The conflict in Darfur is not short of publicity. Politicians and celebrities regularly jet off to the troubled region in western Sudan in hopes of bringing an end to a long-running war. So far, battles there have claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million people.
But despite the worldwide concern for what many believe is a genocidal conflict, a peaceful resolution still seems far off, as Pope Benedict XVI underlined in his annual message to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.
Speaking to 175 assembled diplomats Jan. 8, the Pope noted that the international community “has seemed powerless for almost four years, despite initiatives intended to bring relief to the populations in distress and to arrive at a political solution.”
The Holy Father added that “only by active cooperation between the United Nations, the African Union, the governments and other interested parties will these methods achieve results.”
The conflict is being fought mainly between the Janjaweed, a militia group recruited from the camel-herding Arab tribes, and several ethnic groups in the region. Its causes are complex and include environmental calamity, political opportunism and regional politics.
Sudan’s Muslim government, while publicly denying that it supports the Janjaweed, has provided arms and assistance and has participated in joint attacks with the group, systematically targeting ethnic groups.
The Church, through the Sant’Egidio lay community of Rome, has been actively seeking a resolution to the conflict since it started in 2003. The community, renowned for its success in resolving a long-running civil war in Mozambique in the 1990s, managed through a series of workshops for rebel groups in Rome to bring the warring sides to peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria.
Now, Sant’Egidio is continuing its efforts by working closely with rebel groups, the African Union, the European Union and the U.S. State Department.
“The problem is coordinating our efforts, preventing overlap and trying to work on the side of the rebel movements,” said Vittorio Scelzo, who is leading Sant’Egidio’s peacemaking efforts. “We are now talking to rebel leaders individually, seeing if it is possible to find a common position.”
Scelzo told the Register that the challenge is trying to dissuade the warring parties from searching for a military solution, and trying to help the rebel groups to unite. Division among the rebels was the main reason for the collapse of an accord reached in Abuja in 2006.
Scelzo said Sant’Egidio is considering restarting its mediation workshops, but at the moment it’s uncertain if representatives of the rebel groups are available to participate.
Sant’Egidio’s approach to conflict resolution is careful and meticulous. The mediation team meets with each side, and brainstorms about possibilities for making progress.
By so doing, the mediators can determine whether the time is right to enter negotiations.
Failure to obtain a green light from all sides for such negotiations can impact the entire process negatively, so the community prefers to disclose little while it is engaged in mediation and may arrange secret meetings.
Scelzo explained that the Pope and Sant’Egidio want to highlight the Christian interest in resolving the Darfur conflict, which is primarily being fought among Muslims. The catastrophe there is not about religion, Scelzo said, but peacemaking efforts are a testimony to interreligious cooperation.
“Some extremists related to bin Laden are asserting that the war is part of a strategy of Islam to expand Muslim influence in central Africa,” he said. “But this is not an issue related to religion, it’s a political question related to marginalization.”
Diplomats in Rome praise Sant’Egidio’s efforts, even though the Abuja accord was later rejected by two smaller rebel groups.
“Their work in securing that agreement two summers ago was very helpful,” said a diplomat, who on instruction of his superiors cannot be named. “What makes Sant’Egidio so effective, and you could see it in Abuja, is that they say, ‘Listen to us, we’re not a foreign government, we don’t want to plant a flag in the negotiations, we only want peace.’”
The diplomat said the rebels took that to heart and so came to trust the Christian peacemakers.
The hope now is that Sant’Egidio can again instill confidence among the warring parties and further the chances of securing a lasting agreement. But to do that, they’ll need plenty of external support.
“Sant’Egidio can do a million good things,” said the Rome diplomat, “but if there’s no firm resolve from the international community, there cannot realistically be a lasting peace.”
Edward Pentin writes