NAIROBI (AlertNet) – The international community has turned a blind eye to an upsurge in fighting in Darfur as it focuses on the referendum on independence in south Sudan, rights groups say.
"The rate of displacement (in Darfur) is increasing rapidly. In the last month, we’ve seen over 30,000 people displaced," said Naomi Kikoler, a senior adviser at the Global Center for The Responsibility to Protect, a U.S.-based advocacy organisation.
Conditions in some of the camps sheltering some 2 million Darfuris uprooted by the conflict are also deteriorating, with many children going hungry, according to campaigners.
Most of the recent clashes have been between government and rebel forces. The government has been hunting down the fighters of Minni Minawi, a rebel leader who joined the government in 2006 but recently switched back to the rebel side.
In December, there was a mass exodus of civilians from the rebel-controlled areas of Dar es Salaam, Shangil Tobaya and Khor Abeche in eastern Darfur. The joint U.N./African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) investigated reports that the government attacked a camp for displaced people in Shaeria, causing hundreds to flee, said Radio Dabanga, a respected independent broadcaster in Darfur.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also documented a series of attacks by Sudanese government forces on civilians in Jebel Marra in central Darfur since August.
It said the bombing of towns had forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee, mostly to rebel-controlled areas that the government has made off-limits to U.N. and humanitarian organisations.
"The Sudanese government should not get away with attacking Darfur civilians again because everyone is paying attention to the referendum in the south," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at HRW.
Millions of southern Sudanese voted last week in a referendum on whether to split from the north.
HISTORY OF NEGLECT
Critics argue that the international community has consistently prioritised the resolution of Sudan's north-south civil war over that in Darfur.
James Traub of the Global Centre for The Responsibility to Protect argues in a report that key international mediators have always seen a solution to the north-south war as "a precondition to resolving the conflict in Darfur".
This belief that the two conflicts can be treated serially, rather than simultaneously, flies in the face of expert calls for deeper, long-term engagement.
"The focus tends to be on what is perceived as being the most urgent (issue) and (on) the possible element of solution,” said Sara Pantuliano of the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank.
"It doesn't allow a solution that can be comprehensive and holistic enough, that can really address some of the long-term causes of the instability that has affected Sudan for the last 50 years or more."
The latest round of north-south civil war began in 1983 and ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which promised a vote on secession in 2011.
The conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in Sudan's west against Khartoum, accusing the government of neglecting the arid region. The United Nations estimates some 300,000 people have died since then.
EVEN CLOONEY HAS GONE SOUTH
Observers say the suffering in Darfur is likely to continue with no hope in sight of a peace deal.
The humanitarian situation is worsening, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
"Conditions in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps deteriorate, with the government delaying food and medical supplies and many children often too hungry to go to school," it said in its latest report.
IWPR says the United Nations and aid agencies are scared of standing up to Khartoum because they fear expulsion.
In 2009, 13 aid agencies were expelled from Sudan on suspicion of collaborating with the International Criminal Court which has charged Sudanese President Omar al Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Those agencies that remain are blocked from going about their work, according to IWPR. For example, it says the government has prevented the U.N. children's agency from releasing reports about malnutrition in IDP camps.
The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA stopped producing its regular updates in 2009.
With silence from the United Nations, rights groups say efforts at galvanising international engagement against the war can make little headway.
State diplomacy efforts are often driven by media attention and advocacy campaigns.
In 2006, the Save Darfur campaign, fronted by U.S. actor George Clooney, succeeded in shifting focus away from the south and on to Darfur.
But even Clooney's spotlight has now moved to the south, where he has launched the Satellite Sentinel Project to monitor possible troop movements and atrocities against civilians on the north-south border.