The UN in Sudan: A Mission that Hates Success
Reporting to the U.N. Security Council on the situation in Darfur last April, the U.N.-African Union Joint Special Representative to Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, revealed to members evidence of remarkable progress in the region during the past year. Compared to the murderous conflict which caused AU-UN troops to be send there in the first place, the current situation could be characterised as “in purely numerical terms [as] a low-intensity conflict.”
Between January 2008 and end of March 2009, about 2,000 violent deaths occurred in the region, one third of them civilian. Of the rest, 573 were combatants, and 569 died in intertribal fighting. UNAMID suffered 14 fatalities. This is by all means a remarkable turn of events. The rate of killings in Darfur has dropped below the rate of murder in some American cities, such as Chicago. During the same period, UNMIS chief in Sudan, Ashraf Qazi complained that violent deaths due to tribal conflict in the South of Sudan were much higher than casualties in Darfur.
Things continued to get better. Last June, UNAMID reported only 16 violent deaths in the whole of Darfur, almost all appeared to be the result of criminal activities not directly related to the conflict. New York usually has that number every 10 days, while Chicago nearly every week. At another level, recent UNICEF reports that infant mortality in Darfur is now lower than some other areas in Sudan, such as Kassala in the East.
The UN thus has every reason to celebrate these achievements. Its mission in Darfur has apparently achieved the impossible, in spite of limited resources and multiple constraints, and brought violence down dramatically. Self-congratulation was in order.
But New York was not at all in celebratory mood. In fact, the mood was emphatically vile, and the first thing New York did was to shoot the messenger who brought the good news. Adada became practically the victim of constructive dismissal as he was forced out of office by thinly disguised machinations. The AU, the supposed partner of the UN in the mission, was not even consulted. The mission’s top general was also abruptly replaced. At the same time, New York was actively conspiring to effectively dissolve its partnership with the AU. Its lawyers drafted “secret” memos arguing that the AU does not have any privileged role to play in what was legally and practically a purely UN mission authorised by the Security Council.
On July 30, the Council issued Resolution 1881 (2009) renewing the UNAMID mission for one more year, and at the same time “expressing concern… at the continued seriousness of the security situation and deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Darfur, and at the recurring attacks on the civilian population.” More ominously, the resolution called on UNAMID “to make full use of its mandate and capabilities” in order to protect civilians and ensure unhindered humanitarian access”.
The resolution and its tone raises some disturbing questions, indicating that the mission was in serious crisis. For one thing, where did the UN Security Council got its information about the deteriorating situation in Darfur when its own mission on the ground is telling it that the situation is in fact improving, and dramatically so? And second, what is meant by the implied criticism of the current UNAMID leadership in urging the mission to use its full mandate? Is the implication that the mission is currently holding back? And does this imply a command to be more confrontational with the government in deference to the urging of some belligerent Security Council members and their activist constituencies? And how is UNAMID to do that, when it is dependent of the Sudanese for its security, as evidenced by the military police standing guard outside its offices in Darfur cities? And how does this square with the resolution’s preamble which affirms its commitment to the sovereignty of Sudan?
The mandarins in New York and the men who pull the purse strings appear oblivious to the fact the operation in Darfur is taking place in a sovereign country with a functioning government. This is not Kosovo or East Timor. And this is not Somalia or Sierra Leone either. Sudan is not –yet- a failed sate, despite the efforts of some. And Darfur is no longer the acute humanitarian crisis the UN appears –perversely- to want it to be to justify both its presence, and to appease the activists clamouring for blood.
It is clear from the “purges” UNAMID has suffered, and the belligerent tone of the resolution, together with the concerted effort to muscle the AU out of the mission in favour of more direct UN control of operations, that the top brass in New York, and the powers who run the organisation behind the scenes, are now intent on escalating matters in Darfur, a path that could at best be described as suicidal for the mission. The powers that be appear acutely uncomfortable with the mission’s African character, which they have been forced to accept under duress. They do not regard this as “their” mission, and have continued to disparage its African component and blame it for all the shortcomings.
This in turn points to the fatal flaw in the very basis of the mission: it is a peace keeping mission with no peace to keep. Theoretically, the mission is here to enforce the 2006 Abuja Darfur Peace Agreement. But not even the most deluded person believes that fiction any more. The mission was supposed to work towards achieving peace, but its mediating function remains its weakest link. To date, the most high profile achievement of the Joint Chief Mediator has been to attend a mediation session organised by Qatar, in his input was minimal. To make matters worse, the Chief Mediator has been practically at war with the rest of the mission, and refused to invite any of his senior colleagues to the talks.
Without a serious effort to advance the peace process, the Council’s affirmation of the need for “an inclusive political settlement” as the only viable solution for the crisis becomes vacuous. And with the apparent powerlessness to even bring some of the key actors to the negotiating table, let alone getting them to talk peace, such resolutions are just talk.
Up to now, the mission has been able to achieve tangible progress through the hard work of its staff and the patient wisdom of its key figures. The new gung-ho attitude and the assault on the mission is sure to have disastrous effects all round. Darfur does not need more of those.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is an ESRC-AHRC Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme, UK. He is based at the University of Westminster