New York — A planned reduction of peacekeeping troops in Darfur risks leaving civilians without much-needed protection in the face of continued violence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement yesterday.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which has to renew the mandate for Unamid before the end of June 2017, should ensure the mission continues to protect civilians from the full range of threats they face, including outside of the greater Jebel Marra area, where they intend to establish a presence.
On June 14, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations announced proposed 44 per cent and 30 per cent reductions in their troop and police presence in Darfur as a step towards an eventual exit, a senior UN peacekeeping official told the UNSC.
"The reconfiguration of Unamid is an important milestone towards the completion of its mandate," said Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations El-Ghassim Wane on the recommended changes to the Mission.
"When deciding how quickly to reduce the size of the force, the UNSC should leave flexibility for the mission to respond to evolving threats, and strengthen the mission's human rights monitoring and reporting capacities," HRW says.
"The planned cuts reflect a false narrative about Darfur's war ending," said Daniel Bekele, senior director for Africa advocacy at HRW. "There is no reason to believe that government attacks on civilians and other abuses have ended since the same security forces remain in place; they have never been prosecuted for their crimes and can't be relied on to protect civilians."
Sudan's forces have carried out fewer attacks on civilians in 2017, particularly since the United States announced it would lift economic sanctions on Sudan, but violence and abuses against civilians persist. The government routinely denies peacekeepers access on the ground and refuses to issue visas to mission personnel.
In late May and early June, Sudanese forces attacked villages in northern and eastern Darfur when rebels clashed with government forces, displacing thousands of people, credible sources reported. The AU-UN mission's report for the first quarter of 2017 found an increase in human rights violations and abuses compared with the same period in 2016, and confirmed that Sudanese government restrictions seriously hamper the peacekeepers from protecting civilians.
The envisioned cuts are part of a strategic review process that began in 2014, amid Sudanese government demands that the mission come up with an exit strategy. A joint AU-UN strategic review of the mission proposed a reduction of nearly half the troops within a year, the closure of 11 bases, and the withdrawal of military forces from 7, citing improvements to the security situation. The changes would cut the military component's physical presence from 36 team sites to 18.
The military component of the peacekeeping mission currently provides protection for civilian patrols more than 250 times a day and provides escorts to aid groups more than 20 times a week. The proposed reductions are likely to limit the ability to conduct patrols and escorts, and the areas where other aid groups can provide food, medical attention, and other essential aid.
The cuts would restrict traditional peacekeeping and emergency attention to the greater Jebel Marra area, despite clear signs that civilians in other parts of the region still need protection. In 2015 and 2016, HRW and others documented large-scale attacks by the government's Rapid Support Forces on hundreds of villages. The same forces reportedly fought rebels and attacked villages in May 2017.
About 2.7 million people remain displaced across Darfur, with over 1.6 million living in 60 camps, and hundreds of thousands as refugees in Chad. The Darfur region remains under a state of emergency. The peacekeepers' own reporting describes how intercommunal conflicts and proliferation of militia groups and prevailing lawlessness all threaten civilians. The reduction of the peacekeepers' footprint across Darfur will most likely limit needy communities' access to life-saving aid as humanitarian groups won't be able to reach areas in need without the protective presence of the peacekeeping forces, HRW said.
The UNSC should ensure that any cuts are sequenced appropriately and still allow the peacekeepers to serve Darfur's most vulnerable people. The UNSC should also make the mission's human rights component a priority. The unit has a 43 percent vacancy rate and no staff in Khartoum since 2014, due to the government's restrictions and refusal to grant visas.
The UNSC should urge the mission, which has not issued any public human rights reports in the last year and which has been accused of covering up abuses in the past, to resume public reporting so that council members have regular updates on the situation on the ground. It should also insist that the Sudanese government expedite the visas and access it has systematically denied the peacekeepers for years.
"It's too early to talk about moving from peacekeeping to peace building across Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of civilians confront the threat of violence every day," Bekele said. "As the recent bloodshed and displacement of civilians shows, the UN needs to recognize that a temporary lull does not signal an end of the conflict or risk to civilians."