By Mohamed Osman
“It is the same as in the old days,” Adam Rojal, a coordinator in an internally displaced community in Sudan’s Darfur region told me recently, describing ongoing violence from militias and government forces and the international community’s decision to pull the UN’s protection force from the region. I asked how it could be the same given that former president Omar al-Bashir, under whose watch Darfur had been the site of years of atrocities, had been ousted in 2019. “The abusive forces that been targeting civilians for years are still roaming around,” he responded.
With the end of Darfur’s peacekeeping mission, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur, expected by December 31, residents of this restive region — where security risks remain acute — are justifiably concerned. Members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to address the potential security vacuum in the region. The simplest solution would be to extend the peacekeepers’ mandate. It could also give the new countrywide political mission, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission, a more robust mandate that would enable it to provide some level of protection to the people of Darfur
The latest report by the UN secretary-general and the African Union Commission chairperson documents an “uptick” in intercommunal violence and civil unrest, with the peacekeepers recording 146 fatalities in intercommunal violence between June and October. And yet the political mission will only have a light footprint in Darfur and no mandate to provide physical protection.
Under Sudan’s new national plan to protect civilians, the government is to assume full responsibility for civilian security, albeit in compliance with international standards.
Yet Rojal and other displaced people in Darfur worry that the government is a long way from being ready to fulfil this task. “The peacekeeping mission sometimes failed to protect us,” Rojal said. “But the solution should be improving what is here, not removing that and leaving us alone.”
While the peacekeepers’ mandate was briefly extended in October following a request from Sudan’s prime minister, the government seems unwilling to extend the mandate beyond the end of this year. Foreign governments and the UN have shown that they are unwilling to push the Transitional Government to consider another extension.
The period following al-Bashir’s ouster in April 2019 has been a story of turbulent and fragile transition, especially in Darfur. In August of 2019, civilian political groups and military commanders reached a power-sharing agreement, charting the path for Sudan’s transition. A peace deal was signed in October 2020 with a number of rebel factions, but some key holdout groups are active in Darfur.
The details of the new political mission’s mandate are still being finalized but UN officials have made clear that protecting civilians will ultimately be the government’s responsibility. The UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the UN Security Council on December 8 that the mission would have a team of advisers on child protection and women’s rights, human rights officers, and police trainers.
Darfuris are trying to ensure their voices are heard. Last week, displaced communities in Zalingi and Kalma camps in south Darfur protested against the peacekeepers’ departure. A journalist who covered the protests told me: “The displaced see UNAMID’s departure at this moment as catastrophic. Intercommunal violence is spiking. Some holdout groups still did not join the peace talks, and their current infighting also poses risk to the civilian population.”
In June and July, communities in Darfur, many from within the displaced population, protested against insecurity and abuses. Some of those protests did not end peacefully.
In response, the government deployed joint forces including the Rapid Support Forces, whose serious violations of international law have been documented for years by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. What followed was a campaign of arrests of protesters and activists that in many cases involved serious human rights violations.
A 37-year human rights lawyer was arrested by a military intelligence officer on July 19 in Kutum and detained for days. “They accused me of instigating recent protests that ended up with the burning of a police station,” he later told me. “They kept beating me with their boots and punching me, then slapping on my both my ears.”
Sudan’s partners should ensure that there is no security vacuum and a proper transition to the new political mission, including allowing peacekeepers still in the country in 2021 to protect civilians if needed. It should also push to ensure that the new mission has the broadest possible authority and the resources to monitor and investigate suspected human rights abuses.
Voices from Darfur raise the critical question of how the government is going to protect the population by deploying forces with a documented record of abuses. Tackling this starts with reforming those forces and ending their impunity. The international community should step up its scrutiny on how the government is going to uphold its commitments in line with international standards.
With the clock ticking, both Sudan and the international community need to listen to the people of Darfur and ensure they aren’t abandoned.
The author is a Sudan- assistant researcher at Human Rights Watch.