As targeted violence continues to spread across the periphery regions of the country, the government of Sudan wants the United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur to close up shop.
2015 is proving to be a dangerous year for Sudan. The once simmering conflict in Darfur has surged back towards a level of intensity not seen in a decade. The government's failed military campaigns in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile continue to wreak havoc on the people there, many of who now live in mountain caves and overcrowded refugee camps. Civil society groups in major cities face the daily threat of ruthless government security services ahead of national elections that will be highlighted by voter intimidation and outright fraud.
Are Peacekeepers Not Helping?
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is facing an internal crisis concerning it's actions, or lack thereof, in Sudan. Unfortunately, it appears that the UNSC has little interest in resolving obvious issues. When the International Criminal Court's (ICC) Chief Prosecutor announced that she was suspending the court's Darfur investigations due to Council members being "unwilling to use its powers to help" secure arrests of known war criminals, the decision should have spurned the UNSC to action.
Meanwhile on the ground in Darfur, the situation looks bleak. Government attacks against civilians are once again on the rise. Continuing violence has displaced people at the highest rate since the crisis peaked in 2004. In 2014, over 450,000 people were displaced by growing violence, largely at the hands of the government of Sudan.
For non-Sudan observers, now would seem like the worst time to withdraw peacekeepers. Sadly, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, UNAMID, has a rough track record. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir - himself wanted by the ICC for crimes committed in Darfur - has undermined the mission by restricting peacekeepers movements and access of humanitarian workers. UNAMID also has many internal problems ranging from ill-equipped troops to frequent cover-ups of Sudanese government war crimes.
Most of these issues stem from an even larger one though: the U.N. Security's Council (UNSC) lack of political will to fully support the mission and pressure the government of Sudan to let peacekeepers do their jobs. This lack of will has not only had many deadly side effects for the people of Darfur, but also for U.N peacekeepers themselves. While trying to carry out their mission, UNAMID personnel have been harassed, abducted and attacked. Since the force was deployed in 2007, 215 peacekeepers and support staff have been killed, making UNAMID one of the most dangerous peacekeeping forces to serve in.
The government of Sudan wants UNAMID to leave Darfur as soon as possible. The mission is already preparing an exit strategy as the government of Sudan steadily ramps up pressure on just about every U.N agency left in Sudan. At the same time, UN peacekeeping leadership is currently consolidating UNAMID as it reexamines how to best implement it's mandate in the near future.
The primary question being asked by Sudan-observers now is if Darfur would be better off with or without UNAMID. The answer to that question largely boils down to if the UNSC is willing to provide the political and technical support to the mission that it has gone without since it's inception in 2007. Regardless of if the UNSC is willing to do it's basic job of supporting peacekeepers in Darfur, this is the wrong question to ask. UNAMID operates in a harsh environment with minimal resources and an impossible mandate to fulfill due to a lack of UNSC resolve to get the job done. But that doesn't mean that UNAMID has been a complete failure.
Despite UNAMID's massive shortcomings, the mere presence of U.N. blue helmets has often times deterred attacks on civilians. When it is capable, U.N. peacekeepers have pushed into Darfur hot spots to investigate and protect. While the latter has been heavily criticized due to Sudanese government forces scaring eyewitnesses and survivors of government attacks into remaining silent, UNAMID has proven that with the right political pressure on the government of Sudan, it can gain better access in Darfur. Additional political pressure from the UNSC could improve the quality of investigations as well. The recent mass rapes in Tabit, Darfur is an example of this: access can be gained with political pressure, but more pressure is needed to make UNAMID's investigations independent. Without independent, unfettered investigative abilities, UNAMID risks facing more allegations that it hasn't reported the full truth on what is happening in Darfur.
There is value in keeping UNAMID in Darfur, even if it means a slimmer force. As UNAMID looks to improve from within, the UNSC needs to recognize many of UNAMID's shortcomings are the fault of Council members. A better-equipped and politically supported UNAMID can shine a much brighter light into what is actually happening in Darfur and can better protect civilians. For UNAMID to do that though, the UNSC needs to take an uncompromising stand for the people of Darfur by placing and keeping pressure on the government of Sudan. UNAMID leadership needs to begin holding the force accountable to it's mission. And if Darfuris will accept a much-improved UNAMID, then the force will be in a better position to carry out what will always be a difficult mandate.
Let's be clear: this would take a lot of hard work and results wouldn't be seen overnight, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done. UNAMID is often viewed by Sudan-observers as "it works or it doesn't." This type of examination simply does not meet the realities of armed conflict. Even in a best case scenario, UNAMID will still be imperfect due to the environment it finds itself in. There is plenty of room for improvement though.
This leads us to the real question that needs to be asked. The primary question should not be "is Darfur better off with or without UNAMID?" It should be "is the UNSC ready to stand up for it's personnel and the people of Darfur?"
Only UNSC members can answer that question. We all know what the answer should be. The government of Sudan would be the only beneficiary of a UNAMID withdrawal. And if you think the situation in Darfur with an outgunned UNAMID is bad now, know that things will get much worse with no UNAMID presence at all.
Photo credit in order of appearance. The Associated Press, UN Photo, Foreign Policy.