Written by IJP Law and Policy Interns: Elizabeth Beaman, Holly Coppens, Devin Griffin, & Saige Subick
When civil war erupted in Sudan killing upwards of hundreds of thousands of people and displacing an estimated 1.8 million, the United Nations’ top priority was to assemble a peacekeeping mission to aid and protect those within the turbulent region. In response to the escalating violence between the Government of Sudan, its allied militia, and rebel groups, the African Union deployed a peacekeeping mission to increase security and to address humanitarian needs in the region. This mission was replaced by the joint African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur, or UNAMID in 2007 (UNAMID Background ). UNAMID’s core mandate is to protect civilians, as well as to provide security for humanitarian assistance, to promote human rights and the rule of law, and to monitor/report transpiring conditions (UNAMID Mandate).
Since it’s deployment, the Security Council, the member states of the United Nations, and scholars alike have had contrasting opinions about the pros and cons of the mission’s objectives and overall success. Nonetheless, the Security Council has renewed the mandate seven times over the course of its history. Yet, with every renewal, personnel numbers – including military forces, police forces, and police units – have been slashed, the mission’s core mandate has been refocused, and unenforceable strategies have been included. (UN Security Council RES 2063; UN Security Council RES 2173 ). These amendments attempted to respond to issues caused by the Government of Sudan’s non-cooperation with peacekeepers on the ground and the constant hindrance of the UNAMID’s performance. Every renewal of UNAMID has eradicated another tool necessary for success. This month, the Security Council will meet again for their yearly assemblage to decide on UNAMID’s fate (UN June 2015 Forecast). This year differs from those prior in that rather than talks of adjustment, there are talks of implementing an “exit strategy” (which has been widely misconstrued by Khartoum), despite the escalating daily violence and danger posed to civilians (Secretary General; Review Reports, Feb. 2015).
With the permission of the Sudanese government, UNAMID is tasked to operate with unconstrained access to the region. However, relations between Sudan and UNAMID have rapidly deteriorated, especially over the past year. Despite receiving $1.3 billion in aid each year, President Omar al-Bashir has publicly called for an end to the joint peacekeeping mission (Military Times). In a press conference in 2014 in Khartoum, al-Bashir declared peacekeepers as burdensome groups that have become a means of protection for rebels, not for citizens. Al-Bashir is calling for a clear exit plan, exemplified by his closing a joint UN-African Union human rights office in the capital city of Khartoum in response to UNAMID’s inquiries into an alleged mass rape in the city of Tabit (Reuters). The effectiveness of UNAMID depends largely on Sudan’s receptiveness to the peacekeeping efforts, and al-Bashir is no longer even pretending to be welcoming of the mission. Even as recently as April, al-Bashir asked supporters, “Do you need someone to tell you how to find reconciliation between yourselves? Do you need UNAMID? Do you need the African Union? Do you need the UN?” (RadioDabanga). The ultimate future of UNAMID requires al-Bashir’s acceptance of the mission, which as of recently seems tenuous at best.
The pending renewal of UNAMID has led many to question the efficiency of the peacekeeping mission as a whole. The UNAMID mission in Darfur has been called the third most deadly peacekeeping mission, with at least 216 members killed since its creation. Additionally, UNAMID is routinely denied access to conflict zones (NYTimes). This denial, combined with frequent attacks on peacekeepers, has resulted in the mission’s inability to adequately protect civilians, report on human rights abuses, and aid whatever is left of the necessary humanitarian groups on the ground.
