Discussions about UNAMID must Prioritise Protection
Published: 14 Jun 2017
By: Thijs Van Laer
Is UNAMID next on the UN peacekeeping chopping block? It seems likely, as years of advocacy by the Government of Sudan and the current US administration’s eagerness to cut UN peacekeeping costs seem to come together. But many civilians continue to rely on the peacekeeping mission’s relative protection, as attacks on civilians continue.
Today, the UN Security Council is discussing the mandate of the joint United Nations/African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), whose mandate expires at the end of the month. It is vital that this debate takes the views of the civilians who are affected by the mission’s presence into consideration.
International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) reflected some of those voices in a report published a year ago. At that time, citizens in Darfur were unequivocal that the situation would be worse if the mission were to leave. A displaced man told us: “[UNAMID] are not active because they are not free. They are unable to move or to act alone. Obviously they are controlled by government of Sudan. [But] their objectives are good…. [And] despite all that, their existence is important. It would be even worse without them.”
UNAMID has been in Darfur for almost a decade and discussions about its role, efficacy and activities are warranted. A recent joint UN-AU review suggested concentrating the missions force in the instable Jebel Marra area in Central Darfur, where attacks have generated ongoing displacement, focussing on peace building in other areas and reducing the maximum troop ceiling with 44%. However, financial motivations risk gaining the upper hand over attempts to maximise its effectiveness and cutting UNAMID’s troop numbers and resources might aggravate the situation, as violence against civilians continues.
Attacks on internally displaced people (IDPs) sites have continued at the same level as in previous years, according to a recent UN report and the root causes of violence and displacement remain fundamentally unaddressed. UNAMID’s capacity to protect remains vital. Many citizens interviewed by IRRI in Darfur last year expressed their appreciation for the protection offered by UNAMID at sites where IDPs had found shelter. For those IRRI spoke with, their ongoing displacement is evidence that the situation is still volatile. A woman living in an IDP camp told us: “UNAMID are here, and yet it is clear there is no stability, because many of the IDPs who were recently returned have now been displaced for a second time – in fact, even more than ever before, because of the volatile security situation.” In addition, many dwellers at displacement sites look to UNAMID to facilitate their return and key for a durable solution.
Many of those we spoke to during the research criticised the mission’s capacity to provide protection beyond the IDP settlements, explaining that this was the result of a combination of government restrictions, lack of resources and disparities between troop-contributing countries. One year on, despite a reduction in the level of armed confrontations, attacks against civilians, including sexual violence, continue to take place. Scaling down the force presence in most parts of Darfur seems out of touch with these observations.
On a positive note, many of the Darfuris we spoke to valued UNAMID’s role in providing humanitarian assistance and in human rights reporting, despite criticising the mission for its apparent lack of independence vis-à-vis the Sudanese government. While both roles could, in theory, be taken over by the UN country team, this requires necessary funding and political efforts to ensure sufficient pressure is applied to the government to help address the persistent security problems and movement restrictions of UN and other international actors. Both conditions seem currently absent.
One issue that cannot be ignored, is that reducing UNAMID’s presence would play into the hands of the Khartoum government, which has continuously asked for UNAMID’s exit. Combined with the easing of sanctions by the US administration and migration deals with the European Union, a reduction of UNAMID will alleviate pressure on a government already dragging its feet on necessary reforms. In addition, it will inevitably reduce the ability for oversight of the government’s activities in Darfur. Many of the citizens we interviewed saw the government as the main perpetrator of abuses. More recently, it has been accused of ongoing serious human rights violations, including allegations of the use of chemical weapons. As one man told us: “The government wants to get UNAMID out so that it can conduct its worst activities.”
UN Security Council members must ensure that the discussions focus around “reshaping” rather than “reducing” UNAMID’s capacity and that any changes agreed do not negatively affect Darfuri citizens. Instead of focussing on budget cuts, UNSC members should also ensure that citizens in Darfur are not stripped of the minimal protection available to them. A clear strategy must be put in place to mitigate the risks for civilians: any unavoidable cuts should avoid weakening UNAMID’s protection abilities, contingents which refuse to take protective action should be prioritised for withdrawals and serious political efforts should be undertaken to challenge remaining movement restrictions.