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U.N. Envoy to Darfur Discusses Continuing Crisis

March 6, 2007 at 5:12 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The killings in the Darfur region of Sudan were the focus of reports today by the U.S. government and at the United Nations. Despite international attention and concern over the past four years, the conflict continues between Darfur rebel groups and the Janjaweed militias backed by the Sudanese government.

Hundreds of thousands have died, and more than 2.5 million are refugees.

In an annual survey of global human rights practices, the State Department today called the genocide in Sudan “the world’s worst case of abuse.” And at the U.N., the special envoy for Darfur reported to the Security Council on the situation there.

Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson has been the U.N. envoy since December. Last month, he traveled to Sudan and met with the Sudanese president and rebel leaders. He joins us now from the United Nations.

Welcome to you.

JAN ELIASSON, Swedish Diplomat: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you briefed the Security Council today. What did you tell them about the situation on the ground?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, I told them that it’s a critical situation on the ground. We have a crisis of humanitarian operations. We have harassment of U.N. personnel and the NGO community.

There’s increased tribal fighting, which has less to do with the government and the Janjaweed, the movements.

But one piece of good news is that the aerial bombardments in the north have ceased from the government side and also attacks from the movement, so there is some piece of good news, but generally the situation is critical.

I flew over Darfur. I saw the camps. I saw the deserted villages. And we need now to really move on the political front to try to deal with the basic issues.

A need for negotiations

Jan Eliasson
U.N. Special Envoy for Darfur
We are talking much about peacekeeping, but we always must remember there has to be a peace to keep.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, your appointment was described by the new secretary-general as, quote, "an attempt to reenergize the political process." Last year there was a peace agreement. Clearly, it did not lead to peace. What needs to be done now politically?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, we need to bring the government and the movements to negotiations. The government has opened up for a discussion on amendments to the agreements that you referred to, and the movements are unifying their positions right now.

Salim Salim, the African Union negotiator, and I pushed the government and pushed the movements to now move onto these negotiations so that we can deal with the basic issues. We are talking much about peacekeeping, but we always must remember there has to be a peace to keep.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the question of a U.N. force going into Darfur, there's been a lot of mixed signals from President Bashir. He seemed to agree to it at one point in November; more recently, he said the force was not necessary. I was reading today of a letter that he apparently has written to the U.N.

You met with him. What is the status of this now?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, we have an agreement in principle with the government of Sudan to increase the force in Darfur. You know, it's only 7,000 African Union soldiers there. And the area is bigger than France or Sweden, for that sake.

So we need to increase that force. And we have taken the first step. And we expect now to take the second step, which could lead to improvement and enhancement of 3,000 to the 7,000. And then we hope that a third stage will be taken. So we are waiting for that confirmation, and then have an additional 3,000 people come into Darfur as soon as possible.

But I repeat: There has to be a peace to keep. At the same time, we have to continue this political track, these negotiations that Salim Salim and I are now conducting.

A 'window of opportunity'

Jan Eliasson
U.N. Special Envoy for Darfur
We hope...that the different movements take advantage of this window of opportunity and move to talks. If we miss this opportunity, after four years of fighting, we are faced with an enormous tragedy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, on the political front, the State Department report that I cited in our introduction, it really minced no words about the role of the Sudanese government in the genocide. So how do you re-energize this political process, when it seems clear that the government itself is still part of the killing?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, we have said, when we left, Salim and I, that we now expect the government to take steps. We can't just wait for these promises to be kept of a political solution and distancing themselves from the military solution.

So we said that the best way to prove that we are serious is now to stop the hostilities, cease the hostilities, and to improve the situation on the ground for the humanitarian community. So we have the finger on the pulse now to see whether we will see that improvement.

And we hope, also, that the different movements take advantage of this window of opportunity and move to talks. If we miss this opportunity, after four years of fighting, we are faced with an enormous tragedy, and even a breakdown of the humanitarian operations, and a new type of fighting which I didn't know was developing so quickly, namely, tribal fighting, new groups of fighting that are fighting each other.

Calls for sanctions

Jan Eliasson
U.N. Special Envoy for Darfur
The solution lies with the Sudanese, of course, but the international community is part of the solution. And we have to accept this responsibility. Now is the time to push to finally finish this enormous tragedy.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you know, though, there have been many calls for the U.N. and the international community to take stronger action, now. Various kinds of sanctions have been proposed. Do you support that kind of action?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, I am there to revive the political process. I reported today about the modest progress that we are making, the expectations we have on the parties to live up to their commitments. We hope that they realize that this is an opportunity for them to take advantage of.

I understand, from the members of the Security Council today, that there is a certain impatience. We have been waiting long enough for solutions, and the secretary-general has also expressed to President Bashir and to the other parties that we need to have a settlement.

I think the Security Council today wants to give this political attempt a good chance, but I also notice that the patience, in some cases, was limited.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of a good chance? I mean, is there a breaking point at which sanctions or further steps would come into play?

JAN ELIASSON: Well, I think, if we see now that they are preparing themselves for negotiations, and if we see that they are reducing the level of violence, ceasing the hostilities, and if we see that they're improving the situation with the humanitarian community, then I think we will see that there is hope for a political process.

If those signs don't come, if the different sides don't show this readiness, then I'm very worried about the future of Darfur. I saw so much suffering, and we have all in the international community suffered with the Darfurian people and the Sudanese people. And we have to find a solution now.

We have opened up a political track. It's an opportunity; I hope everybody grasps it.

Also, there's a reason also to be worried about the regional implications. This crisis is moving into Chad. And by that, we have an even greater responsibility for the Security Council to maintain international peace and security.

The solution lies with the Sudanese, of course, but the international community is part of the solution. And we have to accept this responsibility. Now is the time to push to finally finish this enormous tragedy.

'Everybody has to act'

Jan Eliasson
U.N. Special Envoy for Darfur
We have now, therefore, to mobilize on all fronts. And everybody has to act, both nationally, regionally and internationally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you though, briefly, just as we end here, you're just coming into this now. You've got a chance to talk to all the sides. Four years after this started, why does it continue?

JAN ELIASSON: It's such an enormously complicated situation. You have fight about grass. I even saw desertification physically from the air. You know, eight to 10 kilometers of the area is turning into desert by the year. And there's fight for land.

Then, of course, there's the use of the Arab and the African elements by different groups so that you bring in an ethnic factor. You also have a domestic political scene, which is pretty complicated. And you have regional implications. We have the Chad factor. This is one of the most complicated situations that I've ever dealt with.

We have now, therefore, to mobilize on all fronts. And everybody has to act, both nationally, regionally and internationally. If we miss this opportunity, I'm extremely worried. We are on the verge of a failure of the whole humanitarian operation, of course.

And with this tribal fighting, this tribal fighting that goes on, also about the new land which has been set free, so to speak, by the refugees that have left, we are creating conditions for another phase of this conflict.

And therefore, it's with great seriousness that I report to you today that this is an opportunity that the parties have to take and that the international community has to support.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jan Eliasson is the U.N. special envoy for Darfur. Thank you very much.

JAN ELIASSON: Thank you for inviting me.