Withdrawing peacekeepers from Darfur: is the region ready?
Tajeldin A. Adam
“Armed militias settled in our lands, they occupied all our farms and orchards. Who is going to remove them and give us or lands back if peacekeepers leave Darfur? We ask the UN to keep its forces in Darfur, there is still no peace.”
These are dispirited words of “Daud Jama,” a sixty-one-year-old IDP in the town of Mornei in West Darfur, voicing concerns over plans to withdraw UN blue helmets from the region. Since June 2017, the UN Security Council undertaken a major downscaling of the size of its peacekeeping mission in Darfur, citing lack of resources and improvement of security conditions on the ground. When deployed at full capacity more than 10 years ago, UNAMID (United Nation -African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur) was comprised of about 20,000 troops, over 6,000 police members and significant civilian personnel, making it one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in history. Until June 2016, UNAMID had a sizable number of 15,845 military personnel and 3,403 police forces, but these figures began to dwindle further from January 2017 onwards. Now, however, the mission faces the most drastic cut in size since the UNSC adopted the Resolution 2363 of 29 June 2017, which approved the reduction of blue helmets from 13,000 into 11,400 and outlined further cuts for 2018. The cumulative effect of this process has currently left UNAMID with only 8,829 military personnel, 2,478 police members and 2,621 civilian staff, totals set out in the subsequent UN resolution of 13 July 2018. The resolution extended UNAMID’s mandate for what appeared to be its final year unto June 2019. The resolution additionally called for an additional reduction of troops to 4,050 by June 2019 “unless the Security Council decides to adjust the scope and pace of the reduction.“
The UN argued from the beginning of this process that downsizing the mission would be gradually conducted through different stages, taking into account security improvements and stability across Darfur. In accordance with the overall plan, UNAMID started to shutdown many team sites in various locations in Darfur beginning in October 2017; these included Malha, Mellit, and Um Kadada, North Darfur, and Muhajeria, East Darfur and Habila, Furbaranga, Tulus, Id al-Fursan and Zam Zam in South and West Darfur. Most of the closed sites, if not all, were handed over to the Sudanese government. This fast-tracking of UNAMID reconfiguration has culminated in the confinement of the mission to the geographical scope to greater Jabal Marra area exclusively, including Golo, Zalingei, Nyartetei and Golo (Central Darfur) and Kalma, Kass, Manawashei and Khor Abeche (South Darfur) and Kutum, Saraf Omra, Kabkabiyah, Tawilah, Sortony, and Shangil Tobaya (in North Darfur). Apparts from these areas, all other team sites where peacekeepers maintained a presence to protect civilians have either been permanently closed down or will be in the months to come.
Today, more than a year from the start of the downsizing operation, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, has re-iterated commitments to the previous strategy, declaring that UNAMID must shift priorities from peacekeeping to peacebuilding and development. “Now is the time to plan for future of UN & AU support to Darfur by closely linking drawdown in peacekeeping to build-up in peacebuilding & development,” he told aUNSC briefing session on 11 June 2018. But despite sticking to the announced exit strategy, the world body is still struggling to come up with a comprehensive assessment on security improvement in Darfur. Yet the fundamental reality is that, as many would argue, the overall situation in the region remains perilous and far from being conducive to millions of IDPs and refugees returning to their homes.
It is deeply paradoxical that while senior UN officials drawing up plans in New York to terminate the mission’s mandate, thousands of civilians are being targeted and displaced in Jabal Marra, the mountainous region covering more than 13,000 square kilometers in Darfur. Since 20 March of this year, the Sudanese army and allied militia fighters (re-branded as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been conducting large-scale military operations in and around a cluster of villages in various locations in Jabal Marra, including, Dubu al-Umadah, Sawani, Barkor Lehi, Darbat, Jawa, Kidnir and others. The declared goal of the government military offensive is to flush out fighters belonging to Sudan’s Liberation Army, led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur and take control of what Khartoum considers to be one of the last strategic locations still held by the significantly weakened rebel fighters in the region.
