As of this writing (August 9, 2010), Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has not made good on his recent threat to expel the UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID (UN/African Union Mission in Darfur) (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article35884 ). But the volatile atmosphere that has enveloped one of the region’s largest camps for displaced persons suggests such expulsion may be only a matter of time. UNAMID and al-Bashir’s brutal regime are in a standoff over the fate of six camp leaders and their purported role in recent violence at Kalma camp, where some 100,000 people live in overcrowded, underserved, and extremely insecure circumstances. (One measure of this insecurity is the August 2008 murder of several dozen unarmed protesters in Kalma by Khartoum’s security forces; see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122065894281205691.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ). Kalma has long been one of the most politicized camps, and its general allegiance to one rebel faction has created severe tensions with several dissident factions.
The most recent violence followed strenuous disagreement among camp residents about whether Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) leader Abdel Wahid el-Nur should be supported in refusing to participate in sputtering peace talks in Doha, Qatar. The highly popular el-Nur has long refused, insisting that the establishment of security in Darfur is a non-negotiable prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy. His views appear to have shifted in recent weeks, however—perhaps a sign that he is aware of growing disaffection among his followers, people who have suffered so many years in the camps and during that time increasingly lost faith in el-Nur’s ability to help them. Those pushing for participation in the talks (an implicit rebuke of el-Nur) created a sharp political fault line, and this appears to have precipitated the violence that killed at least five people in Kalma camp and three more in another camp.
Khartoum is now bent on arresting six camp leaders from Kalma in connection with the violence, but these men (and one woman) have taken refuge with UNAMID, which has instructions from New York not to turn them over to the regime’s security forces. This is for good reason, since they will almost certainly be tortured, detained indefinitely, or perhaps executed (the fate of many arrested or detained in Darfur). The UN has boxed itself in by (rightly) insisting on a number of conditions to ensure a fair administration of legal justice for the individuals they are now protecting, insisting that they will release those in custody only if Khartoum “[brings] them to trial in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law” (Sudan Tribune, August 5, 2010). But of course none of this is remotely possible in the regime’s judicial system. So Khartoum has adamantly declared that such UN conditions are an infringement upon its national sovereignty, i.e., the right to torture, imprison, and execute as it wishes. Either the UN backs down—a disaster on many counts, not least in destroying their almost non-existent credibility among Darfuris—or Khartoum will use the incident to make a decisive change in UNAMID’s status, a process well underway in any event. With regime backing, the governor of South Darfur has (according to a Khartoum newspaper report, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article35821 ) threatened to “take the wanted men ‘by force if UNAMID does not hand them over.'” UNAMID, we should recall in assessing the implications of this extraordinarily brazen threat, was created by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 in July 2007, with Chapter 7 authority.
The threat by al-Bashir to expel UNAMID is real, and there is a good deal of evidence that we’ve been moving toward this moment of confrontation for many months. As a well-informed UN official told me in June, it’s a question of when, not if, UNAMID is either expelled or confronted with intolerable operating conditions. In fact, such conditions already exist and represent many months of assiduous effort by al-Bashir’s regime in a war of attrition against the peacekeeping force. UNAMID has been ever more aggressively denied the right to travel where it wishes, despite the freedom of movement guaranteed by the February 2008 “Status of Forces Agreement” signed by Khartoum. Critical tactical (combat) helicopters that arrived only this past February have not been allowed to carry out missions, or even to fly with normal armaments. According to the most recent report from the UN Secretary General (http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/sgrep10.htm ), helicopters of all sorts have repeatedly been denied clearance, even for medical evacuation. This recently resulted in two UNAMID soldiers bleeding to death in the field following yet another hostile encounter with militia forces. Even road travel is now heavily controlled by the regime, rendering the force almost impotent.
Khartoum has clearly decided on a policy of both extreme curtailment of movement as well as increasing humiliation and intimidation. UNAMID personnel have often been abused, arrested, and confronted with bureaucratic obstructionism, often resulting in the delay of travel visas and timely deployment of soldiers and equipment. Recently Rabie Abdelati, Khartoum’s senior official in the information ministry, declared that “UNAMID staff will have their bags searched at the airport and will have to inform the government before moving on roads in Darfur” (http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE67201F20100803 ). Intimidation is pervasive and can take deadly form. The recent report from the UN Secretary General (July 14, 2010) indicates that “during the current mandate period of July 2009 to July 2010, UNAMID peacekeepers were attacked on 28 occasions, leaving 10 dead and 26 injured.” At least 27 peacekeepers have been killed since UNAMID assumed it role officially on January 1, 2008. Responsibility for these assaults is often difficult to determine, but on a number of occasions the attackers have been identified as Khartoum-allied militia forces (http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article219.html ) and even regular Sudan Armed Forces (http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article200.html ). So far, Khartoum has convicted none of the very few who have been apprehended.
