Bashir Promises U.N. Chief Changes for Darfur

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Video: Eric Shawn reports from Africa

Now that Ban Ki-moon has returned to his office after his first official overseas trip, we can’t help but observe that his “IN” box must no doubt resemble Kofi Annan’s “OUT” box.

People all over the world are watching to see how the new Secretary General responds to the pile. He is still learning his way to the Diplomats’ Dining room, having been in office just over one month, and on the road for more than one-third of that time. His tenure falls two-thirds short of F.D.R.’s first 100 days, but longer than Nancy Pelosi’s first 100 hours and he has already set a high bar for himself.

“I have made Darfur my top priority,” he told delegates at the recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. For asserting that goal he is to be commended, but perhaps the new Secretary General knows something we don’t. By venturing to Africa he has highlighted the seemingly intractable problems of that continent, while at the same time essentially throwing down the gauntlet for himself. Those who are listening will now await action to help bring about an end to the ongoing tragedy. The initial tentative progress does not, however, offer great reason to be optimistic.

On day seven of his trip, he met with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who has blocked the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur, thus preventing the hybrid U.N.–African Union force from trying to stop the killings. Bashir has promised to implement a three stage plan developed by Kofi Annan, which starts with the 40 U.N. staff expanding to a second phase of 2,250, and culminates in a third phase with the arrival of the proposed 20,000-blue helmet force. But Bashir and the U.N. remain at an impasse, still struggling to enact the second phase. As the meetings continue and diplomatic letters are exchanged, each passing day brings more death. It is estimated that more than 300 people were killed in January.

Ban called the talks with Bashir “useful and constructive,” saying the process was the “beginning of action,” but admitted that the “progress may be slow.” At least he’s realistic. On his last day in Africa, I asked if he can trust Bashir, who has not fulfilled promises in the past, or if he should get tougher with him. Ban candidly admitted, “We’ll have to see ..."

Darfur waits on the thin thread of a promise, so far not kept.

Having spent a week traveling through Africa with the Secretary General and his delegation, my perception is that this is a man to whom the seriousness of what is at stake is not lost. However, the sobering reality is that the U.N. may yet again prove not up to the task. Let’s wish him luck. If he pulls this one off, and blue helmets actually hit the ground, Ban will have gone a long way toward restoring the credibility of his organization. If not, failure will reconfirm what a multitude of critics see as yet another example of U.N. ineffectiveness.

A U.N. delegation will soon be dispatched to Khartoum, in the wake of Chinese president Hu Jintou's recent visit. While meeting with Bashir, President Hu reiterated the dire need for him to resolve the Darfur issue. Then, in what must surely epitomize a "mixed message", the head of one of the five permanent Security Council member nations promptly wrote off $70 million in Sudanese debt and gave Bashir a $100 million interest-free loan to build a new presidential palace. Talk about rewarding bad behavior, and undermining the West’s efforts to push Bashir to act!

Ban’s message delivered to the African Union auditorium was clear. “No more time can be lost,” he pleaded. “The people of Darfur have waited too long.” But he might as well have been talking to mannequins. After Ban spent a good 90 minutes trying to convey the urgency with which the rest of the world regards the Darfur issue, it seems the only carpet anyone else at the African Union called Bashir on was a welcoming red one (though thankfully, he was not elected as the A.U.’s chairman, as had been promised).

The 8,000 A.U. troops now dispatched clearly can’t stop the killings — even quelling Somalia has proven too much for its neighbors. Fifty-six African nations were asked to contribute another 8,000 troops to bring peace to that country, and only half that many were pledged from just five countries — less than ten percent of the members. Ban spoke of “a unity of purpose that is the key to Africa’s progress in the years ahead.” One can’t help asking if the possibility of such unity is a pipedream, and I wondered if anyone present really thought that tangible results would emerge from the summit.

When we landed in Addis Ababa, the place looked like Christmas at Aspen. You should have seen the private jets. There were the usual Gulfstreams, some larger planes used by airlines, such as Fokker 100s, belonging to Kenya and the Ivory Coast, a 737 from the South African Air Force — and then there was Bashir’s plane. It looked like a large Russian-made Ilyushin 62, which can normally seat nearly 200 people. The word SUDAN was proudly emblazoned across the side in bright red.

Perhaps instead of trying to enforce an incremental three-phase U.N. plan in Darfur, the quickest way to persuade Bashir to let the U.N. forces in would be foreclosure. Impound the plane, take away his development money and anything else he has his hands on, and perhaps he will come around. (But two key Security Council member states, China and Russia, are loathe to risk lucrative oil and economic deals, and refuse to impose sanctions on Bashir’s government.)

Yet Bashir’s plane was modest compared to those belonging to some of his peers. I saw several unmarked Boeing 767s on the tarmac. Obviously, their owners are too embarrassed to paint the name of their countries on the side. A new 767, which can span oceans, goes for as much as $160 million and costs $13,000 an hour to fly. Think of what a fraction of those expenditures could provide for the truly needy and worthy of Africa.

Malaria kills one to two million Africans a year. Doctors Without Borders estimates an African child dies from this very preventable disease every thirty seconds. A United Nations program that provides medicine or mosquito netting can prevent those deaths for a cost of only $1 a person. Trade in those jumbo jets for something a bit more sensible, and hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved.

As we waited in the airport terminal to leave, Bashir’s big jet was revving up. He had been welcomed, and bid adieu by an Ethiopian military honor guard flanking the red carpet. He walked on soft fabric and was given the respect and honors of a statesman. As the huge jet slowly pulled away, the deafening noise from the engines was enough to drown out the cries of those in his Darfur who still wait.

E-mail Eric Shawn

Eric Shawn, a New York based senior correspondent for FOX News Channel, and the author of The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World. You can read his complete bio here.

Follow Eric Shawn on Twitter: @EricShawnTV