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Khartoum Bombs and the World Debates

Aerial Attacks in Darfur

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As part of its continuing effort to crush Darfur’s rebellion by attacking civilian populations purported to be supportive of the rebels, the Sudanese regime has again stepped up its aerial bombing campaign, the most definitive tactical advantage the government possesses. Because the regime continues to bomb indiscriminately and because frustrations deepen around glacial forward movement in the peace process and in deploying the proposed A.U.-U.N. hybrid force, voices from across the political spectrum are clamoring for some kind of action. President George W. Bush, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. presidential candidates, members of parliament and Congress in Europe and the United States, and advocacy organizations on both sides of the Atlantic have considered or called for the military enforcement of a no-fly zone.

This well-intentioned debate over the merits of militarily enforcing a stand-alone no-fly zone underscores the complexity involved in combining political, economic, and military tools to end the Darfur crisis and shines a light on the equally legitimate but sometimes differing perspectives of humanitarian agencies, advocates, and policy-makers.

What is necessary is to avoid debates that are colored by absolutes. The full range of tools available to the international community must be evaluated according to their effectiveness in halting atrocities, bringing about a lasting peace settlement, and alleviating human suffering pending that resolution.

The best means to influence Khartoum to end its pursuit of a military solution in Darfur (and to fully implement the peace deal it signed with southern Sudan) is through much greater international pressure, principally in the form of U.N. Security Council sanctions and robust diplomacy. The question this paper addresses is what form of pressure would most effectively influence the regime to stop using aerial bombardment as a part of its offensive military operations in Darfur. Ultimately, while the reasons so many advocate military enforcement of a stand-alone no-fly zone are understandable, and while the bombing problem is urgent, we conclude that military enforcement of a stand-alone no-fly zone is not the right approach, for the following reasons:

  • The implementation of a no-fly zone would likely trigger the regime to ground all humanitarian aid flights and embolden rebel factions to increase attacks, the latter wrongly believing the international community would be intervening to support their war objectives. This could create a severe humanitarian crisis, to which the inter- national community is ill-prepared to respond.
  • With no credible planning for a no-fly zone having been conducted anywhere, and a lack of political will to implement it, calls in support of a no- fly zone give Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir another propaganda tool to rally support for his regime in the Arab and Muslim worlds, while not bringing nearer genuine measures to suppress Sudanese bombing. 
  • With most attacks taking place on the ground by government-sponsored militia, former rebels under Minni Minawi that have joined the government, and a growing number of rebel factions, a no-fly zone would do little to deter the increasingly complex drivers of violence, an anarchic situation that is precisely the outcome Khartoum sought since 2003 with its divide-and-destroy Darfur strategy.
  • Other non-military policy options that we believe would work in changing the government’s calculations and thus improve the situation on the ground have not yet been meaningfully pursued (see ENOUGH Strategy Paper #2, “A Plan B With Teeth for Darfur”).

However, the Sudanese bombing problem is a real one that demands a response. There are non-military options that could give traction to the Security Council’s authorized but as of yet un-enforced ban on offensive military flights in Darfur: an initiative that would monitor, name, shame, and sanction violations of the ban.

There would be three elements to that initiative. First, observers from the African Union Mission in Sudan or United Nations should be present on all military aircraft and helicopters that fly over Darfur, with any violations to be reported immediately to the Security Council. Second, governments—such as the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and others with available technical assets—should undertake a coordinated intelligence surge to monitor any use of offensive air capacities by the Sudanese government.

Third, naming, shaming, and sanctioning would follow any infraction of the Security Council’s ban on offensive military flights. When a violation occurs, governments collecting the information would share it with the African Union, the Security Council, and the broader public. Naming, shaming, and sanctioning the Sudanese government for yet another violation of yet another resolution will not end the crisis immediately, but it certainly will make it harder for the government to conduct heinous air attacks in the cover of darkness, a strategy they have been exploiting for the last four and a half years.

The mission of ENOUGH, a joint initiative founded by the International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress, is to end crimes against humanity in Darfur, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, and to prevent future mass atrocities wherever they may occur. For more information, visit www.enoughproject.org

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