If everything had gone according to script in international politics, Sudan would have been on the top of the international agenda for most of the first half of the year 2011. The independence referendum in Southern Sudan took place from 9 to 15 January 2011 and contrary to most expectations the voting went down largely without violence and reactions to first estimates of the result, predicting over 90 per-cent in favour of independence, were accepted by the northern ruling party.
On July 9th 2011 Southern Sudan became an independent state and, immediately afterwards, the 193rd Member State of the United Nations. Fears in the run-up to the proclamation of independence were running high as many experts predicted the separation process would spark border conflicts in sensitive areas like the oil-rich region of Abyei at the border between northern and southern Sudan. Even though those fears soon became reality with conflicts flaring up in Southern Kordofan, Abyei and Blue Nile, the country was kept out of the headlines for most of the year due to the natural and nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, the victorious rebellion in Libya, the protest movement in Syria, and the financial crisis surrounding the Euro, to name just a few of the year’s top stories.
Yet, there would have been sufficient motives to focus on Sudan and its multiple conflicts in 2011. The Government of Sudan repressed any spill-over effects from the ‘Arab Spring’ quickly and efficiently in the first half of 2011, but nobody paid attention. Additionally, the Government of Sudan had started a renewed campaign of attacking, burning and looting African villages in perceived rebel strongholds as early as 2008. The attacks followed the familiar pattern of the Government of Sudan/Janjaweed offensive of 2004 and 2005, albeit with less intensity and some lulls during 2009 and 2010.
In 2011 the attacks have gained pace again since the UN Security Council was occupied with Libya and Syria during most of the year and the GoS once again aptly exploited this lack of international attention. The new offensive focused on the central Jebel Marra and Jebel Mun areas for most of 2011. At the same time Darfurian rebel groups (re-)unified under the umbrella of the Sudan Revolutionary Front in November 2011. The new rebel alliance also includes the northern sections of the Southern Sudanese government party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), as well as rebel movements from eastern Sudan unified under the Beja Congress umbrella. This latest development is of immense relevance for the Darfur conflict and the whole of Sudan for two reasons.
First, most analysts agreed that the fragmentation of Darfurian rebel groups was a main issue hindering efforts to solve the conflict. Today even the Sudanese Liberation Movement – Minni Minawi, the only rebel faction that signed the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in Abuja and supported the government in fighting rival rebel groups for the next couple of months after signing the DPA, has rejoined the alliance.Yet, rebel movements have made it clear that they currently have a very low willingness to negotiate with the government. In fact the Justice and Equality Movement just turned down another negotiation offer after its leader Khalil Ibrahim was killed in an aerial bombardment shortly after Christmas.
The second reason why this development is so important is the fact that Sudan’s conflicts will hopefully now be addressed in a comprehensive way. The overriding theme in all conflict areas, from eastern Sudan over the areas bordering Southern Sudan to Darfur, is the marginalisation of the peripheries by the centre. The international community and the Government of Sudan will have a difficult time further ignoring the skewed structure of the Sudanese state thanks to the emergence of a unified rebel movement across northern Sudan.
Despite these strong reasons to pay close attention to recent developments in Darfur media attention has gradually decreased. Darfur was in the media spotlight for most of 2004 and 2005, usually generating between 1,000 and 2,000 hits per month on newspaper databases and even around 4,000 hits in August and September 2004. In 2011 these figures have gone down to 800 to 1,100 hits, including articles on Southern Sudan that mention Darfur. Even the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir issued by the Kenyan High Court and the new ICC arrest warrant against the Sudanese Minister of Defence Abdelrahim Hussein did not change a lot about that.
It is not surprising that the ICC efforts to enforce its arrest warrants in the Darfur situation have not really advanced at all during this year considering the general lack of attention for the conflict. Yet, the conflicts in other regions of Sudan show that the ICC investigations remain relevant.
The same pattern of crimes committed during 2004 and 2005 has started again since 2008, even though on a much lower scale in Darfur. Yet, counter-insurgency tactics applied on the new battlefields in Southern Kordofan, Abyei and Blue Nile mirror those of the early Darfur conflict. This is hardly surprising considering that the Government of Sudan had already applied tactics relying on militias during the North-South war against Nuba and Dinka villages. Southern Kordofan’s Governor Haroun has already been indicted by the ICC for his role in Darfur in 2004/2005 when he was responsible for security in Darfur in the Sudanese Ministry of the Interior. Some human rights organizations claim that he is now again guilty of similar atrocities committed in Southern Kordofan.
The developments in 2011 actually show that the naming and shaming strategy adopted by the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC is important in times in which international attention focuses on other crises. Even though the Court’s work is limited to Darfur due to the wording of the referral made by the United Nations Security Council, the fact that similar crimes are committed by the same people in charge of the Darfur counterinsurgency in other regions of Sudan makes the ICC’s work in Sudan as necessary and current as it was in 2005.