Magazine edition: 1-2015

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Isabelle Younane on UN peacekeeping in Darfur: are we scapegoating the blue helmets?

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Isabelle Younane on UN peacekeeping in Darfur: are we scapegoating the blue helmets?

Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s recent accusation that the Sudanese army raped over 220 women and girls in November 2014 has put the efficacy of the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) back under scrutiny. This followed allegations last year that the Mission  failed to thoroughly investigate the reported mass rape, prompting outcry from human rights groups. But can the purported failure of UNAMID be pinned on peacekeepers, or have the blue helmets become an easy target for deeper problems within the UN?

UNAMID has long been criticised for supposedly pandering to pressure by Sudanese officials. Foreign Policy exposés published in April 2014 related incidents of UN peacekeepers doing nothing in the face of abductions and violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs). One article, branded with the inflammatory headline ‘They just stood watching’, went so far as to claim peacekeepers gave rebel fighters a “thumbs up” as they hustled frightened IDPs into a truck.

Supporting documentation from a UNAMID insider led to the opening of an independent inquiry into the allegations by the UN Security Council. The summary of the findings disclosed that a third of investigated abuses had not been fully reported by UNAMID to UN headquarters. Although not deemed by inquirers to be an intentional cover-up, such misreporting or under-reporting of crimes against civilians is a violation of the fundamental UN peacekeeping principle of impartiality. In omitting or distorting information, UNAMID jeopardises its legitimacy and credibility, which are prerequisites to gaining the trust of those it is mandated to protect.

But as the UN inquiry acknowledged, UNAMID is “one of the most difficult peacekeeping missions”. It confronts a challenging mandate, insufficient resources and, in addition to the threats posed by armed rebel groups, “a host Government that has impeded the operational capacity and mobility of the Mission’s forces.” Furthermore, the accusation by human rights groups, fed by media reports, that UNAMID is guilty of hushing up crimes in an attempt to placate the Government ignores the premise that UNAMID does not operate in a vacuum. Peacekeepers must strike a delicate balance between fulfilling their mandates and cooperating with the host state, upon whom the continuance of their mission depends. It is clear that in the case of Sudan, this has been a near-impossible enterprise.

Analysis of where UNAMID’s reporting fell short offers some insight into this complex situation. Internal UNAMID reports revealed that the Sudanese Air Force bombed Hashaba in September 2012, killing between 70 and 100 people, as part of a dispute with rebels. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon concluded that UNAMID had “reasonable evidence” that Sudanese border guards were complicit in human rights abuses in the area, but did not disclose this in their external report.

While those complicit in attacks against civilians should undoubtedly be identified and avenues for justice pursued, publicly pinning crimes on border guards is likely to prompt reprisals. Travel delays, withholding of visas and being turned away at checkpoints would inhibit peacekeepers from reaching communities in danger. The mass rape incident has shown how detrimental such restriction of access can be. HRW reported that Sudanese forces gave UNAMID just “a couple of hours” to investigate the location of the alleged rape, before shutting down the Mission’s human rights office in Khartoum two weeks later. It is clear that the Sudanese Government holds significant sway over UNAMID’s successes and failures.

While access to justice is vital for the people of Sudan, by simply demanding better reporting from UN peacekeepers in Darfur, we are in danger of demanding transparency for transparency’s sake. Narrow-sighted accusations against UNAMID divert attention away from much larger problems: the complete absence of a sustainable peace process in Darfur, insufficient Security Council resolutions which fail to tackle the obstacles posed by the recalcitrant Sudanese Government and discrepancies between the demanding peacekeeping mandates set by the Security Council and the willingness and ability of states to fulfil them. If we insist on casting blame on the public face of UN peacekeeping, these underlying causes will never be solved.

Isabelle Younane is Communications & Campaigns Assistant at UNA-UK. She holds an MA in Human Rights and specialises in the intersection between human rights and the media

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