African leaders are obviously frustrated with the treatment of their countries’ soldiers, although they are also dismayingly unwilling to hold Khartoum accountable. Nigeria, a very large player in UNAMID and in other UN operations, recently (August 2, 2010) threatened to pull its troops out of peacekeeping situations in which its troops were gratuitously threatened by militia groups, a clear reference to Darfur. President Goodluck Jonathan declared that, “militia groups ambushing and killing troops was ‘totally unacceptable'” (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ioYSTHpcfXoye4_SAAozK-CzAs7A ). Senegal has expressed similar concerns in the past, and Rwanda has its own problems with UNAMID as it is currently functioning. These are three of the biggest contributors of personnel and equipment to the UN/AU force; withdrawal by either Nigeria or Rwanda would collapse the mission.
In turn, UNAMID expulsion or withdrawal would immediately precipitate withdrawal by all remaining international humanitarian organizations, upon whom more than 4.7 million Darfuris now depend for much of their food, primary medical care, clean water, and sanitation. Darfur’s humanitarian lifeline is badly frayed. Thirteen critical organizations—representing roughly half the operational capacity in Darfur—were expelled in March 2009. Last month two key officials for the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration IOM) were expelled. IOM plays a particularly important oversight role in humanitarian affairs in Darfur, especially for NFI (non-food items such as tents, soap, jerry cans, mosquito nets, and many others critical survival tools). A few other organizations have withdrawn over the past year for security reasons. But if UNAMID withdraws, all remaining organizations will judge the security situation intolerable and will also withdraw.
UNAMID has been disastrously inadequate, and is a huge disappointment both to UN peacekeeping and the African Union Peace and Security Council, although the latter seems incapable of any honest public self-appraisal. Darfur is the first major peacekeeping mission for the AU and they’ve allowed themselves to be set up for failure. Former UN head of peacekeeping operations Jean-Marie Guhenno worried in December 2007 that UNAMID “will not have the capability to defend itself, and [this] carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the United Nations and tragic failure for the people of Darfur. [ ] If there is a humiliation, it will reverberate beyond Darfur to the whole idea of UN peacekeeping” http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=24818 ). His fears have proved all too well founded.
But despite the humiliation of UNAMID by Khartoum, and despite the manifest inability of UNAMID to protect itself, the presence of this operation is all that provides the security—deeply inadequate as it is—that permits humanitarians to remain. If UNAMID leaves, for whatever reason, so will the major aid organizations. Khartoum for its part has made clear it can easily live with the consequences. Indeed, Khartoum has already—in yet another unconscionable action against displaced persons—denied all international humanitarian access to Kalma camp since August 2, according to several senior UN officials. In turn, more than 7,000 of camp residents have sought protection at the UNAMID policing center outside Kalma http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N06157463.htm ). There are a number of reports of food shortages, lack of medical treatment, and water problems. Hygiene (this is the very height of the rainy season) is of urgent concern, particularly the maintenance of latrines. And yet the regime has gone so far as to threaten an assault on Kalma itself. Such barbarous threats and cruelly destructive denial of assistance provide the most immediate context for understanding the urgency of the Kalma standoff; but Kalma is only the thin edge of the wedge for Khartoum, something the UN seems incapable of understanding.
Alain Le Roy, current head of UN peacekeeping, has told Khartoum that it should “drop its request to hand over the six [displaced persons]. ‘We told Khartoum [that their request for those seeking refuge with UNAMID] is not in their interest'” (http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N06157463.htm ). The grim irony is that Khartoum may have calculated that it is precisely in their interest to use the pretext of UN custody of these six supposed camp leaders as a means of expelling or forcing the withdrawal of UNAMID—and thereby international humanitarians. There will then be nothing to prevent Khartoum from undertaking its long-professed goals of forcing people to return to their villages and lands—or to ominously unspecified “new villages” (http://www.radiodabanga.org/node/2677 )—with or without security.
In one sense we might wonder who will “blink first” in this situation. But the remorselessness of Khartoum’s conduct of its genocide by attrition ensures that whatever the disposition of the present case, UNAMID’s days in Darfur are numbered.
[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]