It may be a joyous season in much of the world but there is precious little to celebrate for the people of Darfur.
On his way out of office as Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan sent Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a letter asking for approval which would lead to a so-called hybrid African Union- U N peacekeeping force. Bashir has been resisting the U N leader's efforts, so far without serious penalty from the international community.
What passes for diplomatic success these days is Bashir's agreement to make it easier for humanitarian aid workers to get in and out of Darfur as they go about the business of tending to the daily needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees who've been driven from their villages in the past three years by government-backed militias.
Andrew Natsios, President George W. Bush's Special Envoy for Sudan, met with Bashir for two hours during a week long trip to Sudan, requesting the Sudanese government's help to ease the movement in and out of Sudan for international aid workers. The next step, Natsios told reporters this week, is to see if authorities allow 60 U.N. troops and civilians now stuck in Khartoum to bring badly needed help to Darfur.
Another step to placate Bashir has come in the form a statement from the president of the U.N. Security Council reaffirming an agreement reached in November for the hybrid peacekeeping force. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared Natsios' efforts as having "moved…the ball forward" and she expressed "hope that there'd be a positive response (from Khartoum) and we will see."
This incremental diplomatic movement in a seemingly forward direction is less than sufficient for some. Eric Reeves, a researcher and analyst at Smith College, told CBS News "there is no stomach anywhere to confront this regime." Reeves, no fan of the administration's recent efforts, is critical not only of Natsios' efforts but also of the U.N.'s lack of action. He also criticizes what he sees as a lack of will on the part of China (oil interests in Sudan) and Egypt (Sudan's neighbor), two key power brokers on this issue.
"The world's hamstrung only if it allows itself to be hamstrung," Reeves said. "The U.S. has a fundamental choice: are we going to use what political and diplomatic capital we have with China on Darfur or on North Korea and Taiwan and other issues?" The Arab League, taking its cues from Cairo, Reeves says, has been "completely unhelpful." Washington, Reeves claims, is more interested in Egypt's help on issues like counter-terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and therefore doesn't press the Mubarek regime very hard on alleviating the suffering in Darfur.
As the Bush administration awaits Sudan's response to international calls for help, Natsios says to look for a new direction in the coming year if Bashir is not more cooperative. "I think making threats is not very useful, but we are going to take a different approach to this in January," Natsios said. "And there's a plan to do that, but I am not going to go into details."
Secretary Rice says the Bush administration deserves credit for helping to end the civil war between North and South Sudan which went on for more than 20 years. And Natsios points to an improving economic situation for the people living in South Sudan because of the peace agreement the administration brokered. Will it take another twenty years for a resolution of the increasingly desperate plight of those in Darfur, Sudan's Western province?
More than three years into this crisis, Reeves says "Let's be honest. The people in Darfur are poor, black, Muslim, remote and they don't sit on any resources. You can't get any lower on the geo-strategic pecking order."
No one would seriously argue with that description, but Natsios defends Washington's efforts: "The only interests the United States has in Darfur are around human rights and humanitarian issues. We have no geo-strategic interests there. We have no economic interests there. We have no diplomatic interests there; simply human rights issues."
How bad are things in Darfur now? Well, Natsios has visited the region many times and was supposed to go on this last trip. But he didn't because, by his own admission, "the province is in such trouble now in terms of violence, instability, and chaos, I couldn't get into the airports. Most of the airports were closed because there's so much fighting."
Well, let us hope there is joy in most of the rest of the world.