The Common Good
February 2008

Web Exclusive: Gayle Smith Interview

by Gayle Smith | February 2008

Full Interview with Gayle Smith

Gayle Smith is co-chair of the Enough Project, which works towards ending genocide and crimes against humanity. A Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Smith previously served in high-level positions at the National Security Council and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Smith was based in Africa for over 20 years as a journalist covering military, economic, and political affairs. Sojourners assistant editor Elizabeth Palmberg spoke with her on November 11, before writing Aiming at Headlines for the February 2008 issue of Sojourners.

Smith speaks about the ongoing genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, and about the earlier, separate situation in southern Sudan, where the Khartoum regime had developed its divide-and-conquer strategies and its use of proxy militias. The conflict in southern Sudan was halted when united international economic and diplomatic pressure, in which the Bush administration was instrumental, prodded Khartoum into signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005 (an agreement which is now threatened by Khartoum’s renewed intransigence).

Sojourners : Please say a bit about how many diplomats we have on the ground now [in the Darfur area] and how many diplomats it would be good for us to have, and exactly where in the Darfur area, what that would look like.

Gayle Smith : In the case of Darfur, what we’ve done, or what the administration has done, is appointed an envoy, but he’s not full-time and he doesn’t really have staff. And I think there are two things that are critical. One is to have some sustainable surge capacity on the diplomatic side, so that for example when it looks like the time is prime for peace talks, you’ve got the ability to grow the number of diplomats in the field and have somebody who can be engaging with the government, extensively going around talking to all the rebel factions, and also, importantly, talking to the civilian population, rather than the kind of drive-by diplomacy which is what we have.

[What has happened so far is that when] there [are] going to be talks, the envoy does a trip for four days, talks to everybody, has a couple meetings and comes back… When people are so far apart and the politics are so fractioned, diplomats are kind of like a glue in a negotiation process, so you can’t just dive in…. I would have more bodies in Khartoum.

Sojourners: How many more? A couple of dozen?

Smith: No. No, I don’t think you need that many.

Sojourners: Ok.

Smith: I don't think you need that many. What you need is a combination of more in Khartoum so that somebody’s got full-time political brief and the staffing he or she needs to undertake that on Darfur, on the CPA [the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in southern Sudan], on a host of other issues. And people who can get out to the field or ideally stay out in the field. Now some of that’s logistically and probably, at this point, politically problematic, but nonetheless, yes I would have people in, you know, four, five, six political officers in the field also.

But it’s a combination of having a regular presence on the ground but also this surge capacity. Because there are going to be times when you don’t need a huge number, there may be times suddenly when you’ll need suddenly 10 more, you’ve got to have that ability to build out.

Sojourners : In Khartoum?

Smith : In Khartoum and in the field.

Sojourners : Literally in Darfur?

Smith : In Darfur and in Juba [the capital of southern Sudan].

Sojourners : When you say in a recent report,

The U.S., for example, could significantly enhance its capacity to help negotiate peace in Darfur by deploying five diplomats to the region – just one percent of the 500 State Department personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad…

then that really, I think, gives a sense of how such a huge, complicated problem can start to be tackled.

Smith : I’m just avoiding simple equations, where you say the answer is just to blanket the country with diplomats. It’s also a question of what they do and having that ability to get bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller when the need arises.

But certainly 1% of what we have in Iraq would make a huge difference. Having a full-time envoy with a staff would make a huge difference.

Sojourners : And what else is [the then-U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios] doing?

Smith : He’s a professor. It was never a full-time position. I don’t think it’s his fault—it’s the way the envoy position was created. It’s not a full-time position with full-time staff. So you can just make short trips.

Sojourners : Stopping genocide is worth a full-time position.

Smith : I think that would be a fair statement. I mean, the bottom line is that the Administration's trying to do this on the cheap and at low political or other risk or cost. And you can't bring an end to the crisis in Darfur, or protect the gains that were made with the CPA in southern Sudan, at low cost and without taking any risks.

Sojourners: Four years ago at the World Social Forum I interviewed Awut Deng, who was part of the New Sudan Council of Churches’ grassroots peacemaking initiative [within southern Sudan]. So that’s made me very aware of the importance of resolving conflict between different actors on the ground—including combatant groups but also including non-combatants, especially women and traditional leaders. Which segues into my second question—which is similarities between the situation in south Sudan and Darfur, or, more importantly, differences. Is there any analogue of the [NSCC’s] people-to-people peace process in Darfur?

Smith: Not in the same way. Part of that is the function of the fact that the Darfur crisis is not as old as the southern Sudan crisis. In southern Sudan, as part of the vision of the new Sudan, things like the southern [New] Sudan Council of Churches emerged. You don’t have that equivalent emerging in the Darfur case.

