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Special Envoy Bill Frist?

Color me skeptical about Congressman Frank Wolf's nomination of former Senate Majority Bill Frist for President Obama's special envoy to Sudan. The letter from Congressman Wolf to President Obama (in full below the fold) just landed in my in-box.
I have written Secretary of State Clinton urging the appointment of a high-caliber special envoy to Sudan. Today I echo that call to you, with the specific request that the appointment be made in a high-profile event, which makes it clear to the world that the envoy has your ear and speaks with your authority. I ask that you appoint former Senate Majority leader Bill Frist as this special envoy.
Even when he served in the Senate, Dr. Bill Frist continued his surgical practice, travelling to Africa yearly on medical missions, including to Sudan. He boldly emerged as a leader in declaring what was happening in Sudan to be genocide, and co-authoring the bipartisan Sudan Peace Act. Senator Frist is truly passionate about the people and future of Sudan and in the tradition of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell he is respected across the aisle.
Don't get me wrong, Bill Frist was a key leader in the Senate on Sudan issues. And Frank Wolf (a Republican) along with Donald Payne (a Democrat) were two of the earliest champions of Darfur in the House of Representatives. Still, I find this proposal a bit off. An effective special envoy generally requires two important features: 1) diplomatic experience 2) access to the president. It strikes me that former Senator Frist possesses neither. Meanwhile, this bit of intrigue would suggest that the administration is close to settling on a Darfur strategy.
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What the Warrant Means

Read this excellent and very thorough report, hot off the presses from the Enough Project. The bottom line: the warrant has the potential to be a real game changer in Sudanese politics by strengthening more moderate elements. The paper explains in great detail why this is so, and advises the United States and the international community on what it must do to seize this opportunity.
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The President of Sudan to be a Wanted War Criminal

Well, it's happening. Finally. And amen. I said most of I wanted to say about how the United States should respond in my American Prospect piece but there is one key point worth making--so key, in fact, that I will put it in italics. If handled with the proper diplomatic touch, this warrant will make peace in Darfur and Sudan more, not less, likely. Others disagree. They argue that the ICC is an impediment to peace because it gives Bashir little incentive to work with the international community. The problem with that line of reasoning, though, is that it ignores the fact that Bashir was never a credible partner for peace. This is because from the start of the conflict until today, Bashir never faced external political pressure sufficient to budge him from an unrelenting hostility toward international efforts for peace in Sudan. The ICC warrant is such a critical development because it gives the international community a chance to change this prevailing political dynamic. It is a brand new tool to with which to pressure Bashir. One specific way this warrant can be used to good political effect is in support of the rapidly crumbling Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which Bashir signed in 2005. The CPA was a peace agreement between the central government and southern Sudanese rebels (not Darfuri rebels) but it nonetheless paves the way for the democratic transformation of Sudan. The problem, though, is that the central government has not lived up to its obligations under the CPA--and is working to undermine national elections called for by the CPA later this year. (Check out this report from the International Crisis Group, which explains how the central government is using armed proxies to change the demography of key regions to gain electoral advantage.) The international community--and by that I mean mostly the United States, western countries and the Security Council--suddenly has a new tool at its disposal to press Khartoum into taking credible steps toward the full implementation of the CPA. And if Bashir does demonstrate a new found commitment to the CPA, the Security Council can --as it is wont to do under the ICC's charter -- suspend the warrant. To make this work, the United States needs to make the ICC warrant central to its Darfur diplomacy. This means pressing as many countries as possible to pledge to support the warrant, including countries that could be considered Sudan's allies in Africa and the Arab world. The more isolated Bashir becomes, the more willing he may be to strike a deal. I imagine that this kind of utilitarian view of the ICC may make some of my friends in the human rights community somewhat uncomfortable. But for now, I think the overwhelming priority for all of us who are concerned about Darfur should be peace. Accountability can come later. The international community needs to take advantage of the golden opportunity that just landed on its lap. UPDATE: This landed in my inbox from the ICC: "Following press articles published today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) wishes to inform the media that no arrest warrant has been issued by the ICC against President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan. No decision has yet been taken by the judges of Pre-Trial Chamber I concerning the Prosecutor’s application of 14 July 2008 for the issuance of such a warrant." I guess we'll have to wait just a little bit longer. Photo from Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo
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Muhajiriya Update

