UNAMID’s Transition Continues Through Uncharted Waters

UNAMID peacekeepers interact with local community members at a water point during a routine patrol in Golo, Central Darfur. (Mohamad Almahady, UNAMID)

The peacekeeping transition of the African Union (AU) and United Nations hybrid operation (UNAMID) in Darfur remains one of the UN system’s most complex undertakings ever. After nearly one year of uncertainty, the UN Security Council intended to adopt a groundbreaking decision at the end of March on the future of UN engagement in Sudan. However, Council members delayed the decision until May 31 in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Their attention is gravitating towards the pandemic’s threat to their own countries, and to the threat it poses for international peace and security.

Council members now have a brief period of time to address difficult political questions about what comes after UNAMID, and by extension, how they will shape international support for Sudan’s political transition.

UNAMID’s Transition Within Broader Political Transition

The mission’s closure has been a prominent item on the Security Council agenda since 2017, with resolutions 2363 and 2429 shaping the transition’s initial trajectory. However, this trajectory was upended by Sudan’s political revolution in April 2019, when the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) temporarily suspended Sudan from all activities and the UN Security Council paused UNAMID’s drawdown until October 31, 2019. This pause left many unanswered questions about the future of UNAMID’s transition.

Sudan’s August 2019 constitutional declaration and the inauguration of a transitional power-sharing government created new possibilities for future UN engagement beyond a UN country team (UNCT) configuration. After initial consultations with the Sudanese government, the AU and UN published a joint political strategy for Sudan in October 2019 that outlined six principles for a follow-on configuration. The AUPSC and the UN Security Council extended UNAMID’s mandate until October 31, 2020, following a request from the Sudanese government for more time. Council members committed to adopting a new mandate for a follow-on configuration by March 31, 2020.

The ensuing months witnessed a flurry of activity around Sudan’s democratic transition. The Juba Peace Negotiations between the transitional government and Sudanese armed groups progressed to the point where the parties began reaching preliminary agreements on security and resource issues. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan opened humanitarian corridors to the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states (Two Areas) for the first time in decades. International support for Sudan, including economic recovery and the potential delisting of Sudan from the United States’ list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) are now prominent issues.

Major roadblocks nonetheless underscore the monumental task of sustaining momentum for the country’s transition. South Sudanese mediators struggle to secure the participation of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW) in the mediation while ensuring an inclusive process. Disagreements over delayed governance reforms persist, including the appointment of civilian governors, and the establishment of the Transitional Legislative Council. Dire economic conditions reverberate throughout the country. And an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Hamdok underscores the volatility underpinning these societal transformations.

Political and Policy Issues

It is within this fluid context that the AU, UN, and their member states have deliberated UNAMID’s successor. The preliminary concept was described in a March 2020 joint AU-UN report. This report is complemented by two separate letters from Prime Minister Hamdok to the UN secretary-general conveying Sudanese priorities. The AUPSC issued its own communiqué in early March concerning UNAMID. Finally, a leaked preliminary negotiating draft mandate prepared by the United Kingdom  and Germany (UN Security Council co-penholders) offered some details about possible negotiation points.

Read together, these inputs demonstrate some degree of shared understanding about future UN and AU engagement in Sudan.

Broad support exists for mandating a special political mission (SPM), oriented around political and peacebuilding support, to succeed UNAMID. This consensus should not be taken for granted since an SPM was a political impossibility nearly one year ago. The new Sudanese government explicitly acknowledged that “support from the United Nations will be key to achieving the goals set for the transitional period and fulfilling the aspirations of the Sudanese people.”

There is also some clarity about the substantive priorities for the proposed SPM, guided by the core political objective of supporting Sudan’s transition. These include: assisting the convening of the Juba Peace Process and for implementing the provisions of any final agreement; supporting the mobilization of international economic and development aid; coordinating humanitarian assistance; and, facilitating Sudanese-led peacebuilding in Darfur and the Two Areas.

The UN and AU also agreed on a certain degree of flexibility about how the SPM should prioritize activities and resources. This is largely because of the still-ongoing peace negotiations and the possible requirements of a final agreement. UNAMID’s drawdown plan highlights another form of this envisioned flexibility. Multiple team sites were vandalized, ransacked, and misused last year once the peacekeeping mission handed them over to the Sudanese government. In this light, the UN and AU recommended a more deliberate handover approach, with the AUPSC calling for “extreme caution on the withdrawal of UNAMID, in order to sustain the gains made and to avoid relapse and security vacuum.”

Despite these areas of agreement, the Sudanese government, UN, and AU diverge on two critical policy points, the resolution of which will have lasting impacts on the transition.

Whether—and how—the UN and AU should retain a protection of civilians (POC) mandate for Darfur is perhaps the most significant issue. Although Prime Minister Hamdok’s first letter to the UN secretary-general explicitly requested POC, police advisors, and human rights monitoring, the second letter stripped out these references. And while the first letter was drafted by the prime minister’s office, the second was the product of consultations with “the Sovereign Council, the Council of Ministers and the political class.” This suggests deep political divisions among Sudanese stakeholders regarding such issues.

