Finally…a UN Mission in Darfur: The First Step in a Long, Difficult Journey

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By Kristine St. Pierre and Joshua G. Smith – On 31 July 2007, the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously approved the deployment of a joint African Union-UN operation to Darfur (UNAMID). With some 26,000 military and police personnel, it will be the largest UN operation since the interventions in Yugoslavia and Somalia in the 1990s, and the most expensive. Costs for the first year alone are expected to exceed $2 billion, a full third of the UN’s 2006-07 peacekeeping budget.

The new force, replacing an African Union mission of 7,000, is mandated to “support early and effective implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement, prevent the disruption of its implementation and armed attacks, and protect civilians.” It will likely be the most challenging and complex UN peacekeeping operation since the Korean War.  

Challenges Ahead

Protection of civilians will be difficult

A core component of UNAMID’s mandate is to protect civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence.” The task of shielding vulnerable populations from armed and determined enemies has overwhelmed even the most highly trained troops in the world in Iraq. The challenge is compounded by the immense geographic area where civilians are at risk, stretching the length of Darfur (larger than all of Iraq) and across two borders into Chad and the Central African Republic. Insecurity remains rampant in Darfur, with an estimated 240,000 civilians newly displaced since the start of 2007. Even since UNAMID’s authorization, Khartoum has continued its bombing raids on South Darfur villages and militia attacks are ongoing.

Success in protecting civilians will require a clear commitment from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and troop-contributing countries to give peacekeepers the authority and capacity to react quickly to potential attacks on civilians. UN troops need unambiguous “rules of engagement,” authorizing use of force against armed attackers when non-violent means fail, whether against rebels, Janjaweed militias, or the Sudanese military. The forces need mobility (including air assets) to respond rapidly to attacks and intelligence assets. To deter attacks on civilians, the hybrid force must be seen as willing and able to confront all armed factions if necessary.

Potential for Confusion over Composition and Command of UNAMID

The resolution authorizing UNAMID calls for a single chain of command, provided by the UN, but with dual selection and reporting procedures between both organizations. This is novel arrangement, the first ever true hybrid mission between the two organizations, posing potential for disagreements and confusion in the field. The AU Chairman, for example, recently surprised even the UN by stating that the force will be under AU control.

There has also been disagreement over the make-up of the force’s 26,000 uniformed personnel, with Khartoum insisting on an “African” force. UNAMID is to incorporate the 7,000 AU troops currently in Darfur and maintain “a predominantly African character,” but filling the force likely will require non-African contributions. AU leadership has suggested that all uniformed personnel come from Africa, a prospect neither likely nor entirely desirable. The AU has struggled to fill the already authorized strength of its missions in Darfur and Somalia, and many of the troops offered for the UN-AU force lack equipment and specialized training. The UN must remain adamant that troops be selected based on operational requirements, not purely political calculations.

Logistical Obstacles

A UN-AU joint report from June 2006 described Darfur as an “arid, landlocked region, over 1,000 miles away from any body of water….with (a) lack of infrastructure.” It is the type of environment that gives logisticians nightmares.Harsh climates, bands of armed criminals, and few functioning roads will present major obstacles for the transport of equipment and personnel. Ensuring the uninterrupted supply of water and electricity is of major concern. Another challenge will be to ensure equal treatment of AMIS and UN personnel. Western nations will need to offer major aid, such as airlifting personnel and assisting in the construction of barracks. So far, offers of critical logistical support (such as “utility helicopters, and transport and logistic units”) have fallen short of the mission’s needs, according to the Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNAMID’s deployment.

Hybrid force should complement the political process in Darfur

Key to the hybrid mission’s success is progress in negotiating a peace agreement acceptable to the myriad parties battling in Darfur: the factionalized rebels, the Janjaweed militias, and the government. Peacekeeping operations are more likely to fail when there is “no peace to keep.” Peacekeepers don’t end conflicts; they help negotiate, implement, and (when necessary) enforce peace agreements among parties mistrustful of the others’ intentions. UNAMID’s mandate calls for the force to “assist in implementation” of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), but the fact is that violence actually increased in the months following the signing of the DPA and few of the warring parties ever actually agreed to it. In short, a new, more inclusive peace pact is needed to supplant the inadequate DPA.

The peace process in Darfur has gained a bit of momentum recently. Talks between the government and rebels are slated to begin next month. A meeting held in Tanzania last month made some progress in unifying the rebels, now splintered into at least ten factions, and generated a “common agenda” on power-sharing, land, security, and humanitarian relief issues. Translating this into successful negotiations with Khartoum will likely be slow and tedious, but it is a promising development in a peace process that has had few major breakthroughs. Consistent international attention towards the peace process is key to ensuring that peacekeepers are not left struggling to keep a lid on violence for an open-ended duration and with no real roadmap for lasting peace.

International commitment should be on Sudan, not just Darfur

The UN Secretary-General has repeatedly stated that “a stable Sudan requires a peaceful Darfur.” But a peaceful Darfur requires a stable southern Sudan. Recent allegations of possible collapse of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), ending the two-decade North-South war, must not be taken lightly. The fear is that the deployment of the hybrid operation will split international efforts between Darfur and Southern Sudan. There are also concerns that human, financial and material resources will be rerouted to the Darfur mission from the current UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), deployed to oversee the implementation of the CPA and later mandated to extend its deployment to Darfur. With a lack of formal security forces, increasing banditry and lawlessness, and elections next year, the international community cannot afford to divert attention or resources away from the vital task of securing Southern Sudan and ensuring implementation of the CPA.


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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