During his long and distinguished diplomatic career, Jan Eliasson has tackled a number of difficult diplomatic problems, including a nearly decade-long effort to end the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But Eliasson has confronted few, if any, challenges that are more complex and consequential than trying to end the current tragedy in Darfur.
Eliasson—who previously served as Sweden’s ambassador to Washington, his country’s foreign minister and president of the U.N. General Assembly—is now serving as a special U.N. envoy for Darfur. He has been charged with reviving a political process that so far has exacerbated, not eased, the horrific violence in Darfur, located in the western region of Sudan.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Eliasson said Darfur remains both a haunting humanitarian tragedy and one of the world’s most daunting diplomatic challenges.
“This is a very complicated conflict. No wonder it has been going on for four years,” he said. “You have a fight about grass. I’ve even seen desertification from the air. And there’s fight for land. Then, of course, there’s the use of the Arab and African elements by different groups, which brings in an ethnic factor. You also have a domestic political scene, which is complicated. You have regional implications. There are so many aspects to this tragedy.”
In December of 2006, Eliasson was initially asked by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and then by Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, to serve as a special U.N. envoy for Darfur. In fact, Ban called Eliasson on Jan. 1, 2007—his first day as secretary-general—and told him that ending the Darfur tragedy would be one of his most urgent priorities.
Eliasson is working with the African Union’s special envoy, Salim Ahmed Salim, to jumpstart political negotiations between the government in Khartoum, the various rebel movements in Darfur, and affected countries in the region. He is also coordinating his efforts with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios.
Eliasson and Salim, as the U.N. and AU envoys, have been directed to create a road map toward substantive negotiations and an eventual comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Darfur. Such a political agreement, experts agree, is essential to halting the bloody conflict and bringing stability to the troubled region.
In Darfur, more than 200,000 people have died and 2.3 million have been driven from their homes—although estimates vary widely because many humanitarian groups have been blocked from even entering the region. In what many describe as an ethnic cleansing campaign, attacks have been carried out largely by Arab militias called the Janjaweed, which are supported by the Sudanese government, although the government officially denies involvement. In addition to the enormous suffering occurring in Darfur, the conflict is spreading into Chad and the Central African Republic.
The Darfur genocide has continued despite U.N. Security Council resolutions, various peace agreements, innumerable humanitarian pleas and a host of diplomatic initiatives. A U.N. report in late April said that the Sudanese government has done little to disband the Janjaweed militias.
Sudan is Africa’s largest country and Darfur makes up one-fifth of the country. Of the 41 million Sudanese, 7.6 million live in Darfur.
In March 2003, fighters from two rebel groups—the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement—launched an attack on government troops and facilities in northern Darfur, sparking what would be the third war in Darfur in just over 20 years, although this conflict is by far the most devastating in lives lost and people displaced from their homes.
Eliasson said the current war is not a simple struggle between Arab and black African tribes, but a bewilderingly complicated dispute driven by disputes over land rights, drought and desertification, competition between nomadic herders and farmers, and the marginalization of Darfur by the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
In January, Eliasson began his mission to find a permanent solution to the Darfur conflict. During his first trip, he had a two-day stopover in Addis Ababa where he met with AU and Ethiopian government officials. Then he traveled on to Sudan to discuss steps required to achieve a durable solution in Darfur on the basis of the Darfur Peace Agreement, which was signed last year by the government and some, but not all, of the rebel groups.
Now living in Stockholm, Eliasson has made the long, grueling trip to Darfur every month this year. Traveling on commercial flights, U.N. planes and helicopters, and in Land Rovers, Eliasson has visited much of Darfur and met key players there and around the region. Some of his talks with movement leaders have taken place outdoors, literally under trees to shelter them from the hot sun.
Although the problem of Darfur is complex, Eliasson emphasizes a simple message: that there is no military solution to the Darfur crisis and that political negotiations are essential and urgent.
He argues that Darfur is chiefly a Sudanese problem and will ultimately have to be resolved by the people of Sudan and their representatives. “The solution lies with the Sudanese, of course, but the international community is part of the solution. And we have to accept this responsibility. Now is the time to push to finally end this enormous tragedy,” he said.
“We need to bring the government and the movements to negotiations. The government in Khartoum has opened up for a discussion on amendments to the [earlier] agreements and the movements are unifying their positions. We are pushing the movements to enter into these negotiations so that we can deal with basic issues.”
He added: “If we miss this opportunity, after four years of fighting, we are faced with an enormous tragedy, and even a breakdown of the humanitarian operations, and a new type of fighting which I didn’t know was developing so quickly—namely tribal fighting.”
Eliasson said that although there is no magic solution to the crisis in Darfur, the sequencing of necessary developments is clear. First, all of the parties must agree in good faith to commit themselves to a political solution, acknowledging that there is no military solution.
After this occurs, according to Eliasson, the nine movements have to develop a unified negotiating strategy that they then present to the government in Khartoum.
Then, substantive talks must aggressively address three broad areas: sharing wealth, dividing power, and ensuring safety and security for the people of Darfur.
“I’m very hopeful that once you get people talking, the fighting will subside and the humanitarian situation will improve. But we need the political track to begin,” he said.
Eliasson is widely seen as one of the world’s best practicing diplomats. Affable and polished, he is also tough, forceful and relentless.
A career diplomat, Eliasson has held almost every significant position in Swedish diplomacy, including foreign minister, state secretary for foreign affairs, ambassador to the United Nations and Washington, and diplomatic advisor to the prime minister. He was also the U.N.’s first undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
Eliasson served as Sweden’s ambassador to the United States from 2000 to 2005 and provided a striking example of how an envoy from a small country can become a significant player in Washington. After leaving Washington in the summer of 2005, Eliasson served as president of the U.N. General Assembly from September of 2005 to September of 2006.
Eliasson’s presidency was widely described as one of the most consequential in recent U.N. history. Under his leadership, the U.N. General Assembly created a peace-building commission to facilitate the transition from conflict to reconciliation and development. In addition, the world body established an emergency fund to ensure that the United Nations can react effectively to various disasters, a counter-terrorism strategy, and a Human Rights Council to replace the outdated Human Rights Commission.
In April of 2006, Eliasson was appointed Sweden’s foreign minister, and for almost six months, he juggled both positions as U.N. General Assembly president and his country’s foreign minister.
As Sweden’s foreign minister, he organized an important donor’s conference in Lebanon. He also worked to bolster Sweden’s traditional diplomatic support of international law, its emphasis on prevention, peacekeeping and peace-building efforts, its close collaboration with the Nordic world and active involvement in the European Union. Eliasson served as foreign minister until October 2006, leaving office after the government was defeated in national elections.
In addition to his Darfur diplomacy, Eliasson is working on a panel to overhaul the foreign policy of Sweden’s Social Democratic party, teaching at Uppsala University, and sitting on various boards and panels.
But the crisis in Darfur occupies much of his thinking. Even during his days as Sweden’s ambassador to Washington, he was haunted by the crisis in Darfur. Eliasson has long believed the international community must be aggressive in preventing and, if necessary, stopping humanitarian disasters, even within countries.
“This is a very heavy task,” he said. “There has been so much suffering. We must end this needless suffering.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.