This morning, Presidential Special Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios and Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno spoke at a Brookings Institution forum on the next steps for Darfur. Their remarks come at a critical time. Late last week, the Sudanese government and representatives of major international actors including the United Nations, the African Union, China, and the United States met in Addis Ababa to discuss the possibility of a hybrid UN-AU force for Darfur.The speakers’ comments were at once hopeful and distressing; hopeful because both officials saw progress in Addis Ababa, but distressing because of a rapidly closing six week time period in which to seize on this apparent progress.

According to Natsios and Geuhenno, during the Addis Ababa negotiations last week the government of Sudan signaled that they agreed in principal to the hybrid AU-UN force proposed by the Secretary General and endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 1706. As envisioned by 1706, the hybrid force would essentially be a joint AU-UN force that would support the political side of the peace process and offer more robust civilian protection than the AU is capable of doing on its own. It may also be a prelude to a full UN force called for by the same resolution.

Khartoum’s apparent willingness to consent to the hybrid force is a positive step, and according to Guehenno may portend a shift in Khartoum’s strategic thinking about the crisis in Darfur. For his part, Natsios offered praise for the Secretary General, “whose leadership really showed.” Natsios also complimented the Chinese for intervening at key moments and helping to keep the discussion positive.

However, as Geuhenno and Natsios repeated throughout the conference, the diplomatic window to sustain this progress is closing. On January first, the mandate of the 7,000 African Union troops in Darfur is set to expire. (Next week, the African Union will have a critical meeting do decide next steps for the force.) Also on January first, Ban Ki-moon becomes the new Secretary General. This will usher a transitional phase that may present challenges to UN operations throughout the world, including Darfur. Because of both these looming deadlines, Geuhenno and Natsios insisted that these next six weeks are of urgent importance and that Khartoum must take concrete steps toward making the hybid force a reality in Darfur.

We will know in six weeks if promises made in Addis Ababa were sincere. For the sake of non-combatants in Darfur, I certainly hope so.

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