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The civil war in Darfur will most likely continue to escalate as the violent acts of rebel groups and an uncooperative government remain unpunished.

Who Is To Blame for the Uncertain Future of the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Mission to Darfur?

February 6, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Research Assistant

While much of the international community’s attention has turned to the rising issues in the Middle East, the Ebola crisis, and terrorist attacks within France, the United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is currently reviewing the progress and future proposals for the UN’s peacekeeping mission for Darfur.

Established in 2008 in response to Darfur’s ongoing civil war, the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur peacekeeping mission, more commonly known as UNAMID, was once one of the largest such forces in the world, at its peak consisting of 19,555 military personnel and 3,772 police personnel.  However, over the years, UNAMID has faced an onslaught of criticism related to its perceived inability to stop the war from displacing at least two million people and taking tens of thousands of lives.  Due to this continual criticism, along with an operating environment that the Secretary-General claims “to be challenging, with insecurity, criminality and restrictions of movement,” the Secretary-General is currently conducting an analysis of UNAMID that must be submitted by 28 February 2015, and include recommendations for the peacekeeping mission’s future composition and exit strategy.

The UN’s current plans to downsize and, eventually, terminate the mission, are occurring at a time when fighting has greatly increased between rebel groups, the Sudanese military, and the re-emerged Janjaweed militias.  From this resurgence in fighting, many lives have been lost, local security has deteriorated, and the number of internally displaced persons has reportedly increased from 385,000 individuals at the beginning of 2014 to 431,300 as of November 2014.  Thus, it appears that the last thing that the civilians impacted by this war need is an additional decrease in the presence of the UNAMID peacekeeping force, which is already struggling to successfully function after being downsized in August 2014 to 15,845 military personnel and 1,583 police personnel.

The United Nations has placed much of the blame for this downsizing and likely termination of UNAMID on the Government of Sudan’s frequent unwillingness to cooperate with the mission.  Not only has the UN previously cited the government as being one of the main actors for imposing restrictions on its movement, but UN officials have also stated that “their forces are routinely attacked by Sudanese forces and their proxies; that it is virtually impossible for their peacekeepers to remain in the country without Sudan’s blessing”.  The Sudanese government also is preventing the mission from being able to secure peace within the region by endangering the lives of many civilians.  For example, between 22 July and 15 November 2014, UNAMID recorded 55 incidents of violence and attacks that were inflicted upon civilians, 23 of which were caused by governmental forces.

Along with contributing to the instability in the region, the Government of Sudan also has continually pressured UNAMID to leave.  Having been quoted by reporters as saying that the peacekeeping mission has become “a security burden on the Sudanese army,” Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has remained relatively unsupportive of the UN’s efforts in Darfur.  On 21 November last year, Abdallah al-Azraq, the under-secretary to Sudan’s foreign minister, announced that UNAMID should prepare an “exit strategy” and on 23 November, UNAMID received a formal request from President Bashir’s government stating that the mission’s human rights office in the capital of Khartoum must be closed.  Additionally, this pressure for UNAMID’s departure only increased when the Sudanese government announced in December the expulsion of two high level UN officials, UN Development Programme Country Director Yvonne Helle and UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ali al-Zaatari, on the basis of Helle being “arrogant” and al-Zaatari having insulted President Bashir.  Due to these uncooperative acts and persistent restrictions, several UN officials have expressed their belief that the Sudanese government remains one of the primary hindrances to the success of UNAMID.  For example, following the Secretary-General’s February 2014 report that identifies cooperation with the Sudanese government as one of the mission’s main challenges, Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous stated that such restrictions imposed by the government “continued to challenge the ability of the Mission to implement its mandate, particularly as regards to the protections of civilians”.  Therefore, from the point of view of the United Nations, the Government of Sudan has greatly attributed to UNAMID’s failure to obtain security within the region and, thus, has led to the significant downgrading of the mission.

However, the Sudanese government is not the only body that has served as a roadblock to UNAMID fulfilling its mission; the United Nations’ Security Council is also responsible for preventing the peacekeeping force from achieving success.  At a time when relations between the West and Russia are at their worst since the tensions of the Cold War, it appears that the Security Council is unable to work together to pass much-needed measures regarding the Government of Sudan and the recent escalation of violence.  The most prevalent example of the Council’s inefficiency is its lack of response to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for President Bashir and the ICC’s findings in 2010 that Sudan was being uncooperative with the arrest warrants for two ICC indictees.  Unlike the United States, France, and the United Kingdom who have supported the Court’s efforts, China and Russia have been relatively unsupportive and have questioned whether the ICC’s “pursuit of justice complements the pursuit of peace” in Darfur.  Additionally, China and Russia have most recently attempted to block the UN Secretary-General’s request for UNAMID to provide public reports regarding human rights violations, which would better reveal abuses committed by government forces and rebel militias, due to their belief that such reporting is unnecessary.  Even though the Security Council has the capability to improve the situation in Darfur through tactics, such as targeted sanctions, that would pressure the Sudanese government to cooperate with the ICC and UNAMID, the Council’s inability to efficiently work together is greatly prohibiting the United Nations from obtaining peace and security in Darfur.

Unlike the Sudanese government who is challenging UNAMID on the ground, the Security Council’s failure to responsibly act is jeopardizing the progress and future of UNAMID along with the work of other international bodies, such as the ICC.  The severity of this failure is most clearly revealed in ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s December 2014 address to the Security Council where she announced that “given this Council’s lack of foresight on what should happen in Darfur, I am left with no choice but to hibernate investigative activities in Darfur” and that “unless there is a change in attitude and approach to Darfur in the near future, there shall continue to be little or nothing to report to you for the foreseeable future”.

Therefore, instead of looking to place blame on the Government of Sudan for the perceived failures and deteriorating state of UNAMID, the United Nations should reflect upon its own Security Council.  Although there is no question that President Bashir’s government should be held accountable for its uncooperative stance and acts of violence, it is ultimately the Security Council’s lack of responsible action that is impeding the goals of UNAMID and other international organizations in Darfur.  Until members of the Security Council, such as China and Russia, can work in agreement to pass resolutions that are in the best interests of UNAMID and the civilians affected by the ongoing conflict, the civil war in Darfur will most likely continue to escalate as the violent acts of rebel groups and an uncooperative government remain unpunished.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence division. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut where she is studying foreign relations history, specifically in regards to U.S.-NATO relations, and human rights. Lauren received a B.A. in History (Hons) from Vassar College and wrote her senior thesis on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. During her undergraduate career, she also studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center and served as a Vassar Ford Scholar. Lauren’s research interests include transatlantic relations, Western security, humanitarian intervention, multilateral institutions, human rights, and post-conflict reconciliation.