“They did nothing”: UN peacekeeping missions’ forgotten local staff
Working for peacekeeping missions like UNAMID can be hugely risky for local staff. Yet they feel they get little protection from their employers.
It was a cold day in February 2016 that I arrived at a run-down block of flats in a UK city. I rang the bell and was warmly welcomed into the cold home. The heating had long been broken, I was told, and the two children that came running out coughed and sneezed intermittently.
The person I was here to see had once lived a very different life. A few years before this meeting, Mussa* had been living and working in Darfur. A qualified professional with a university degree, he had been recruited by the African Union/United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) at its inception in 2007. He had worked on human rights as one of mission’s local employees, providing essential knowledge and expertise on local conditions and interpretation.
“Human rights was a very important section,” Mussa recalled. “We went on missions for five days to collect data…My job was to translate or speak directly to people. We reported rape cases, killings of civilians, arbitrary arrests and detention”.
Mussa’s job was invaluable, but also risky. Many of the human rights violations Darfur had experienced in conflict since the mid-1980s had been carried out by government forces or their allies. And then president Omar al-Bashir had never given UNAMID his true consent or cooperation.
This mistrust only increased when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Sudanese leader, resulting in his indictment in 2009. Mussa remembered how the government responded by trying to stop UN agencies going on field missions and reporting human rights violations including by simply stealing their vehicles.
“At human rights we lost two cars in that way,” said Mussa. This led the UN to keep all their cars in a Super Camp in south Darfur, “all of them parked there instead of doing their job”.
In this hostile environment, local staff such were particularly vulnerable and often targeted. Mussa was arrested three times. The first occasion was in January 2010 when plain-clothes security agents seized him, blindfolded him and took him to a secret location. They beat him and threatened to kill him if he kept working for UNAMID. “I remember every detail because it was the first time”, recalled Mussa.
He went through similar experiences twice more, as did many of his Sudanese colleagues. “Most of [those targeted were] from black African tribes. Many of them were arrested, tortured and beaten, and threatened to leave the mission,” he said. “Because of the nature of our work we suffered a lot”.
Shortly after Mussa’s third arrest, he attended a training course in the UK. While he was there, his home village was attacked by pro-government militias and two of his human rights colleagues were seized and asked about his whereabouts. Mussa decided to stay and seek asylum. It was granted and he was later able to bring his wife and children to join him under family reunion laws.
Mussa was fortunate that he had travelled to the UK. Many others, similarly fearing for their lives, have had to flee Darfur through dangerous smuggling routes. The common factor in all their stories, however, is that despite the threats, they did not feel they got support they needed from UNAMID.
“I never wanted to leave my country and my extended family had a lot of trouble over time because I worked for UNAMID, but when I complained to UNAMID they did nothing,” said Mussa. He says his employer even accused him of taking advantage of the training course when they learned he had claimed asylum.
Mussa’s story highlights a big oversight in UNAMID and in UN peacekeeping operations in general. These missions rely heavily on local staff, particularly in collecting sensitive data. Yet they have little by way of systematic policies to protect these key members of the team.
As a frustrated UN official who wished to remain anonymous told me: “The use of local staff is vital”, but these individuals often face impossible trade-offs between “their role as human rights officers, compassion about the suffering of people from their kin often coupled with psychological stress when listening to their stories, and concerns about their own safety”.
These first two challenges are arguably an inherent part of the job. But the third is exacerbated by the UN policy that treats local staff as citizens of the host country and whose security is therefore meant to be guaranteed by the state. This means that the specific vulnerabilities of local employees are not taken into account and there are no systematic measures to help such staff withdraw from the mission and secure their safety.
This situation leads to stories like Mussa’s, of people who have risked everything – including the lives and safety of their families – by working for the UN but with little protection in return. Mussa had to take his fate into his own hands and, though he had to restart his life thousands of miles from his home in Darfur. He was one of the lucky ones.