Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted November 04, 2005 in Sudanese genocide
Barack Obama, blog on Darfur and the U.N. (July 22, 2005)

Darfur and the U.N.
Friday, July 22, 2005

On Friday, July 15th, I had the occasion to travel to the United Nations to meet with both key officials and the ambassadors of various countries in the hope of both educating myself and contributing to the debate about how to stop the genocide in Darfur.

It was a homecoming of sorts. I had lived in New York for five years while attending Columbia University and had actually worked across the street from the UN as a journalist for a year after graduation. But during my entire time in Manhattan, I had never actually entered the UN building. So it was both gratifying and sobering to visit the UN for the first time on an issue of such importance.

This is an issue that troubled me since reports first emerged and one that I pledged to work on during my Senate campaign.

The situation in Darfur, despite a reduction in violence, remains dire. According to the U.N., 2.9 million people in Darfur and Eastern Chad have been impacted by the conflict. There are over two million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) in the region, and as a result, numerous refugee and IDP camps are present throughout the countryside. (Refugees are individuals who have crossed an international border, while IDPs remain displaced within their own country). Humanitarian organizations are providing much-needed food aid to the 2+ million people in the camps and elsewhere, but over the long-term, this situation is not sustainable and the international community must work towards a viable solution that will let the IDPs and refugees return to their homes and lands without threat of violence.

In addition to the severity of the crisis, what impressed me most was the passion of Illinois constituents from across the state in demanding that we not make the same mistake here that we made in Rwanda in 1994.

Our first meeting was with the Acting Permanent Representative for the U.S. Mission, Anne Patterson. Although currently shorthanded, (she is the only ambassador out of five slots that are normally filled), Ambassador Patterson represents the best of the Foreign Service, with extensive experience in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Our discussion began with a general look at UN reform efforts and then turned specifically to the US commitment to halting the killing in Darfur as well as the broader multilateral efforts to broker a peace between the Sudanese government and the rebel factions in Darfur that will ultimately allow the 2 million IDPs and refugees to return to their homes.

Ambassador Patterson emphasized that as a consequence of the intensive efforts of Former Special Envoy and UN Representative John Danforth, the United States was hopeful that the new coalition government between the predominantly Arab government in the north and southern peoples led by John Garang would hold and form the basis for a more comprehensive peace throughout the country. She also emphasized that the United States was highly supportive of the African Union's deployment of peacekeepers in the Darfur region and emphasized US willingness to provide logistical and airlift support for the African Union (AU). But she recognized that there could be limits on the capacity of the African Union.

After the initial briefing from Patterson, I met with the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland. A native of Norway, Mr. Egeland is an energetic and passionate advocate for humanitarian efforts around the world and his assessment of the situation in Darfur mirrored what I had heard from most of the experts that I spoke to previously - that although the massive killing had abated, the situation of the IDPs and the refugees was unsustainable and rendered them extraordinarily vulnerable to future attacks, as well as starvation and disease. He also noted that although there are 11,000 humanitarian workers on the ground in Darfur, in the absence of a political agreement and significant security assurances, these 2+ million people possess no tools for long-term self-sufficiency. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the meeting was a map that Mr. Egeland passed out showing the scope of the IDP problem. There are over 10 IDP camps within Sudan with more than 100,000 people, as well as scores from other camps with between 10,000 and 75,000 people.

It was with this knowledge that I then met separately with Ambassador Erwa, Permanent Representative from the Sudan and Ambassador Wang, Permanent Representative to the People's Republic of China. To Mr. Erwa, I delivered a blunt message that the genocide that has taken place is unconscionable and that status quo - 2+ million internally displaced people and refugees who remain vulnerable to rape and murder - is simply unacceptable.

In the short term, I said in unequivocal terms that Khartoum should do the following: halt the Janjaweed militias; agree to a tougher mandate for AU troops or an expanded "Blue Helmeted" peacekeeping mission in Darfur; allow the AU access to verify that Sudanese offensive military aircraft are not entering Darfur; and cooperate fully with international efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the genocide.

I also stressed that, over the longer term, the Sudanese must not engage in any more attacks or facilitate Janjaweed attacks on the citizens of Darfur. Moreover, it is not enough that the large scale attacks stop - the government of Sudan must continue to negotiate with the rebel groups to find a viable political solution to the problem. I made it clear that these negotiations must be serious and on an expedited timetable - we cannot wait decades for this situation to improve and people to return to their homes.

As expected, I got no firm commitments from Ambassador Erwa, but I emphasized to him that Senate terms were six years long and that I would do everything in my power both in the Senate and as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee to keep the spotlight on this issue.

My meeting with Ambassador Wang was important because of China's role in supporting the Sudanese government. China now receives a sizeable portion of all its oil imports from Sudan, has been the primary bankroller of the Sudanese oil industry and is their principle protector on the Security Council. I indicated to Ambassador Wang that as someone who believes that the US and China can work together on a number of issues, I would hope that China would use its influence to press the Sudanese on coming to a political accord and reigning in the Janjaweed militias.

Following these two meetings, I had lunch with the Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno and Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Gambari. Both men were extraordinarily prescient, and it was a reminder that despite some of the ongoing problems of mismanagement and ineffectiveness in the United Nations, there are people at the top of the institution who are extraordinarily qualified and very passionate about the issues at hand.

What was perhaps most striking was Under-Secretary Guéhenno's acknowledgement that in a country the size of France, significantly more troops will be needed to stabilize the country. His hope is that even as the African Union countries ramp up their capacity as a regional force, other nations continue to provide resources and supplement the African Union force with bilateral and multinational resources necessary to stop the killing.

This conversation informed my meeting with the African Union troop contributors. Representatives from Rwanda, Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, South Africa, Chad and Kenya were all present and we had a frank and honest discussion about the steps we need to be taking in Darfur.

The African Union effort is in many ways groundbreaking - an effort on the part of the African countries to create a sustained joint military capacity that can intercede in regional conflicts and humanitarian crises. My message to them was simple: the US is rooting for their success, and I for one believe that more resources need to be given to them. In exchange, these countries need to use these resources wisely, manage them with transparency, and be accountable for them. Certain AU nations also need to show restraint in what have been reports of playing rebel groups against each other for short-term strategic interests.

Later, when I returned, I was able to work with other Senators in drafting an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that would provide an additional $50 million to the AU Mission in Sudan. This amendment was attached as part of the annual Foreign Operations Appropriations bill which passed the Senate earlier this week. It is my hope that this additional funding will enable the AU to rapidly increase their presence throughout Darfur, leading to a further reduction in violence.

I wrapped up with a meeting with Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to Secretary General Kofi Annan. Secretary Annan was in the hospital recovering from a shoulder surgery, so unfortunately he could not meet with me. Mr. Brown has a reputation for being a no-nonsense, highly capable and thoughtful leader at the UN. He emphasized not only his commitment to the Darfur issue but also his recognition that broader issues of UN reform had to be resolved if the UN was to continue to serve a vital role in averting these crises in the future.

On my way out from Mr. Brown's office, I walked past the hall of flags and the Grand General Assembly Hall. I recalled standing in the hall earlier in the day during a brief tour and seeing the names of all the countries represented there. I thought about the crises that had been averted when the world came to together to act. I also thought about crises that accelerated as a consequence of the failures of countries to find common ground.

I thought about the tragedies and conflicts, the hunger and deprivation, but also the hope and promise and courage that were represented and given voice to in that hall. I can't say for certain that my visit had any impact on what takes place inside the United Nations, but I hope that my sustained efforts over the next several years can help tilt the balance in places like Darfur in favor of those who believe in a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in this world.

Category: Sudanese genocide