Misanet.com / IPS, 5 March - The Sudanese government has accepted a revised US proposal guaranteeing the protection of civilians in the country's 19 year old civil war with the hope of reviving peace efforts that were suspended last month.
The bombing of civilians has been the major sticking point in its negotiations with US peace envoy for Sudan, former Senator John Danforth. Danforth visited Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, last month but was unable to get the Sudanese government to agree to halt aerial bombardments of southern Sudan.
Sudan's government denies targeting civilians in its war against rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). It accuses the rebels of using schools and hospitals as a cover for their military forces. Soon after Danforth's visit, a Sudanese government helicopter fired at a UN food distribution centre in the south, killing 17 civilians.
Sudan's government later said the attack was a mistake. "Our position is very clear. We are not at all targeting civilians," says Mohamed Dirdeiry, Sudanese charge d'affaires in Nairobi. "What happened, happened by mistake and mistakes are happening everywhere. Even in situations where people are not using crude weapons like ours or outdated technology like ours."
But the frustrated US announced it was suspending its peace efforts until such attacks stop. Sudan's government has now agreed to stop bombing civilian targets as part of a revised US proposal, which also protect civilians from abuses by the SPLA. It says the new proposal is more balanced than the earlier one - which was only aimed at the government.
- We have made it very clear to the US that we are for cessation of aerial bombardment, says Dirdeiry. "But once the aim and the goal is protecting civilians from all types of risks, to single out only aerial bombardment is totally unfair."
- We have also to speak about shelling which is mainly undertaken by the SPLA, he says. "We have also to speak about laying of landmines. We have also to speak about using civilian facilities by the SPLA as military facilities. If we are having in hand a global proposal which is speaking about protection of civilians, not only stopping aerial bombardment, we are ready to go for it," Dirdeiry says.
The proposal also contains a concession sought by the government, calling for the "necessity of refraining from using civilians as human shield." The government says rebels are often putting civilians in harm's way to cover up for their military actions.
Now that Sudan has agreed to Danforth's proposal, Dirdeiry believes the peace process can move ahead. "I think that was the only obstacle we were having. And right now, once we have removed that, this means that we have cleared the way for sitting together with the rebel movement and the US in order to reach a comprehensive settlement," he says.
But the US government is more cautious. "Obtaining a signature to an agreement is not our primary objective in this exercise," it said in a statement released Tuesday. "The history of Sudan is strewn with agreements and commitments that have never been implemented. The only way to break this vicious cycle is for the parties to the conflict to live up to their word and for international monitors to confirm compliance on the ground."
The US government is focusing on the establishment of an independent verification mechanism to monitor incidents of intentional attacks against civilians. "What we want is for the parties to the conflict first to honestly commit themselves to stop attacking innocent civilians. Once we have this commitment, we want the parties to agree to establish a viable mechanism that will allow us to determine if the parties are doing what they said they would to protect the lives of innocent civilians," the statement says.
Southern Sudanese rights groups also have reacted sceptically to the government's latest concession. They charge that it is a face-saving mechanism in response to the widespread criticism triggered by last month's attack. "The government of Sudan has developed a certain level of political education. They use a system of white lies to get people to listen to them," says Father Dominic Otwari of the New Sudanese Indigenous NGOs Network.
- Today it says they are going to protect the civilians, he says. "Tomorrow they are going to wipe out the civilians in order to get the land for oil. Maybe they fear the U.S. government is going to help the SPLA, that is why they are playing politics."
- Khartoum knows that by releasing that statement it will quieten the people who are concerned, adds Acuil Banggol of the Federation of Sudanese Civil Society Organisations. "But they are not genuine because their policy is actually to wipe out the population of southern Sudan." Banggol says; "They are not ready to negotiate. They are not honest. It is only when they come under pressure that they go for that (make concessions)."
- It's public relations, he adds. "With the mounting public opinion and awareness about what is happening in the war zone, they want to appear to be good. When the international community thinks that we are okay, Khartoum government will continue to strike."
- They mean it when they attack civilians at food distribution sites. They want to disperse them. They want to terrorise them so that they don't come to die in the eye of the international community. They drown, they go and live in the swamps - and they continue to bomb them there even. In our culture you cannot put a goat with a hyena. Khartoum says it is going to protect us. Protect us from what? From themselves? he asks.
The latest conflict between the Arab Muslim north and the Christian African south, who make up about 35 percent of the country's population, heightened in 1983 when Khartoum imposed Islamic Sharia (Laws) on Africa's largest country. Since then, more than two million people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the fighting.
By Katy Salmon, IPS