In Darfur you also have people uprooted from their villages and stuck in camps, where as in southern Sudan, there was a lot of displacement but there was still much greater mobility and a lot of people still in their villages, so that the conditions in southern Sudan allowed for more of that than Darfur has allowed.

There is supposed to be, as part of the [failed, 2006] Darfur Peace Agreement, something called the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue—which is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s gotten started in earnest, in any meaningful way.

Sojourners: I understand that peacekeepers in Darfur—who should include civilian human rights monitoring, among other recommendations that I appreciated reading in your analysis—will have a more difficult job than peacekeepers in southern Sudan. Basically, I’ve heard virtually nothing about the peacekeepers in southern Sudan.

Smith: Well there’s a fundamental difference in that, in southern Sudan, there is a peace to keep, and you’ve basically got two military forces who’ve signed onto agreement. You’ve got the government of Sudan and the SPLA [the main group of former rebels in southern Sudan]. And that’s peacekeeping at its most conventional and normal and in many ways at its safest.

In Darfur, it’s a peace enforcement force, as much as a peacekeeping force. You’ve got multiple armed forces, you’ve got the government, you have the Janjaweed militia, and you have rebel factions which now total in excess of 20. So you’ve got multiple armed groups. You don’t have a peace agreement, so there isn’t yet a peace to keep. So there is much more likely to be active combat in Darfur than there is in southern Sudan, so it’s much, much harder—much riskier.

Sojourners: Was China on board in the CPA [with southern Sudan]? Was that important? It seems that getting China on board now [in pushing for solutions in Darfur] is important.

Smith: Getting China on board now is really important. China was more of an actor very much on the sidelines in the CPA, which is quite interesting.

Sojourners: Because [southern Sudan is] where the oil is.

Smith: Yes. Khartoum was willing to go for an agreement in [the] case [of] the CPA, so China wasn’t looking at taking Khartoum’s side against the rest of the world.

Now one of the reasons that Khartoum was willing at the time, was that they were under pressure from the international community, and they faced a united front diplomatically because the Kenyans, the United States, the U.K., and the Norwegians were all in lock-step. So China wasn’t a big issue in that case.

Now I think in, not renegotiating, but in keeping the CPA on track, China is more of an actor today than it would have been then, obviously, because there needs to be some serious and very aggressive, quick diplomacy to keep the CPA from collapsing altogether.

Sojourners: In keeping the CPA on track, in addition to a united front, and to definitely avoiding opening the door to renegotiating the CPA, what other steps should be taken?

Smith: …I don’t understand this administration, quite frankly. They get this victory in the CPA, which is significant and they should be credited for it. They got engaged; they stayed engaged, they got an agreement, they worked well with the Kenyans, with the Brits, with the Norwegians—something to be very proud of.

And then it’s as though, ‘well, that’s done—let’s move onto the next thing’. And there really wasn’t any follow-up. So the missed opportunity was in follow-up—in regularly checking in, staying on top of it, to make sure if implementation was lagging, that there could have been early interventions. For reasons I cannot understand, given that it’s protecting their own investment on the administration’s part, they didn’t do that.

I think now, what needs to happen is, if it were me, I would put together that same group of actors that originally negotiated the CPA—the Kenyans, the U.S., the U.K., and Norway. I would also engage the Chinese and the French since they’re players also, and keep the Security Council informed. And reinitiate the same kind of shuttle diplomacy that led to the CPA agreement.

Renegotiating the CPA—I think that’s a non-starter. But I think just by engaging both sides, and putting the government in particular on notice that it signed an agreement and has to honor it. Because the pattern we’re seeing here with the government of Sudan—they sign onto something and then they don’t do it.

Sojourners: I have your “asks” [from last May]. Any revision to them?

Smith: I don’t think so. If you look at how, why, and when Khartoum has ever changed its behavior, recalculated its own interests, it’s been when they faced a credible threat—and not a threat of invasion or intervention, but a threat of some kind of pressure.

And when they are in a box, that means that they can’t forum-shop. In other words, they’re hearing the same thing from London that they’re hearing from Washington, that they’re hearing from Nairobi, that they’re hearing from Oslo.

And right now, we don’t have either of those things. Because depending on who they talk to, they might get pretty consistent messages, but it’s very, very evident that the international community has not organized itself into a bloc. So they know they can go talk to you one day, they can come talk to me one day…

The other thing is there has never been any pressure, any price to pay [for intransigence]. For example, now with the UNAMID [hybrid U.N./African Union] peacekeeping force, they [ Khartoum] is saying it has to be all African, which is not what the [U.N.] resolution says. So I think that the “asks” remain basically the same.

