SUDAN: Waiting for peacekeeping muscle in Darfur

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The transformation at the start of 2008 of the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Darfur into one jointly commanded by the UN will not significantly increase the number of troops on the ground and, say aid workers, do little to immediately improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Under Security Council resolution 1769, passed 31 July 2007, the joint African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), is supposed to consist of up to 19,555 military personnel, 3,772 police officers and 5,105 civilians, making it one of the largest peacekeeping operations in the world.

The beleaguered and under-resourced AU force comprises around 7,000 troops and 1,200 police.

Although UNAMID comes into being on January 1, it will initially be made up almost entirely of the AU personnel already on the ground, with major additional deployments not expected for several months.

UNAMID’s commander, Gen Martin Luther Agwai, publicised this shortfall in early December, when he lamented that just a third of UNAMID’s full contingent would be in place at its inception.

"How do you expect this force to do the job of 20,000 just because we are re-hatting on December 31?" he said in Khartoum, referring to the date of a handover ceremony in the North Darfur state capital, El Fasher.

The job in question is laid out in UNAMID’s mandate, the key elements of which are to “contribute to the restoration of necessary security conditions for the safe provision of humanitarian assistance and to facilitate full humanitarian access throughout Darfur” and to “contribute to the protection of civilian populations under imminent threat of physical violence and prevent attacks against civilians, within its capability and areas of deployment, without prejudice to the responsibility of the Government of the Sudan.”

Since the conflict in Darfur erupted in 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed and some 2.2 million forced from their homes. Around 4.2 million Darfuris depend on humanitarian assistance.

Enormous needs

Gen Agwai is far from alone in fearing it will take some time for this assistance to improve in the near future.

“For the last four years we have been doing what we doing with very little help from peacekeepers and I think most NGOs and UN agencies would say the same,” World Food Programme information officer Simon Crittle told IRIN in a telephone interview.

“No one in Sudan expected this thing to roll out sooner than later. Things take a long time here… If there is going to be any change it will be very slow, months if not years,” he added.

Asked what a properly equipped and staffed UNAMID could do on the ground, Crittle explained: “escort our convoys… Secure areas where we are doing our distribution, because that’s a huge problem. They could protect the NGO staff as they move around Darfur, aid workers driving from point to point. You can’t step outside a town in Darfur for fear of being hijacked or kidnapped. Three years ago you could drive from El Fasher to Nyala. Now that’s out of the question.”

For Auriol Miller, director of Oxfam’s operations in Sudan, “if the international community has the will the make it succeed, UNAMID could have a positive impact on saving lives in Darfur but we fear it is in danger of making the same mistakes as the AU troops, who did not receive the support they needed.

“AMIS (the AU mission in Dafur) is now demoralised, rejected by most Darfuris and unable to protect itself, let alone civilians,” she said, recalling that in October 2007 an attack on an AU base outside of Haskanita by an unidentified armed group resulted in the death of 10 peacekeepers.

“UNAMID must not be allowed to suffer the same fate. It must be able to show civilians it is different to what has come before,” Miller told IRIN.

“It must be able to respond rapidly to attacks and ceasefire violations… It must accompany women when they collect firewood and go to market to reduce the risk of being attacked,” she said.

If it fails to distinguish itself quickly, “its credibility on the ground will rapidly diminish and this could lead to a further deterioration of security in Darfur,” Miller warned.

“We think Darfur is a test case,” she added. “UNAMID’s failure could have far-reaching consequences affecting other peacekeeping operations and dealing a solemn blow to the international community’s commitment to realise its responsibility to protect.”

But it would be a mistake to place the onus for Darfuris’ fate exclusively on the new force. “A cessation of hostilities between the many different parties to the conflict must be agreed, implemented and effectively monitored. Peacekeepers are unlikely to succeed unless there is some sort of peace to keep,” said the Oxfam official.

Spreading the word

Miller also spoke of the need to educate Darfur’s population about UNAMID, a need also stressed by Refugees International, an advocacy group based in the USA.

“There is a disturbing lack of accurate information reaching the Darfuri people about UNAMID,” the NGO said in a report, entitled: Sudan: Humanitarian Action Still Under Fire In Darfur.

“Information on the hybrid force does reach the camps through local networks, but it is often distorted by those with different political agendas. In addition, the Government of Sudan is deliberately confusing the people about UNAMID’s role through media and propaganda,” the report said.

“The majority of Darfuris have unrealistically high expectations for UNAMID, which will mean inevitable disappointment and will reduce the prospects of success by the force,” it warned, going on to urge UNAMID to “urgently organise a widespread public information campaign for displaced Darfuris about its mandate, expected force composition, and protection role.”

The Save Darfur Coalition, made up of 35 NGOs, spelled out the urgency of putting in place an effective international force in Darfur in a December 2007 report, UNAMID Deployment on the Brink.

“Twelve humanitarian workers have been killed in 2007. In the months since the passing of Resolution 1769 at least five humanitarian workers have been shot and wounded, and 34 others temporarily abducted or physically or sexually assaulted. More than 60 UN or NGO vehicles and 18 trucks delivering humanitarian supplies have been hijacked or held up and looted.”

Who’s to blame?

Like many governments, UN officials and others following the Darfur crisis, the Coalition placed most of the blame for UNAMID’s initial shortcomings on Sudan’s government, accusing Khartoum of "imposing conditions that would render the mission likely to fail". The report said the government had delayed deployment by creating obstacles such as imposing curfews, refusing night flights and not allocating land for bases.

The NGOs also said Sudan had stalled on the Status of Forces agreement, which outlines the terms of engagement and is necessary for proper deployment.

Khartoum, which has long demanded that UNAMID ground troops all come from African states, also stands accused of stalling over requests that promised personnel from Thailand, Nepal and an engineering unit from Norway be included.

On 13 December, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet told reporters: "We've been requesting from [the government of Sudan] official answers on these pending, outstanding questions and we do hope that they will come to us as soon as possible because this is delaying putting in place the other assets in the mission."

Lack of helicopters

Another problem confronting the mission is the lack of critical assets, notably 24 helicopters that have yet to be provided by member states.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said: "In the past weeks and months, I have contacted, personally, every possible contributor of helicopters - in the Americas, in Europe, in Asia. And yet, not one helicopter has been made available yet."

He attributed the reason to a "lack of political will" by member states, but diplomats say countries were reluctant to contribute valuable assets in such a poor security environment where there have been past attacks on helicopters.

To resolve the stalemate, UN officials are looking at a variety of solutions such as combining machinery and operators from separate countries and "dry leasing", which means renting aircraft without their usual crew.

In addition to these setbacks, other delays plague the mission. While 140 Chinese engineers have reached Darfur, their equipment which is being sent by sea, could take more than a month to arrive. UN officials say transport times within Sudan are proving to be longer than anticipated.

Source: IRIN