I wrote yesterday about the dire situation of Muhajiriya, South Darfur, in which 196 peacekeepers were the only thing standing between Sudanese government forces and 20,000 civilians huddled around a UN base there. The town has since fallen. Speaking to VOA, John Norris of the Enough Project thinks Khartoum's assault on Muhajiriya was a "test" to see how the new American administration will respond.
"It's clear that the Sudanese government right now is testing the fence, as it were. Obviously, President Bashir is increasingly concerned by what looks very likely like it will be an arrest warrant handed down by the International Criminal Court (ICC), probably as soon as this month. And I think that they are hoping to escalate pressure, not only on the United States, but on the international community, to strengthen their hand and make the at least theoretical case that perhaps, an arrest warrant should be deferred," he said.
Meanwhile, a Darfuri living in the United States relays to UN Dispatch stories of renewed fighting elsewhere in Darfur.
While rightfully all attention is concentrated on town of Muhajiriiyah, other towns and villages around Muhajiriiyah (especially those on the path of [government] and Janjaweed forces) are witnessing atrocities and massive displacements of civilians: 1- Stories of looting, mass graves (family of 9 including father and mother are killed) in the village of Graidah. 2- Massive exodus from town of Labado towards Nyala, south Darfur. 3- Massive exodus from Shiriiya and villages around it towards Nyala and some headed to ElFasher (Capital of North Darfur). 4- All the above mentioned Towns and villages have seen continuous aerial bombardment since Friday.
It's clear that the Sudanese government is genuinely worried about the forthcoming ICC arrest warrant. I've been writing about Darfur since 2004. There is a tension and apprehension in what's happening there like I have not seen in a very long time. I'm pretty nervous myself.
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Pay Close Attention to this Darfur Crisis

Any day now, the International Criminal Court will issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Bashir. In preparation, Sudanese Government troops are massing outside of a town in south Darfur. The only thing standing between 20,000 civilians and the government troops are 196 lightly armed UN/AU peacekeepers. I know people’s eyes sometimes glaze over when they see some combination of the terms “humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.” But there is real urgency to what is unfolding. It could easily turn into a blood bath in the coming days--which in turn can call into question the credibility of the entire UN/AU peacekeeping effort in Darfur. Here’s the backstory: Muhajiriya is a town in south Dafur which is located at a strategic crossroads that connects some of western Sudan’s main thoroughfares. Until Wednesday the town was held by a Darfur rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The UN, though, negotiated the withdrawal of JEM forces from the town (which were, in any case, no match against the government forces.) By securing the JEM withdrawal, the UN took away the government’s ostensible reason for sacking the town. The peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, is now trying to negotiate a no-fire zone around Muhajiriya. There is a ticking time bomb, though. In the coming days, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al Bashir. When this happens, the town--peacekeepers, civilians and all--may come under attack. The Sudanese troops outside of Muhajiriya are essentially holding 20,000 people in the town hostage; if the ICC warrant comes, the hammer will drop. This is an incredibly tense situation. UN Ambassador Susan Rice had strong words for the Sudanese government yesterday. But advocacy groups like the Enough Project are warning that unless the United States sends Khartoum the clear message that reprisal attacks will not be tolerated, a Srebrenica like situation may unfold. I agree. 20,000 lives hang in the balance.
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Urgent Need for US Leadership on Darfur

The Enough Project team sees a Srebrenica-type situation threatening to unfold in Darfur.
One hundred and ninety six peacekeepers from UNAMID, the joint AU/UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, are stationed in Muhajiriya, a rebel-held town of 30,000 in South Darfur. The government of Sudan has requested that UNAMID withdraw these troops, as it masses its military forces outside the town and uses airpower to bombard nearby camps for displaced persons. Thousands of civilians have gathered outside the UNAMID base in Muhajiriya, just as thousands gathered around similar bases in Rwanda and Bosnia. Khartoum's intention is clear: a full-scale assault on Muhajiriya regardless of the cost to civilians. Given UNAMID's mandate to protect civilians, it would be nothing short of a shameful capitulation for the UN to abandon its post or to allow the Sudanese government to militarily extort the suspension of the International Criminal Court case against President Bashir through these actions.
The international community, and the Obama administration, now faces a crucial moment. It can abandon 30,000 civilians to state-sponsored violence, or it can embrace its responsibility to protect and make sure that Muhajiriya does not become the next Srebrenica. Rather than withdrawing, UNAMID must immediately reinforce its presence in Muhajiriya, and the United States must spell out specific consequences for the Sudan if it does not immediately cease aerial bombings and abandon its plans for this offensive. This is a clear attempt by Khartoum to test the resolve of the Obama Administration in its early days, and the response of President Obama and the UN will determine the fate of thousands of Darfuris.
I would not worry about "shameful capitulation" by UNAMID. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon sounded the alarm on the situation in Muhajiriya today, affirming that peacekeepers will not back down from their mandate to protect civilians there. Also, peacekeeping doctrine has undergone profound shifts in the wake of the 1995 Srebrenica tragedy to insure that those types of situations will not be repeated. Enough is spot on, though, in calling for American leadership on Darfur. We are already two weeks into the new administration and we still do not have a sense of what their Darfur strategy will look like. As the unfolding situation in Muhajiriya show, time is not on their side. Meanwhile, the tense stand-off at Muhajiriya is but one manifestation of the uptick in tensions that is linked to the forthcoming International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudan President Omar al Bashir, widely expected to be handed down in the next couple of weeks. As I wrote in a recent American Prospect piece, the correct response to these threats is for the Obama administration to fulsomely embrace the court and give the arrest warrant its full diplomatic backing.