The most blatant example of an inability to meet their mission goals is the horrific events well-documented to have occurred in the town of Tabit in North Darfur between October 20 to November 1, 2014. Over a 36-hour period, Sudanese government soldiers carried out a series of attacks against civilians; this attack included the mass rape of hundreds of women and girls, the beating of countless people, and the arbitrary detention of many others. (Human Rights Watch- Mass Rape in Darfur) Following the military attack, the government repeatedly denied access to UNAMID and other investigators. It wasn’t until over one week after the attacks that UNAMID gained access to Tabit. UNAMID was only permitted to conduct interviews under constant government surveillance for a mere four hours before they were forced to leave. During this short period of time, they claimed that they were able to interview numerous residents and conclude that it did not find any evidence proving the allegations of mass rape. (Human Rights Watch- Mass Rape in Darfur)
On the other hand, shortly thereafter, Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted interviews with residents of Tabit and issued an extensive report on the events that occurred over that same 36-hour period, as reported by the victims. This painted a completely different and horrific picture of the events. HRW collected the names and information of 221 women and girls who were allegedly raped and a number of men who were severely beaten. Since this brutal attack on citizens, the government has used scare tactics and intimidation to keep victims from reporting to UNAMID the violence they experienced at the hands of State soldiers. (Human Rights Watch- Mass Rape in Darfur)
The glaring question this presents is whether or not UNAMID has the ability to perform their mandated duty to aid and protect civilians in Darfur. The mission is specifically required to report sexual and gender-based violence, so why is it that UNAMID not only failed to prevent the mass rapes of Tabit, but also has failed to report the truthful aftermath? The answer, while unfortunate, is clear. As it currently exists and functions, UNAMID is under the consent, watch, and ultimately, control of al-Bashir and his government, who are the very actors responsible for perpetrating the crimes. The case of Tabit only illuminates some of the many issues UNAMID faces on a daily basis while trying to protect civilians and report the crimes.
In addition, twenty to thirty organizations have been kicked out by the government or have been forced to withdraw due to lack of security (Washington Post). Not only are the humanitarian groups themselves beginning to dwindle in numbers, but so too are the peacekeepers sent to protect them. This vicious cycle is only worsening by the day. Further, despite being comprised of African Union members, many are also distrustful of UN intervention in the region, and political tensions are thus leaving peacekeepers stranded in the crossfire.
Despite the lack of progression in the International Criminal Court case against al-Bashir, UNAMID continues its efforts to protect members of the population. During a recent panel at the NYC Bar Association co-hosted by the International Justice Project, International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, and the Vance Center, Luke Mhlaba, Principal Legal Officer for the Office of the Legal Counsel of the UN, emphasized that the UNAMID mission is not there to implement criminal law but there to protect the population. Mhlaba stressed the importance of UNAMID’s renewal because “the casualties are less then there would be without them.” Without UNAMID, there would be no protection for the civilians of Sudan, as the government would be able to commit these atrocities without any witnesses to report. Even though the UNAMID report on Tabit was not accurate or complete, without UNAMID’s presence, it is very likely that the incident would go without being reported at all.
Any chance at peace and stability for the civilians in Darfur rests with the Security Council’s decision in the coming days (prior to the June 30 mandate expiration), and it is imperative that civil society voice concerns of those effected by a cut or exit. An independent body for the UN Security Council, The Security Council Report, recently released a statement regarding the current crisis and future goals of UNAMID. The Report noted an increase in violence directed towards civilians and Peacekeepers, as well as obstacles facing UNAMID’s attempt to report on such conflicts. The Report also listed two limited and specific options for the Security Council to select from in the June Renewal meeting: (1) the Security Council could renew the mandate as is; and (2) the Security Council could renew the mandate for a shorter time, with a decrease in troop sizes, as well as restricting the geographic scope to only areas of high conflict (Security Council Report). Despite calls for a more limited mandate, the increase in violence shows that is not a proper option at this time. The Security Council should not diminish UNAMID’s capacities during a time of crisis; it should renew the mandate in full and with increased capabilities and accountability. While UNAMID has been criticized – rightly so, in many instances – it is important to bear in mind the challenges the mission faces, and understand that not renewing and strengthening the peacekeeping force would leave civilians and humanitarian groups in Sudan stranded, without even a mere sense or shred of protection from the tyrannical reign of President al-Bashir.