Darfur — Members of the Darfur Displaced and Refugees Association have described the planned downsizing of the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (Unamid) as "a major disappointment and a flagrant mistake".
"A reduction of the number of Unamid peacekeepers will make the Darfuris more vulnerable to abuses of all kinds by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and other militias operating in the region," Hussein Abusharati, Spokesman for the Darfur Displaced and Refugees Association told Radio Dabanga.
"The current situation requires the joint UN-AU forces to strengthen their force in order to protect the people, rather than a withdrawal or reduction of the troops," he said.
"The last couple of years, the attacks, killings, rapes, theft, and kidnapping have increased again. There is ample evidence for this. Even Unamid peacekeepers themselves as well as aid workers have been targeted." He cited the recent incidents in Ein Siro, Sortony, Mukjar, and Nierteti.
The Sudanese government began calling for Unamid to leave the country in December 2014, after Radio Dabanga exposed an alleged mass rape by army troops in Tabit in North Darfur in late October that year. Six months later, the AU Peace and Security Council stated that it was satisfied with the developments concerning the mission's exit, though it stressed the "critical importance" of a continued Unamid presence for peace and stability in war-torn Darfur.
The AU and the UN are now proposing 44 percent and 30 percent reductions in their troop and police presence in Darfur as a step towards an eventual exit.
"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 Wednesday as he updated the 15-nation Security Council on the recommended changes to the peacekeeping mission.
He stated that the level of armed hostilities remained significantly lower than in previous years, noting that a successful military campaign by Khartoum has reduced the rebellion to a small presence in Jebel Marra.
On Friday, the Sudanese government welcomed the Security Council's plan to downsize Unamid, saying the move underscores the stability in Darfur.
In a statement on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Security Council should leave flexibility for Unamid to respond to evolving threats, and strengthen the mission's human rights monitoring and reporting capacities,"
"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."
Two of the three main rebel movements reacted to the UN reduction plans as well. The Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minawi said in a letter to the Security Council that "Unamid is considered the conclusive guarantee for the protection of civilians in Darfur, particularly that the government of Sudan renews its attacks in the region.
"Despite confirmations that there was a decline in the direct military confrontations in Darfur, this does not mean the conflict has ended or that the conflict would not escalate again. This is evident in the clashes which took place in May in North and East Darfur," they noted.
In late May and early June, Sudanese forces attacked, robbed and torched villages in North and East Darfur, after clashes with rebel fighters. Thousands of villagers were reportedly displaced.
Unamid'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.