Sudan needs a UN peacekeeping mission

An early withdrawal of UN peacekeepers could have devastating consequences for the country.

by
    Two UNAMID peacekeepers patrol by trucks loaded with new arrivals of displaced Sudanese at Zamzam refugee camp, outside the Darfur town of al-Fasher, Sudan on March 23, 2009 [File: AP/Nasser Nasser]
    Two UNAMID peacekeepers patrol by trucks loaded with new arrivals of displaced Sudanese at Zamzam refugee camp, outside the Darfur town of al-Fasher, Sudan on March 23, 2009 [File: AP/Nasser Nasser]

    Just over a year after President Omar al-Bashir was deposed following months-long protests across the country, Sudan finds itself in an increasingly difficult political and socioeconomic situation. Counter-revolutionary forces have sought to undo much of the progress that has been achieved since last year, while the civilian government, which is supposed to lead the country through a political transition, is increasingly exposed to attacks and internal divisions.

    Meanwhile, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance, the civilian coalition behind the protests which helped form the government, is facing increasing fragmentation due to political, ideological and ethnic differences, further weakening civilian power.

    Amid this increasingly difficult situation, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok sent two letters to the United Nations, requesting the formation of a special political mission to Sudan under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which deals with the peaceful settlement of disputes. The current UN mission in the country, the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which was created under the Chapter VII provisions on peacekeeping and operates along with an African Union force, has a peacekeeping and civilian protection mandate in Darfur which will expire in October this year.

    The requested new mission is to cover the "entire territory of Sudan" and support the application of Sudan's Constitutional Declaration, which was introduced last year to pave the way for civilian rule. It would also be tasked with the promotion of peace settlements in conflict zones in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the mobilisation of international economic assistance, the coordination of humanitarian aid, and constitution-making and various state reform efforts, as stated in Hamdok's letters to the UN.

    His request, if approved, will shift the role of the international community in Sudan from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, something Khartoum has been calling for since last year. This move by the prime minister has triggered extremely heated debate and tensions that could lead to deep divisions and violence in Sudan.

    Many Islamist groups, particularly the leaders and supporters of the old regime, have taken the opportunity to attack the government and accuse it of undermining the country's sovereignty and independence and putting its territorial integrity at risk by opening Sudan for new colonialism.

    Among other factors, the accusations stem from claims that Hamdok's letters to the UN were reflecting the British and German joint proposal at the UN Security Council. This strengthened the belief in some circles that the requested new UN mission would be a tool for foreign interference in Sudan's internal affairs and that Hamdok's government is a puppet of foreign powers.    

    Others also found the move problematic, albeit for different reasons.

    Many activists and observers inside the country believe that the divisions within the FFC and Hamdok's failure to capitalise on the momentum of the revolution by mobilising grassroots support for his government have weakened it. His request for a new UN mission, which to a certain extent indeed aligns with British and German proposals, constitutes an attempt to increase his international legitimacy as he faces growing domestic troubles.

    But more worryingly, Hamdok's decision to seek a political mission with no peacekeeping powers is a concession to the military. Many have feared that tensions between the prime minister and the FFC have pushed him to seek support from General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the army and chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemeti), the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), one of the main state-sponsored militias accused of war crimes in Darfur.

    It is in the interests of both the army and the RSF for UN peacekeepers to withdraw from the country and for no foreign force to have a civilian protection mandate, which would interfere with their operations in different conflict hotspots across the country. A weaker UN presence would also mean a weaker position of civilian power vis-a-vis the military. Undoubtedly, this situation will eventually undermine Sudan's civilian government and the transition it is supposed to lead.

    Therefore, not requesting civilian protection powers for the new UN mission is a fatal mistake.

    Hamdok has claimed that the political, security and humanitarian situations have improved after al-Bashir's removal, but nothing is further from the truth.

    The civilian population of Darfur has seen no improvements in their daily lives so far. The armed attacks, as well as the systemic and wide-spread human rights violations against civilians, particularly, internally displaced persons, continue in the region.

    In early January, violence erupted in West Darfur, from where UNAMID forces have withdrawn, killing more than 80 people, injuring 190 and displacing 8,000.

    The area of Jebel Marra in central Darfur, where UNAMID still has some presence, has also seen continuous incidents of violence. A UN report released in March lists 21 violent incidents from October 2019 to January 2020, which resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Some 8,600 people were displaced in the area as a result of the violence while frequent sexual violence and physical assaults against civilians have continued. UNAMID has had to step up patrols in order to deescalate the situation.

    In May, more than 30 people were killed when clashes between Fallata and Rezeigat tribes erupted in South Darfur. Some 95 criminal incidents were reportedly perpetrated by armed persons in military uniform, as well as members of nomadic communities.

    The March UN report expresses concerns about the persistent violence in areas from which UNAMID has withdrawn and warns that the "fundamental conflict drivers remain unresolved" which could "exacerbate intercommunal tensions".

    Apart from the UN, various non-government organisations have also expressed concerns about the withdrawal of UNAMID and the lack of civilian protection provisions for the new UN mission requested by Hamdok.

    Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has argued: "The UN Security Council should recognize that Darfur requires a far more gradual withdrawal and keep a UN security presence on the ground to actively protect civilians. Past and ongoing violence there means civilians can't trust Sudanese security forces alone and still look to peacekeepers for protection."

    On May 4, 98 human rights and civil society groups and activists sent a letter to Hamdok, in which they expressed their strong opposition to "the departure of the UNAMID from Darfur with a mandate under Chapter VII to be replaced with a Chapter VI mission. In the face of grave vulnerabilities facing civilians in displaced camps, it is inconceivable that your government would not put civilian protection at the top of the list."

    Currently, there are negotiations going on in South Sudan's capital Juba between Sudan and various armed groups on its territory, but no final peace agreements have been reached yet. There are still various sticking points, such as security arrangements and power sharing. The fact that some of these armed groups and the government itself suffer from internal divisions is additionally complicating the process, which will take a long time to conclude.

    In the meantime, attacks on the civilian population, particularly on internally displaced persons, will continue and once UNAMID withdraws completely, they will likely become that much more ferocious and deadly.

    Therefore, a UN special political mission under Chapter VI, as requested by the prime minister, will fall short of addressing the situation in Darfur and other conflict-ridden regions of the country. Given that achieving peace is at the top of the transition agenda of the new government, this would undermine all its efforts to establish stable civilian rule in the country.

    Ignoring the plight of millions in the IDP camps and hundreds of thousands of refugees would only push Sudan towards fragmentation, violence and chaos.

    Therefore, the government has to request the extension of the UNAMID mandate beyond October 2020 and its equipment with a more robust force for civilian protection to properly implement its Chapter VII mandate. Or it could ask for the force to be replaced by a broader mission under Chapter VII with additional tasks to assist and support the transitional government.

    The threat of the deep state and counter-revolution is very real in Sudan. The agents of the counter-revolution, as well as some anti-democracy regional powers, are working hard to undermine Sudan's political transition. Protecting civilians and achieving a just and comprehensive peace is the only way to a successful political transition and strong civilian rule in Sudan. 

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


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