Amnesty International however, has strongly contested the Sudanese government claims in a display of satellite images showing the destruction of at least 13 villages by government forces over a period of four months since the start of military attacks in the eastern parts of Jabal Marra alone. Several eyewitnesses who were present in the villages of Korgo Dumaa, Balley, Feina and Saboon Alfogoor who spoke to Amnesty during the attack stated that government forces have deliberately attacked their villages, killed civilians, burned and looted homes even though there were no rebel forces available inside the villages . The human rights advocacy group warned that the scheduled pull out of UNAMID forces from Darfur would subject civilians to more violence in future: “The UN Security Council must not and cannot abandon the people of Darfur by downsizing UNAMID, their only source of security and safety,” concluded Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
Attacks on civilians by government-affiliated militia groups continues unabated across Darfur. In South Darfur alone, for instance, more than 12 civilians were killed by armed various militias in the last two weeks of August. In fact, such attacks on civilians, the burning of villages, and the displacement of residents have remained all too familiar facts of life in Darfur. Khartoum’s longstanding failure to preserve the threshold of international humanitarian law while fighting insurgents and its presumptuous behavior in ignoring international criticism is a well-known; but what is disturbingly new now is the international community’s endorsement of the Sudanese government’s controversial plans in Darfur. The increasing number of statements made by UN officials on improvement of security and humanitarian conditions amid attacks on civilians and ongoing violence are quite simply baffling.
Mass rape crime trigger-point for UNAMID exit
Despite the full international legitimacy and massive resources dedicated to UNAMID to fulfil its well-defined mandate of protecting defenceless civilians and saving lives in Darfur, history makes clear that it was the malefactors in Khartoum who decided, indeed insisted that the mission withdraw from the theater of their crimes; the benevolent architects of withdrawal in New York were left with no real choice other than confronting the regime of Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the ICC for genocide in Darfur.
Let’s recall that an especially forceful demand for UNAMID’s exit from Darfur was made by Khartoum following the implication of a government army battalion in the mass rapes of more than 200 girls and women in the village of Tabet in North Darfur in 2014. At the time, UNAMID accused Sudanese security forces of obstructing its steps to investigate the rape claims. The government in Khartoum immediately dismissed the incidents as a fabrication and called for the mission to prepare an exit strategy to leave the region altogether. Ironically, though the Sudanese reaction was typically precipitate and impulsive one, it created a tipping point nonetheless: there soon followed a gradual downsizing and eventual pullout of UN troops from Darfur. Achieving such success was probably more than what Khartoum had originally hoped for. It would have perhaps wanted a silence on the rape incident and a few assurances on the mission’s long-term future in the region. In any case, the subsequent evolution of events has increasingly shown that Khartoum was somehow not only able to demand when and how the expected exit takes place, but also the agenda to proceed with, all from a position of some leverage.
Sudanese government officials were understandably eager to express their readiness to fill any potential vacuum created by the absence of peacekeepers from the region. Khartoum’s UN representative, Omar Dahab, described the UN approval of the exit strategy as “an unprecedented endorsement of the Sudanese government assertions on improvement of security in Darfur.” Indeed, for Dahab and his superiors in Khartoum, the UN decision was a gift from heaven. Of course Sudan had never wanted to host these UN-backed peacekeepers in the first place. But the Sudanese regime could nonetheless claim vindication with its insistence on improvement of security conditions in Darfur; this is another clarity that we have to address separately. For again, there is simply no truth in this claim and it should certainly convince few who know what is actually occurring on the ground.
This is the same regime that has always been at odds with the rest of the outside world when it comes to Darfur. But thanks to the U.S.retreating role in Darfur—beginning under President Obama and continuing in Trump administration—as well as some new global realities (especially African migration to the European continent), President Al-Bashir’s regime now seeks to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community. I would argue that the current UN support for Sudan’s position on Darfur is hardly based on factual security developments on the ground, but rather is related to the increasing level of understanding and cooperation between the regime and some international players on several issues. Key among these is the threat of transnational terrorism and movements of migrants from Sudan to some neighbouring Mediterranean countries, namely Libya and Egypt.
Understandably, there is a growing sense of discomfort among Sudanese human rights groups and opposition factions in general that Khartoum’s growing rapprochement with its international partners and its engagement in some regional issues would come at the cost of a credible peace forum and respect for human rights. In Darfur, the real danger is that in the wake of the dwindling number of UN troops, government sponsored tribal militias and paramilitary groups, still freely roaming up and down a vast terrain of lands, will become the only meaningful armed forces They could be the new “peace messengers:” those most responsible for violence, death, and displacement have perversely come to be entrusted by Khartoum to deal with the vulnerable population they have created in this conflict-shattered region.
Tajeldin Abdalla Adam, a Sudanese journalist and security analyst previously worked for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the BBC Monitoring Service. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 The United Nations and Darfur: http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/sudan/fact_sheet.pdf