sent, the resolution of the Security Council of the 29th of July, Powell and Kofi Annan came here. Many people had been killed before that - I don't know how many as there were no international observers so it is guess work and any guess is good. And I think we should not underestimate the total number of deaths killed directly and also as a result of hunger, nutrition, being driven out of their homes many people have been killed.
The important thing is that after that the situation has improved a lot. We took about three months in the camps to really change the situation. Egeland was here a couple of days ago and he said it is tremendous how good the situation is in the camps at the moment. It is true. People are better off than in the villages where they came from in terms of nutrition, water and health for instance - not education. At the moment, the mortality in the camps is really not high and the killings, I said to you, in December-November were bad. January we had Hamada. The total number of dead people who were reported to us - and we have our sources throughout the whole of Darfur - as a result of the attacks and fighting amongst the parties is a couple of hundreds maximum per month. It is a very high figure but it is totally different from the past. So there is a change in trend. People are obsessed, rightly so, by the huge number of deaths in the past. Whether there were seven thousand or seventy thousand, it is a big rate. At the moment it is less important than the total number of victims nowadays and that is much lower - it is not low enough -but much lower. And it is lower because of two things: first; the huge humanitarian assistance. This has to continue because as soon as the international community stops giving finance for all the aid then again the toll will rise. The humanitarian assistance has helped a lot. And also the AU has really been able in many places to prevent killings. Still too many people die but the order of magnitude is totally different from the order of magnitude until August last year when we came.
Q: For surely it is important because we are talking about war crimes happening in Darfur, it is very important to know how many people are being killed.
A: Yes, but I am not counting. My task is to prevent new killings and not counting the death of the past. That is what had happened. The report of the Commission of Inquiry, they did the best they could, is now in the Security Council and there was mass killing, mass rape, mass terror, it has been awful in 2003 and 2004 and people have to be brought to justice whether they killed hundreds or tens of thousands - they have to be brought to justice for the deaths. The number is less important - they did it, were responsible and have to be brought to justice. People in the world should not think that it is continuing in the same way as it did in the past. There is a change.
Q: When it comes to mortality rates in the camps, what is preventing WHO from doing further surveys on mortality rates?
A: I would really like them to come. They made the survey in August and in my view it was a very good study. I know it was criticized - the authorities in Sudan - but it was a good study. I know something about it and I decided to study it for myself so I can check. These people are reliable; I think they are the best. Of course there were not numbers but sentences. The figure is important: 1.5 per 10,000 per day on average was dead against a population which was effective of more than 2 million people. That does lead to a huge number but that is not continuing at the moment. There was a very high figure which, for the month of June-July and part of August, could lead to about ten thousand in that month. And there were more in the past because already in that period there was some degree of intervention - it must have been higher before then but definitely there is a big drop. So you have to be careful, in my view, to use that figure as an average for a very long period. Of course it is a figure - which was an average - but the length of the period to which you apply the average is statistically extremely important. Moreover, you have to compare the total number of people dying with the total number of people always dying in extremely poor areas.
WHO did say that in that period the mortality rate was seven times as high as in comparable parts of Africa. That was due to the war. But only part of the total number of people dying was due to violence. In North Darfur it was 20%, which means 80% was due to malnutrition, lack of water, very bad health situations which were war-related. So Egeland is right when he says the total number of people dying in the past due to consequences of the war were higher than the number of people directly dying due to the violence. The number of people dying of violence was already very high so the total number of people can not be underestimated. It was a very high figure - a huge figure. That is why we have to speak about a mass violation of human rights. That is why these people have to be brought to court.
Another important thing is that the international community has to know that it helps if it gets in, if it sends in peace troops, it sends in humanitarian assistance and many NGOs. It does have a consequence.
Q: So what is stopping WHO coming in to be more updated?
A: I think they will like to do it on an annual basis as they did do it in August, June, July last year and I would like them to come back. I think it will be very wise for the government to invite them to do so because this outcome will undoubtedly be better, much better, than the original figures. They of course should be here completely independent. That, I trust, can take place because also the Commission of Inquiry could make their investigations without any interference. Also the government gets credit for this. Of course that is their duty to do so but also in practice it did take place.
WHO, I think, could be confident that the new study could really take place in a climate of security.
Q: Are they in talks with the government about coming back at the moment?
A: I don't know, I am not the government - there might be internal discussions in the UN system Geneva, New York ..
Q: So there are discussions?
A: I am not sure.
Q: What about the rebels' position at the moment on talks? Do you think they are intransigent, what is the situation on the ground from the rebel side?
A: The rebels were being difficult in terms of the raids in February - I think that is behind us. I went to Asmara and I saw the rebel leaders; they were united because they are interested to talk. And I told them as I said also to the government that it is important that your opponents are united because you need a strong power to get a good negotiation. If you have a weaker power then negotiation always will fail.
