February 23, 2020

Let’s not get played by the “Abdalhaleem tactic”

After the Secretary General’s Nov. 16 report hit the news headlines this week, Sudan Ambassador to the UN, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, told Reuters: “One big fact should be the focus of the report — that the war is over . . .With peace in sight, the U.N. should, in coordination with the African Union and Sudanese government, plan for an exit strategy.” And with that, the headline ran: Peacekeepers should prepare to leave Darfur: Sudan.

In my view, the ever-blustering Abdalhaleem’s comments should not have been turned into the headline of the article, which otherwise does a good job of covering the Secretary General’s strong report.

You may be thinking, why does she care about a choice of headline? Why does it matter? It matters because Abdalhaleem is a useful compliment to Khartoum’s diplomacy precisely because he goes out and raises the bar on what constitutes “unacceptable” – a tactic that is only successful if the media spotlights him doing it. When the media uses Abdalhaleem’s comments to suggest that the Sudanese government is planning to kick peacekeepers out, suddenly the leadership in Khartoum gets to be “reasonable” by agreeing to let them stay – albeit under conditions that would otherwise be viewed as unacceptable.

Some may argue it’s not the media’s job (let alone an individual headline writer’s job) to be aware of these dynamics. But what is certain is that it is the job of advocates to both notice it and to refuse to buy into it.

Khartoum doesn’t want effective peacekeeping in Darfur – never has, never will. On no measure is this “news” to anyone. International pressure got a handicapped peacekeeping operation in there and, if it is maintained, international pressure will keep them there.  Let’s not allow the goalposts to be re-aligned by Abdalhaleem’s comments and start thinking that there is a new fight on the agenda in which a “win” will be keeping these under-resourced, under-trained peacekeepers there under the conditions they are currently operating. The real fight is how to keep them there while increasing their resources and training, and – crucially – changing the political dynamic so they have the leverage to stand up to the government when they need to.

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