These divisions are exacerbated by the challenges of protecting civilians in Darfur and the inherent limitations that have been placed on the UN and AU. Even at its peak strength, UNAMID’s effectiveness in protecting civilians was limited. While UNAMID continues to conduct armed patrols inside the greater Jebel Marra region, much of its protection work now prioritizes activities that promote a protective environment (including advisory support, capacity building, and unarmed civilian protection).

In their March 2020 report, the UN and AU recommended against uniformed contingents, instead suggesting a stronger role for military and police advisors and that the follow-on configuration prioritize other protection modalities. This position is informed by an assessment that any physical protection mandate would “require a very significant deployment” and that the UN and AU did not have consent from the Sudanese government for this mandate. This approach was criticized for falling short of Darfur’s protection needs.

On the other end of the spectrum, the internal draft of the UK and Germany resolution contained a more comprehensive protection mandate, with Chapter VII provisions for 2,500 uniformed police and a quick reaction force comprising one military battalion. Even though this may not represent their final agreed position, it does reflect some UN Security Council members’ desire to ensure sufficient protection capabilities in Darfur. Negotiating a compromise within the Council will be a difficult task given such divergent positions.

The UN-AU partnership in the context of a follow-on configuration is the second issue for which there is no consensus. UNAMID is a hybrid mission. It is jointly mandated by the UN Security Council and the AUPSC and its leadership is chosen by the UN secretary-general and AU Commission chairperson. While this structure was designed out of necessity, it has been a consistent source of political and operational tension between the two organizations.

Nonetheless, both organizations played important roles during Sudan’s political crisis in 2019. The AUPSC, with mandates to cover both Sudan and Darfur, could speak forcefully and consistently about the political transition in ways that the Security Council could not. Conversely, the Security Council maintained a stronger focus on UNAMID’s drawdown and the situation in Darfur.

Planning for the follow-on configuration has been a joint exercise between the UN, the AU, and the Sudanese government. Nonetheless, member states’ political interests may complicate how smoothly this arrangement continues. Neither letter from the Sudanese government explicitly requests another hybrid operation. The joint UN-AU report suggests that cooperation between the two organizations would be comprehensive and institutionalized, but also stops short of calling for another hybrid operation.

However, the AUPSC’s March communiqué stressed that “UNAMID remains a joint deployment of the AU and the UN and in this regard, underscores the essence of ensuring that the UNAMID drawdown and its follow-on mechanism also maintain this hybrid nature and shall be guided by the same principles that resulted in the establishment of the Mission.” This mandate puts the African states on the Security Council (A3) in a particularly difficult situation as they will have to assess whether this is a target or a redline. Given the relative unpopularity of the hybrid structure and that the two organizations did not recommend it going forward, finding consensus will require delicate political negotiations.

Transition Planning and the Coronavirus

Forging consensus on the follow-on configuration’s mandate was always going to be a difficult political task. However, the novel coronavirus pandemic has layered additional complexities onto these efforts.

At the political level, UN Security Council members adopted virtual working methods, with briefings, negotiations and voting moving to video-teleconferences and email. While this provides a minimum level of business continuity, it comes at the cost of valuable, in-person discussions that have broken previous impasses. Council members may not have in-person opportunities in the coming weeks or months to resolve the challenging political questions.

The pandemic has already caused complexities for the operational management of peace operations, and UNAMID’s transition will certainly be affected. The Sudanese government imposed restrictions on movement and travel, and the UN secretary-general has suspended all troop rotations, repatriations, and new deployments of uniformed personnel until June 30. The UN is already recalibrating its work to provide stronger support to Sudanese communities, and UNAMID will likely play a growing role in these efforts.

These developments also raise practical questions about UNAMID’s exit, which is expected to conclude by October 31. The UN Departments of Peace Operations and Operational Support continuously told member states in 2019 that six months were needed to complete the drawdown of uniformed personnel in a responsible manner. The UN would have needed to start this process by April 1 in order to meet the October deadline. The Security Council could also delay the deadline beyond May 31 for adopting a mandate for a follow-on configuration, depending on the conditions in Sudan and elsewhere. Therefore, the pandemic mitigation efforts will likely require the Security Council to adjust the mission’s drawdown plan and end date—additional issues for Council members to negotiate during an already complex and sensitive set of discussions.

Peacekeeping transitions often unfold amid unexpected or challenging circumstances. UNAMID’s drawdown and reconfiguration is already the UN’s most complex undertaking. Its trajectory was upended by the monumental political transition and will now likely need to adapt in response to the pandemic. While the immediate focus will necessarily be on protecting lives, there are still important issues to resolve in order to sustain international support for Sudan over the years to come.