I have the impression also that they have made quite some efforts to improve relations between the political leaders in Asmara and the commanders on the ground; we have some evidence on that. They took that position which means that they are interested in talking. So I think there is some improvement.
They made it clear that they trust the UN and that is important. I told them please trust also the AU because they are doing a good job for your people on the ground and they are really the leaders of the talks in Abuja. They complain about the fact that there are so many fora at the moment - everybody wants to take an initiative and also individual African countries. That is good in itself but that leads to chaos. The Libyan initiative, the Egyptian initiative, the Saudi initiative, it is hardly possible for a movement such as SLM to service all these initiatives. Moreover, it always leads to a situation whereby you continue somewhere in a different setting - what is being said here is different from what is being said in another context. So I am making a plea which I did already in my Security Council talk in January, to cut up all these fringe meetings and concentrate fully on the strengthening of the official negotiations.
Q: Were Muni Arkoi Minawi and AbdelWahid both present at the talks you had?
A: Yes, I did speak with both of them at the same time and the same meeting and the atmosphere was good. We got some criticism in the meetings which I had in November last year. At that time I think we were able to take away all these misunderstandings. There is now trust - and that is important.
Q: What about disarming the militias? What has the government been doing in terms of disarming the militias?
A: Not much. This was a positive sign which I just mentioned - the position of the Wali in Western Darfur. For the rest - not much. They are organizing talks amongst the tribes to manage the conflict. That is important in itself. It happens to be started in South Darfur it is now also taking place in North Darfur. But it is now tribal-tribal and then tribal-militia. There could be more.
I have the impression that the appointment of Vice-president Taha is making a difference because he did go, on my initiative, to Darfur on a surprise visit. He took some decisions with regards to the authorities. Whatever his role has been in the past, at the moment he has a vested interest in improving the situation and getting peace and he means business at the moment. But it will never be possible, in my view, without a force of the AU or otherwise, to stop possible attacks by individuals or militias. That will have to be done both politically by the government in their talks and by military force from the AU coming together.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing that needs to be done in Darfur at the moment?
A: You can say it is a combination - it is a comprehensive approach that is needed, and that is important. First, a robust force. Two thousand is not enough; we need around eight thousand at least in order to create an atmosphere in order for the people in the camps to know that the force is going to stay for a couple of years so they could go back home and be protected. Certainly the government will have to take action - political and military - against the Janjaweed.
These three are the most important ones but they have to take place in conjunction.
Q: Do you think it is likely that the government will take military or political action against the Janjaweed?
A: Political action, yes. It is likely because nowadays they are so much under pressure. I do not know the outcome of the Security Council discussions. They are speaking about action instruments, sanctions, I don't know the outcome. But they feel the air and the pressure, that something is happening. But if they should only talk in New York and don't conclude anything it is fading away in Khartoum.
Military action against the Janjaweed, they have to do it and they didn't. It still remains to be seen to what extent their political action is being seen as credible.
At the same time, I think it is also important to separate the militia politically from their own tribes. Because the tribes do have a concern. What is necessary is that there is no support by the tribes for the atrocious action by their militia. This means also talks with the tribes - also with the Arab tribes. Bring in the Arab tribes to talks which never took sides neither with the government nor the SLA, and bring in also the tribes which do have militias that fight also on their behalf - separate them; show to these tribes that these people also have some legitimate concerns which have to be brought into the negotiation table.
Q: Do you mean bring them into Abuja?
A: I think what we need at the moment is informal talks because these people are not a party. So they are being represented by the government. They are units, citizens of Sudan. They have to be represented by the government and then the government has to show to them, if they really want to serve their interests on the condition that these tribes denounce their own military activities. That could be the way.
Q: Do you think the government is showing any willingness to take such corrective action against the Janjaweed or are they only doing it if pressured?
A: Pressure is necessary. Because some people of course in the government have a willingness to do so but their power positions is not very strong. You have to, through pressure, through diplomacy, through presence, change also the power balance within the government to give more credibility to those who want to get a solution.
Q: Why do you think the government is not willing or doesn't seem to be willing to take action against the Janjaweed?
A: Maybe, that is guess work, themselves lack a certain military or political capacity. May be they do not trust their own forces, if they would give instructions to their own forces to go against the militia. It is a complexity of possible reasons. May be the government is not fully homogeneous, that is also possible. I don't know, all these reasons may come together and any of the reasons may be dominant and that is why you need strong international political and other action in order to bring the government to the realization that there is no other alternative - they have to do it in their own interest. If they are not interested in their people - and we have many people here who are not interested in the population, some are, many are not - if they are not interested in the people then they should be, very rationally, interested in the state. And the state of Sudan can only survive if it is being seen also internationally as a credible state.
Thank you.