What we’re asking for [is] two things—a united diplomatic front that doesn’t allow them any way out, and that kind of constant, serious diplomatic engagement that brings about meaningful results—but real pressures, tangible pressures, that aren’t just empty words, but that have oomph behind them. That’s what constitutes a strategy for getting Khartoum to change its behavior. This isn’t just, “Khartoum is misbehaving, let’s slap them.” This is, you’ve got to force them to recalculate.

And right now, if I were sitting in Khartoum, I would say there is no price to be paid for stalling.

Sojourners: The reason we keep seeing headlines about diplomacy in Darfur and no results, is that we have diplomacy that’s aimed at headlines and not at results.

Smith: I think that’s absolutely right.

Sojourners: I’ve read something about an increased culture of arms, or loss of power of traditional leaders in the [internally displaced person] camps—of people putting more faith, understandably, in combatants, in leaders who are part of armed factions.

Smith: Right. Part of military dialogue, as opposed to non-military dialogue.

Sojourners: The “men with guns” problem.

Smith: Right. The people in Darfur right now are completely and utterly disenfranchised. At the beginning of this crisis, it was a matter of their not having any say in the daily decisions that affected their lives and in governance. But now, they don’t have freedom of movement, they can’t organize, they can’t do anything.

They don’t have any hope of a better future, there is no economic viability, and the terms of reference, if you will, for discussion and engagement across Darfur right now are military. That’s the way you get your voice heard. Look who gets invited to the peace talks—it’s the government and the rebels. It’s not the government and civil society, and so I think that there is almost an invitation or a temptation whereby the dialogue right now in Darfur is military, and so if you want to get in the mix, that’s the way you get into it.

The other thing is that because people are in these camps and displaced from their homes, even the physical geography that allows traditional cultures to exist is broken down. So … the elders that should be in this camp may be in [a different] camp, and people are disassociated from one another, so you have different kinds of rules for organizing this society just on a day-to-day basis. Small arms are available. And, you know, violence begets violence.

Sojourners: How does the [all-Sudan] election [agreed to in the CPA between Khartoum and southern Sudan] in 2009 play out, if it happens?

Smith: Well, I think it’s very interesting. If they were free and fair elections, and there was coverage of the country, it’s hard for me to believe that Khartoum would win. But there’s a lot of “ifs” in that.

If it’s free and fair, one of the steps in advance of elections is supposed to be a census, which is critically important because that’s a really easy way to fudge elections if you don’t know where people are and who people are. How much education there is going to be, and public awareness around elections. So there are any number of ingredients that will determine whether elections serve as a substantive basis for addressing the political inequities of Sudan or whether in essence they’re a sham.

But I do think what’s interesting is that it renames the problem a little bit. I mean the fact that in the CPA the government agreed to new elections is a least an admission that one of the problems here may be governance. And if all the “ifs” were met, if they were free and fair, if there were a census, if there were reasonably full coverage of the entire country and if there were enough public awareness that people understood that they could vote for whoever they wanted and not be punished for it, because that’s one of the biggest hurdles in kind of first-round fair elections…

Sojourners: And if they were correct in that understanding—

Smith: It could mean quite a lot for the people of Darfur. But if nothing else, as a political factor, it does… Khartoum should have released the money and gotten started on the census by now, [and] they haven’t. From a political point of view, the United States is supposed to be all about supporting democracy, so it does put Khartoum, or put the crisis in Sudan, in that box of “do we support democracy or not?”

And I think for the movement, I think for those who want to see a resolution of the crisis in Darfur or the protection of the CPA, that’s important. For the simple reason that it appears that genocide isn’t sufficient to get people’s attention, policymakers’ attention, in terms of really contributing diplomatic and other resources to getting the job done. So this is a crisis of genocide [and] this is a crisis of democracy and governance.

Sojourners: How are we doing at building up civil society in southern Sudan in preparation for the [election]?

Smith: Well actually, in terms of intent, some of the programs that USAID [ the U.S. Agency for International Development] is pursuing in southern Sudan are reasonably good. There has been money allocated and there are some good programs going on by the U.S. and others.

I think part of the constraint is that the need to build capacity in southern Sudan is enormous. Because part of the way that war played out was to deny southern Sudan the ability to govern itself in any meaningful way, so you’re really starting from a very, very, very low point.

And just by evidence of being in southern Sudan or engaging with the southern Sudanese, I think there’s a lot of evidence of a fairly vibrant civil society of institutions forming and so on—it’s early days. I think you could conduct an election in southern Sudan relatively easily.

I think how you do it in Darfur, depending on where the conflict is, how you do it in the north and the east [of Sudan], that’s in many ways more challenging, because you don’t have the level of transparency that you do in southern Sudan.

Sojourners: Thank you very much.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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