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UN briefings: the UN’s presence in Sudan

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UN briefings: the UN’s presence in Sudan

Part of our regular series of background briefings on the UN in the news.

In April 2019, a series of demonstrations in Sudan bought down the almost thirty-year regime of President Omar al-Bashir, an autocratic ruler wanted by the International Criminal Court on suspicion of war crimes. Since then the government of Sudan has been contested, there have been several massacres leaving hundreds of dead, notably at protests in the capital Khartoum on 3 June and in corresponding attacks in Darfur in the west of Sudan.

Against this backdrop the UN Security Council will meet today to discuss the UN’s peacekeeping mission to Darfur, and the General Assembly will meet to discuss the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians from harm.

In light of these conversations we have prepared the following briefing.

What is UNAMID?

The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) is a joint UN-African Union mission tasked with keeping the peace in Darfur. It has been in place since 2007 when it replaced an earlier African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) which had been unsuccessful in containing violence in Darfur.

UNAMID has had a chequered history. Given the non-confrontational nature of UN peacekeeping it is very difficult for a mission to be effective if the host nation is determined that it not be, and the Sudanese government has set out to thwart UNAMID at every turn. Nevertheless, as we set out in a joint report with the Sudanese organisation Waging Peace in 2017, most Darfuris still feel that the mission’s presence offers them a degree of protection. As the International Refugee Rights Initiative quoted one resident, "no one on the earth cares if we survive except God and sometimes UNAMID”. 

What is the UN’s relationship to the crisis?

UN Peacekeeping operates under the principle of “host nation consent”, meaning that there is an expectation that UN peacekeepers will not defy the government of the country in which they are stationed. However, as our Head of Policy argued at our recent Peacekeepers’ Day conference it is far from clear what the principle of host nation consent means at a time when the identity of the legitimate government of the nation is contested. At such a time peacekeepers also need to be aware of their duty under their mandate to protect civilians from harm.

The UN more broadly is seeking a peaceable transfer of power and appealing to all sides to return to dialogue. However, taking the lead from the three African (A3) members of the Security Council, there is a perception that the African Union may be more able to exert influence in Sudan than the UN, and the public statements of the UN Security Council have therefore closely aligned with the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council. The Peace and Security Council has in turn taken a hard line with Sudan, suspending Sudan from all AU activities, demanding the resumption of negotiations without preconditions, and deciding that should the military fail to hand over power to a civilian-led Transitional Authority, the PSC would “automatically impose punitive measures on individuals and entities”. For the Security Council to add their support to this, relatively strong, action was originally unpopular with China and Russia but the A3 were able to persuade them to drop their objections.

Meanwhile the UN’s human rights and accountability bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and International Criminal Court, work to document violations with a view to ultimately bringing perpetrators to account.

Why is the mission being drawn down?

UNAMID has long been squeezed between the United States’ desires to close missions to cut costs, often with little regard for the long term political and financial consequences of their decisions, and the hostility to the mission from Sudan and their sometimes allies on the Security Council: China and Russia. Civil Society, the A3, the UK and France have offered some support for the mission (now joined by Germany, who share “penholder” responsibilities for the mission with the UK in an innovative move to pluralise the Security Council). However, this support has been tempered by a sentiment that the mission is, due to Sudan’s hostility, largely ineffective. UNA-UK and Waging Peace have made the argument that this position ignores the wishes of the Darfuris themselves, who feel the mission affords them some protection, and wish for it to remain in place.

In 2017 it was agreed that the mission would be “drawn down”. Rather than attempting to keep the peace over the whole of Darfur the mission would only conduct peacekeeping in the small Jebel Mara area of central Darfur, and would transition to a civilian-political mission across the rest of the territory. Troop levels, which were at 15,845 in the summer of 2017, would be reduced first to 11,395, then 8,735 in 2018 and currently sit at 5,591 with the stated objective of reducing further to 4,050 by the end of the month.

Concerningly, there are credible reports that team sites abandoned by UNAMID have been handed over to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary unit responsible for many of the most egregious human rights abuses, both historically in Darfur, as well as more recently in the capital Khartoum. Their leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemeti, is the deputy leader of the military council currently ruling Sudan. Such a handover would be in contravention of UN rules and procedures determining that such resources should only be surrendered for civilian use. Handovers have now been suspended until such time as a decree issued by the military council ordering the release of UNAMID camps to the RSF is rescinded. 

Should the drawdown continue and what else can be done?

The UN’s strategic review states:

“there had been no strategic reversal of the positive trajectory with regard to Darfur, since the previous mandate renewal. The recent political developments in Khartoum, however, necessitate a responsible exit strategy for the mission. While the current dynamics do not warrant a change of the exit date, in June 2020, the mission should implement a gradual drawdown.”

However, this strategic review only considered matters up until 15 May, and therefore does not take into account the most recent political developments or allegations of massacres. When agreeing to the drawdown in 2018 the Security Council passed a resolution which stated that the exit strategy would be implemented “provided that there is no significant change in the security situation in Darfur and key indicators are fulfilled”. The situation we are witnessing clearly meets the threshold for a “significant change in the security situation in Darfur”. Further, the suggestion that the RSF is taking control of UNAMID sites should be a cause for the drawdown to be halted. UNA-UK therefore joins the growing chorus of civil society groups and states calling for a halt to the drawdown process and a maintenance, or increase, in the size of the mission.

Sudan has seen several massacres in recent weeks and there are legitimate fears that worse could be yet to come unless the international community makes it clear that they are paying close attention to the situation in Sudan, and provide firm backing to the African Union’s stance on the need for an immediate cessation of violence. Any further drawdown of troops in this context could be taken as a sign that the international community is indifferent to the suffering of Darfuri and Sudanese people, and could embolden the perpetrators of atrocities.

Currently, it appears that the Security Council will agree a “technical rollover” where the mission will be authorised under its current mandate for four more months.

Beyond that, as the UN General Assembly will today discuss, the international community has a fundamental responsibility to act to prevent civilians from coming to harm. As the Secretary-General argued in his report to the meeting, there are a range of measures that states can take to uphold this responsibility with respect to situations like Sudan. UNA-UK were particularly pleased to note the Secretary-General mention the important role the Human Rights Up Front initiative could play in protection. 

Working alongside a coalition of other civil society organisations, we have long argued that the Government needs a comprehensive cross-governmental strategy for preventing atrocity crimes, and for atrocity prevention to be made a specific priority of UK Foreign Policy. As the Secretary-General said,

"the best outcomes are achieved when atrocity prevention is made a priority. The prioritization of atrocity prevention makes it more likely that the international community will take early and concerted action … Where the prevention of atrocity crimes is not made a priority at all, prevention efforts can be sharply impaired, and their effectiveness reduced."

How can I find out more?

The following resources might be helpful

Photo: A United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) motorcade travels through a village. 14 February 2010 Credit: UN Photo/Albert González Farran