Last week, the United Nations Security Council took the prudent step of “pausing” the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur’s (UNAMID) drawdown, setting a September 30 deadline for a joint UN–African Union (AU) strategic review report, and an October 31 deadline for the mandate renewal. This temporary pause, which also extended the period of UNAMID’s military drawdown and does not adjust the troop ceiling set in last year’s mandate, allows for the mission to recalibrate its approach in a rapidly evolving situation. While the four-month extension does not alter the mission’s transition deadline of June 2020, it does buy the Security Council more time to grapple with the big political questions confronting UNAMID’s transition, and the future of UN and AU engagement in the country.
The questions facing UNAMID cannot be separated from the larger social and political context in Sudan. Protests brought about the downfall of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April, and a senior cadre of military officers then established a transitional military council (TMC). The TMC has incrementally lost the public’s trust as they wavered in establishing a civilian, representative, and democratically-accountable government. The deputy head of the TMC is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, the leader of the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group, who are allegedly responsible for massive human rights violations in Darfur. The TMC mandated the RSF to break up Khartoum’s civilian protests and sit-in on June 3, which led to over 100 civilian deaths.
These dynamics are further complicated by the engagements of regional and international actors. After al-Bashir’s ouster, the AU Commission Chairperson quickly dispatched his personal envoy to mediate, while the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) threatened to suspend Sudan from all AU activities within fifteen days (later extended to sixty days) if the TMC didn’t hand over power to a civilian led government. Following the June 3 crackdown, the AUPSC suspended the Sudanese government indefinitely. The AU envoy and Ethiopia’s prime minister on behalf of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are now working on a two-track mediation process to reduce tensions and manage a dialogue between the TMC and the Sudanese protestors.
Other countries also have influence beyond the confines of the African-led peace processes. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt are patrons of the TMC, having provided economic aid while the RSF contributes forces in support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Russia has remained relatively quiet but was among the most ardent political and military backers of al-Bashir’s regime. The United States is still a member of the long-standing Troika (along with the United Kingdom and Norway) that supports peace processes in Sudan and South Sudan, and continues its partnership on counter-terrorism following a rapprochement with the al-Bashir government. While the European Union is engaged on the crisis at a political level, it has also come under criticism for migration-related aid programs that have benefitted Sudanese militia.
An Already Complex Transition Environment
Even without Sudan’s political revolution, UNAMID’s drawdown and transition process was arguably the most complex the UN has ever attempted, for multiple reasons.
First, UNAMID is a joint peacekeeping mission between the UN and the AU, meaning that the AUPSC and AU Commission have important influence over its political and operational trajectory. Second, unlike other contemporary UN missions, UNAMID is not integrated with the Sudan UN country team: UNAMID’s area of responsibility (AOR) is the Darfur states, while the UN country team (UNCT) in Sudan covers the whole country, presenting programming and operational complexities. Third, UNAMID covers a much larger AOR compared with recent UN peacekeeping transitions in Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, and Liberia, a challenge exacerbated by large-scale civilian protection concerns and tenuous host-state consent towards the UN. Fourth, the transition is not underpinned by a sustainable political settlement in Darfur as progress is frozen on implementing the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, as are efforts to bring in non-signatory armed rebel groups.
UNAMID’s Transition Approach
UNAMID’s transition concept was consolidated in 2018 through a joint UN-AU report, an AUPSC communiqué, and Security Council resolution 2429, which set a June 2020 deadline for the mission’s exit and a December 2020 deadline for its liquidation. The decision to transition UNAMID rested on a series of arguments succinctly articulated in the May 2019 UN-AU special report. These include the assessments that UNAMID’s footprint no longer enabled it to address specific security challenges in the region, that the security challenges confronting Darfur no longer reflected the significant peace and security concerns that motivated the AU Mission in Sudan and UNAMID’s deployments in 2004 and 2007 respectively, and that more sustained peacebuilding and stabilization-focused engagements meant that the mission was no longer the appropriate vehicle to address remaining security threats.
The transition concept is premised on three interrelated components: a security-oriented drawdown consolidating peacekeeping to the Jebel Marra region; a programmatic integration of UNAMID and the UNCT on peacebuilding work across the rest of Darfur; and a revitalized joint UN-AU political strategy to support the Darfur peace process.
The security-oriented approach was the most straightforward, involving the repatriation of troop and police contingents, the closure and handover of team sites and sector headquarters to the Sudanese government, and the focus of protection activities to the Jebel Marra. UNAMID’s programmatic shifts are defined by the installation of state liaison functions (SLFs)—co-locating UNAMID and UNCT officials to undertake joint programming—in al-Fasher, al-Geneina, Nyala, and al-Daein. The articulation of a joint UN-AU political strategy for Darfur received the least attention as of April 2019, and was expected to occupy much of the UN and AU’s focus during UNAMID’s final year.
UNAMID’s transition has been thrown into flux since April 2019, and the UN and AU are still trying to adjust to this uncertain environment. The joint UN-AU strategic report on UNAMID’s transition, published at the end of May, was initially scheduled for submission to UN Secretary-General António Guterres just two days before al-Bashir’s overthrow—an example of how dynamics on the ground threw the UN’s long-term planning into flux. Even as member states and the organizations reflected on the implications of the political upheaval for UNAMID, the June 30, 2019 mandate renewal deadline left insufficient time for them to let the dust settle before taking decisions that would fundamentally alter the mission’s configuration.
