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Tendai Marima
Tendai Marima
Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Sudan: Mission impossible or mission failure?
A draft resolution crafted by the US was approved by the UN requesting that 4,200 Ethiopian troops be deployed to Abyei.
Last Modified: 05 Jul 2011 10:02
In Abyei, a contested region between north and south, more than 160,000 internally displaced persons have been reported, with thousands more killed and unknown numbers of women and children raped [EPA]

A draft resolution crafted by the United States, and recently submitted to the United Nations, requesting that 4,200 Ethiopian troops be deployed to the troubled Abyei region of Sudan has been approved by unanimous vote. According to the resolution, this group of blue helmets will be tasked with overseeing the withdrawal of north and south Sudan's fighting armies from Abyei and ensuring the safety of civilians and aid workers in the area.

Without a doubt, military reinforcement in Abyei is a welcome measure, but with news of more than 160,000 internally displaced persons, thousands killed and unknown numbers of women and children raped in the region and neighbouring South Kordofan, critics and cynics might ask: "Is this really the best the world and its global peacekeeper can do?"

To reports of frequent aerial bombardment and unburied corpses decaying on the outskirts of Kadugli, the UN has responded with diplomatic condemnation and concerned statements at the escalating violence which have all the might and force of a giant feather duster on a northern army intent on "cleansing" Sudan's border regions.

Mandated by weighty resolutions (with as many pages as the Bible) to protect civilians and maintain peace, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) waited for two member states, the US and Ethiopia, to propose a more concrete form of action. Granted, the UN is a democratic institution where members can advocate for action to be taken on particular issues, but the fact that the initiative to increase personnel deployment for Sudan's escalating crisis did not come from within UNMIS - and that the resolution makes no effort towards resolving the tribal and geo-political causes of conflict in desolate Abyei - speaks volumes about the UN's persistent failure to enact its peacekeeping mandate around the world.

Other than issuing emotive pleas for an end to the violence, the UN did little else to stop the massacres in Srebrenica and Rwanda. When almost 200 women and babies were raped in four days in eastern Congo in 2010, UN peacekeepers - 20 miles away - did nothing, zilch, zero to stop the violations.

In Sudan, May 2008, when fighting broke out between the region's tribal militias and north and south Sudan armies in Abyei, Richard Williamson, the then US Special Envoy for Sudan, scathingly said: "We pay a billion dollars a year for UNMIS and they didn't leave their garrison, while 52,000 lives were shattered and nearly a hundred people perished. The devastation was complete … UN peacekeepers and UNMIS staff in their garrison were as close as 25 feet away."

The UN's repeated tragedy of errors reveals the lack of adequately developed early warning systems that might prevent atrocities from occurring and the critical need for communication tools and training that would equip peacekeepers with the foresight to stop perpetrators dead in their tracks. 

Obviously, the UN's ineptitude is not solely to blame. That UNMIS in Sudan lacks the operational and resource capabilities to effectively carry out protection of civilians is an understandable problem, and even the UN's harshest critics can appreciate that the job of peacekeeping can be extremely difficult when armies and their proxy militia continuously fight with no end in sight. But, when a complex mission is further compounded by the unwillingness of personnel to fulfill their duties, UNMIS's failures become indefensible.

In Abyei, Zambian peacekeepers preferred to hide out in their rooms for two days rather than go on patrol and protect civilians caught up in the conflict. Similarly in South Kordofan, Egyptian troops are reportedly occasionally reluctant to carry out their duties. The head of SPLM in South Kordofan, Abdul Aziz Adam Al-Hilu, has also accused the Egyptians of complicity with the northern SAF's executions - and alleged that others raped six women in Kadugli - although UNMIS spokesperson Kouider Zerrouk has stated that an inquiry into the alleged incidences of sexual abuse shows that they "absolutely did not happen". No word on the complicity charges, however.

Locals in South Kordofan have complained that UNMIS's presence is only visible in Kadugli, while the rest of South Kordofan suffers an unrelenting northern onslaught of bombing, looting and rape in an effort to strip the border state of its right to self-determination and submit to Khartoum's control. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions will decide their fate as states belonging to the south or the north through popular consultation. With Khartoum carrying out an aggressive campaign to maintain its territorial authority, it's hard to be hopeful that the people of South Kordofan, particularly the Nuba, will be afforded the chance to choose.

