Breaking the Ice - Rebels to Sit Down with Khartoum?

The past few weeks have seen some devastating violence in South Darfur around a city called Muhajeriya. Some 30,000 people fled their homes as the largest Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), battled with government soldiers and members of another rebel group called the Sudanese Liberation Movement - Minnawi. To cut a complicated story short, the rebel group JEM took a town from a rival rebel group which was allied with the government and then endured a series of government bombings and retaliations which killed dozens of civilians. Some of you may have seen the recent post about Canada's condemnation of this violence.

Now it seems like the violence has halted momentarily with the rebels withdrawing from the town and the government allowing UN officials and aid agencies access. Even more promising, the JEM rebels have announced that they may start preliminary peace talks this week in Qatar.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about these talks, but also many reasons to be optimistic. The last time JEM spoke with the government, they refused to sign onto the peace agreement with the government and took up arms again claiming that the agreement did not adequately address their concerns. Since then, however, they have shown very little interest in meeting with government officials. For that reason, this is a very positive turn-around. Also, JEM is the most powerful rebel group in Darfur at the moment and may be able to act as a leader in negotiations, especially if other groups see JEM as getting a good deal or worry about losing out if an agreement goes through.

From the government's perspective, officials are trying to do everything in their power to deflect the arrest warrant that may be released against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in the next week or so by the International Criminal Court (ICC). This may be pushing them to play nice. It is yet to be seen, however, how far they are really willing to go to divert the possible arrest warrant. Similarly, the whole process could be thrown into disarray if the arrest warrant is indeed announced and the President decides there is no longer any reason to try to play by the rules.

Canada and the international community can once again influence the process and reinforce peace talks by supporting the negotiations and trying to pressure other rebel groups into joining peace talks. In fact, if peace talks start next week, it would be a great time for everyone to contact their representatives and urge that Canada support negotiations, monitor agreements, and otherwise make sure that the parties do not revert to violence again.

Stay tuned for more information on this exciting development...

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