Issues That Will Shape the Transition’s Trajectory
The UN and the AU will need to answer critical questions between now and October 31 about Darfur specifically, Sudan more broadly, and UNAMID’s transition.
The first is the nature of the Sudanese government’s legal standing and how it impacts the drawdown. Sudan’s suspension from the AU creates a challenging situation for UNAMID. It is unlikely that either the UN or the AU will permit the handover of additional bases to a Sudanese government that the AUPSC considers unconstitutional, or undertake substantive programming with sub-national government structures run by military officers. These specific challenges were exacerbated by the TMC’s May 13 declaration for the RSF to take over all vacated UNAMID presences, contravening the UN and AU’s agreements that they would be used exclusively for civilian purposes. Although the TMC revoked this declaration after significant outcry, examples of vandalism and looting of UNAMID and humanitarian organizations bases highlight the tenuous nature of UNAMID’s drawdown and consolidation plans. As the May 2019 joint UN-AU report presents member states with multiple drawdown options, UNAMID’s next mandate will have to tackle these dynamics head on.
A second question is how developments in Khartoum impact protection concerns in Darfur. While the June 3 killing of protesters in Khartoum received the vast majority of international scrutiny, international human rights organizations are documenting on-going abuses against civilians across Darfur. While the May 2019 joint UN-AU report concluded that the areas from which UNAMID has downsized have only experienced “minimal adverse impact,” UN and AU member states should not presume this assessment will hold indefinitely. In other contexts, the closure of UN peacekeeping missions have unintentionally created vacuums in human rights monitoring, as follow-on presences of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have limited capacities compared with the missions’ human rights components. While OHCHR had started negotiations with the Sudanese government on a post-UNAMID presence before April 2019, it remains unclear whether or how these negotiations will continue. The Security Council will need to make protection and human rights priorities in Darfur a center-piece of the transition’s upcoming phase.
A third question is whether international mediation can foster agreement on a national political transition. UNAMID’s transition will ultimately be impacted by the progress achieved (or not achieved) by the AU and IGAD-led political mediation between now and October 31. The AU Commission and IGAD Secretariat are providing direct support to these processes, and Secretary-General Guterres has dispatched experienced envoy Nicholas Haysom to support the AU’s efforts. Amid the significant regional and international interests in Sudan, the UN Security Council and AUPSC need to sustain unified diplomatic support to the mediators. The mediation became more fraught after reports of nation-wide renewed protests against the military government. An agreement on the composition, duration, and mandate of a civilian-led transitional government would provide conditions for UNAMID to engage its government interlocutors in Darfur, while offering a modicum of stability. Absent any agreement and Sudan’s subsequent re-admission into the AU, it is hard to envision how the transition will continue as outlined.
A fourth question is on what a joint political strategy for Darfur and a follow-on configuration entails. How the UN and AU delineate their collective political roles in Darfur from strategic and operational perspectives will be instructive in defining the transition’s long-term sustainability. Each of the AUPSC and UN Security Council mandates explicitly ask for details on such a joint strategy—along with the Security Council’s explicit request for options about a follow-on configuration. At the strategic level, member states need to determine how they can revitalize the Darfur Peace Process and implementation of the Doha Document, especially as the TMC is now engaging some of Darfur’s armed opposition groups. Agreement on the overarching political strategy is a pre-requisite for determining the contours of the operational configuration that is mandated to follow UNAMID. These require decisions about whether it will be a joint operation with the AU (and what this means in terms of their division of labor), whether the mission will be mandated and resourced as a special political mission, a UNCT or some hybrid mechanism, what its substantive priorities will be, and how it will be operationally spread across Darfur.
A final question is whether UNAMID’s June 2020 deadline is still appropriate. The transition deadline has become a sacrosanct issue within the Security Council, with few wanting to publicly confront this red line. Political arguments in support of the deadline varied among Council members. Some emphasize that development is the most urgent priority for Darfur and that UNAMID is not equipped to lead, others motivate for UNAMID’s exit in light of financial pressures on UN peacekeeping writ large, and still others cite that Darfur no longer constitutes the urgent threat to international peace and security and that extending the mission would not be warranted and would infringe on the Sudanese government’s sovereignty. While these arguments may have held validity before April, it would be a dereliction by the Security Council, the AUPSC, the UN, and the AU to not substantively debate this issue in public, consider a range of scenarios that would make this deadline possible or impossible to meet, and explicitly discuss the risks of prioritizing the transition’s “end date” over the “end state” that the transition should leave behind.
While the UN Security Council has had to navigate crises during previous peacekeeping transitions, the current dynamics in Darfur and Sudan constitute an unprecedented set of challenges. UNAMID’s transition will serve as a difficult test case for the entire UN system, as well as for the UN-AU partnership. Both organizations will need to not only align their political approaches for Darfur and Sudan, but also jointly navigate a period of significant volatility as they consider UNAMID’s immediate trajectory, as well as their long-term futures in the region.