Reported obstruction

While UNMIS has its fair share of logistical and personnel impediments, both the governments of Sudan and South Sudan have consistently prevented the mission from performing its humanitarian task. Towards the end of April, the South's SPLA soldiers, many of whom are from the Dinka tribe, opened fire on a rival ethnic group, the Nuer, in a remote village near the Nile River - reportedly killing more than 200 unarmed villagers, including children.

When the UN went to investigate, officials were prohibited from going to certain areas as the governor of Jonglei state claimed they were unsafe. On other occasions, the UN has complained that the Juba government's restriction of access to certain areas has "severely hampered the Mission's ability to verify the military and humanitarian situation and to address the plight of civilians". 

In South Kordofan, the northern army appears to be the main aggressor towards civilians and the UN. The airstrips of Kadugli and Kadua are inaccessible to planes carrying aid as the former has been closed for weeks and the latter airstrip has been bombed beyond recognition by the northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). The north's determination to impede the UN and other non-state aid agencies from performing their functions may result in a humanitarian catastrophe as people will starve without adequate food and water.

On June 9, South Sudan News Agency reported that a disabled man, later identified as Juma Bahri, was found dead in his wheelchair outside the UN base in Kadugli where he had sought protection from reprisal attacks by the northern army. Accusing some of the 6,000 civilians seeking refuge at the UN centre of being "SPLM sympathisers", the SAF is reported to have executed tens of people allegedly loyal to the south's Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

Attacking unarmed civilians under UN protection is a gross violation of international law and a gruesome reminder that Khartoum's use of force knows no bounds in the battle for Sudan's resource-endowed border states. Further flouting the rules of engagement in conflict, SAF forces have arrested and harassed UN personnel. On June 22, UNMIS reported that, in the previous week, four peacekeepers were detained and allegedly subjected to "mock executions" by north Sudanese forces and, this past week, six UN staffers were arrested by the north Sudanese army as they were being relocated to an area safer than Kadugli. Two have been released while the others remain in custody as the UN pleas for their release continue to fall on deaf ears.

How do you solve a problem like Sudan?

In the face of looming crises in Abyei, South Kordofan and Darfur, enacting the principle of Responsibility to Protect becomes increasingly important and Sudan's crisis demands a more nuanced range of responsive actions from the international community as a whole.

Sending extra troops to Abyei will not protect the civilians under siege in neighbouring South Kordofan. Nor will well-meaning, but misguided calls for unilateral US military intervention - such as those by John Prendergast of Enough Project, who has requested that the US provide South Sudan with "air defence capabilities". While Prendergast may be the yin to George Clooney's yang where all things Sudan are concerned, trigger-happy humanitarianism does not make for good military strategy. More weapons do not create peace, but more war.

The SPLA does not have the expertise to operate air defence missiles and even if they did, there is a risk of these arms falling into the wrong hands should troops defect to the north or to tribal militias - as has been known to happen. Chanelling the spirit of intervention, Roger Winter, a former US Special Envoy to Sudan, has also called on the Obama administration to "take a military action against a Khartoum military target now". With the US involved in a costly joint Libyan intervention, it is improbable that the American government would support such a move.

In the unlikely event that a member of the Security Council should propose joint or singular humanitarian intervention in Sudan, there are two great obstacles to contend with. China has welcomed Omar al-Bashir on a blood-red carpet - and as part of a new scramble for Africa agenda, India is rubbing its hands at the prospect of increased energy trade in Sudan. It is therefore likely that any proposals tabled before the Security Council for intervention in Sudan will be vetoed by the world's two most populous nations.

Rather than witnessing Sudan's formal north-south separation in a hand-wringing swan song about the hopes of creating lasting peace and security, against the backdrop of slaughtering and displacement of innocents, UNMIS may take on a more forceful role.

Apart from mediating the ceasefire negotiations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, UNMIS could also make an urgent request via the Security Council for neighbouring African states to provide disciplined reinforcements for South Kordofan. Another possibility is working with the Sudanese governments and local stakeholders to develop a more responsive action plan that addresses the complex causes of tension in the border states. This might include working with community leaders to set a timeline to carry out the popular consultations, otherwise more problems will arise once the CPA expires, when South Sudan becomes independent next week.

This is no quick and easy fix, but in Sudan's volatile climate, UNMIS needs to take a more pro-active role. Peace rhetoric and press releases of dismay at continuing conflict will not provide cover for the many men, women and children whose villages and towns have been burnt and bombed. A more empowered UNMIS needs to spring into action. Fast.

Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London whose research interests include African literature and global feminist theory.

Follow her on Twitter @KonWomyn

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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