Ottawa has dismantled a key task force aimed at supporting the peace process in Sudan at a time of renewed fighting in Darfur, raising questions about Canada's commitment to aid and diplomacy in the conflict-torn region.
The Sudan Task Force was responsible for co-ordinating Canada's diplomatic, military and development approach to peace in the North African country, which was once among the top three recipients of Canadian foreign aid. The group's mandate was expanded to include South Sudan when that country gained independence in 2011.
The disbandment comes at a time when aid workers and researchers say the conflict in Darfur is resurging after several years of relative stability. More than 300,000 people were newly displaced in the region during the first half of 2013 alone, according to the United Nations. At the same time, fighting has increased in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, areas of the country that are located just north of the border with South Sudan and extremely difficult for aid agencies to access.
A spokesman from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development said the dissolution of the task force was planned in advance and that responsibility for bilateral relations with the two countries will be addressed by officials working at the regional level. "Canada continues to have a sizeable development presence in South Sudan, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance in both Sudan and South Sudan," John Babcock wrote in an e-mail.
At one point, the task force had close to a dozen people focused on issues in the region, according to a source familiar with its work, though that number had decreased in recent years. Now, work on Sudan and South Sudan is done through a small team within the department's North Africa division.
The 10-year-old conflict in Darfur started with a rebellion of primarily African pastoralists against the primarily Arab government in Khartoum. The government responded with significant force, using militias to target rural populations it accused of supporting the rebel movement. An estimated 200,000 people have been killed since the violence began.
There is some debate about the value of Canada's contributions to peace in Sudan, with critics arguing that the task force's mandate was unclear and that its members failed to communicate effectively with the Sudanese diaspora in Canada. But the decision to dissolve the group is viewed by many as a sign that Canada is reducing its involvement in the region.
At the same time, Canada's head of aid in Khartoum has left the country and has not been replaced. That change could be a sign that Canadian aid to the area is shifting increasingly away from Darfur and other regions in Sudan and toward South Sudan (Canada has three development officers working out of Juba in South Sudan, according to the department). Sudan and South Sudan have been identified by the government as priority countries for Canadian development assistance, but the aggregate funding provided to the two countries has declined in recent years.
Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, said he is concerned the government may be "abandoning" the two countries after years of quiet leadership.
"For whatever reason, the government decided to get out of the business of supporting people on the ground at a time when it's important to be there to really finish some of the work that we've been doing but also to deal with some of the challenges since the creation of the new country of South Sudan," he said.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada remains engaged in monitoring the peace process in Sudan and is following the implementation of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur. "Canada provided significant levels of support for the referendum establishing the newly independent South Sudan and support for the development of South Sudan's transitional constitution," Rick Roth wrote in an e-mail.
The end of the task force also coincides with the expiration of the government's Global Peace and Security Fund, which was aimed at conflict prevention and crisis response in fragile states.
The department said earlier this year that it would allow the funding to expire but was looking at options "to further advance the government's priorities in this important program area."