By Tyler Drayton
The allegations are harrowing. In early November, Sudanese soldiers loyal to the President Omar al-Bashir rampaged through the small village of Tabit in the Darfur region of western Sudan, raping some 200 women in revenge for the disappearance of one of their compatriots. The accusations echoed through social media and prompted an investigation by UNAMID, the joint UN and African Union Mission in Darfur, into the cause and likely perpetrators of the atrocities.
UNAMID’s investigation, however, left a great deal to be desired. In striking contrast to the potent allegations, the initial investigation by UNAMID failed to produce any evidence of crimes being committed, while a report produced by the Mission stated that villagers continued to “coexist peacefully” with the army. The disjunct between the public outcry and the findings of UNAMID’s investigation came to a head with the leak of an internal report that presented a sharp contrast to the sunny rhetoric of the Mission’s official line. In contrast to public statements, the internal report stated that an “an environment of fear and silence prevailed” in the area, likely the result of persistent intimidation of villagers by Sudanese soldiers. Reports arose of villagers being pressured into withdrawing their allegations for fear of further violence.
The recent events in Tabit are the latest in a protracted civil war between the Sudanese army and Darfuri rebels. The war, which began in 2003, arose as a result of public dissatisfaction with the government in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which rebel groups claimed was oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government’s resulting crackdown on the rebels amounted to one of the world’s worst incidences of ethnic cleansing. The conflict has so far claimed some 300,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million people; 430,000 in this year alone. The International Criminal Court has charged Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, with genocide and crimes against humanity. He has refused to face trial.
In response to the atrocities, the Security Council established UNAMID in 2007, with a mandate to halt the atrocities and to attempt to broker a lasting peace between the government and the rebels. Initially, UN and African Union officials claimed that the 20,000 peacekeeping troops deployed by the Mission had succeeded in this aim. However, recent events have brought such claims into significant doubt, bringing into question UNAMID’s ability to act as an effective bulwark against continuing violence in Darfur.
This is not the first time that UNAMID has been accused of mismanagement. In March 2013, armed rebel fighters captured three buses containing displaced residents of Darfur who were being escorted to a peace conference by UNAMID peacekeepers. The individuals kidnapped were held in a rebel stronghold in terrible conditions for six days before finally being released to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Though UNAMID disputes the allegations, victims and bus drivers involved in the kidnappings said that the peacekeeping forces made no visible attempt to stop the kidnappers. The UN has never publicly disclosed the details of the kidnapping.
Later that same month, according to a UNAMID report, a Sudanese warplane killed a number of locals – including a woman and a child – at a watering hole in northern Darfur. Though a translator working with UNAMID witnessed the event, testimony of local observers failed to meet the evidentiary standards required by the mission. As a result, the incident was never reported to the UN Security Council. A recent report by an independent probe commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon found a number of other similar instances in which officials from UNAMID withheld evidence indicating the culpability of Sudanese government forces in crimes against civilians and peacekeepers. Since the Mission’s inception, 212 UN peacekeepers have died in Darfur, with only two UN operations exacting a higher toll. Though attacks on UN peacekeepers constitute an international crime, no credible prosecutions have ever been carried out against the Sudanese government.
UNAMID faces a number of unique challenges arising from the twin privations of intense domestic turmoil in Sudan and a largely apathetic international community. Within Sudan, the government in Khartoum has always resented the peacekeepers’ presence in Darfur and, on a number of occasions, has both indirectly and directly impeded UNAMID’s ability to achieve its mandate. UNAMID, meanwhile, has often been reluctant to cast blame on the Sudanese government without irrefutable firsthand proof collected by its own personnel; an evidentiary burden that has often proved impossible to achieve. This has resulted in key information being withheld from policymakers in the UN headquarters in New York. In April 2014, an attack on a UNAMID peacekeeping outpost in eastern Darfur by a large contingent of Sudanese troops and pro-government militiamen left one Nigerian peacekeeper dead and three others wounded. Despite overwhelming evidence supporting the government’s role in the attack, UN headquarters failed to acknowledge any involvement by Sudanese forces.
UNAMID also faces broader structural difficulties. A lack of funding, political will and a general reluctance to engage in peacekeeping ventures have reduced public support for costly ventures in a region that has long been embroiled in internecine conflict. UNAMID personnel are poorly equipped and often lack the military hardware needed to adequately patrol Darfur, a region the size of Spain. Internal UNAMID documents have revealed that the blue helmets have on occasion been provided with broken vehicles and low-grade weaponry, and influential foreign powers have repeatedly declined UN appeals for air support to reinforce the mostly-African peacekeeping contingent.
The fallout from UNAMID’s apparent cover-up of the events in Tabit has renewed existing doubts about the Mission’s ability to act as an impartial and legitimate force in the region. In order to act as an effective arbiter and enforcer of peace in the region, UNAMID requires legitimacy derived from its ability to hold both Sudanese and rebel forces accountable for their actions. UNAMID’s apparent doublespeak threatens to undermine this fragile balance.Featured Image Credit: UNAMID, Flickr CC. License available here.