Last week, the United Nations Security Council authorized the creation of the UN Integrated Transitional Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), a new mission that is expected to anchor UN support to Sudan during its political transition. The Council also extended the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) mandate until December 31, freezing the mission’s troop and police ceilings in light of the impact of COVID-19 on the prospects for a responsible drawdown and exit.
UNITAMS represents the most notable reconfiguration of UN engagement with Sudan since 2011, when the Security Council converted the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and mandated the creation of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).
The new mission’s mandate and strategic objectives are the product of months of delicate negotiations among the Sudanese, and between the Sudanese government, their international partners and senior UN leadership. While UNITAMS is positioned to actively support Sudan in realizing the aspirations of the August 2019 Constitutional Declaration, the mission will likely be limited in the extent to which it can help the Sudanese confront some of the country’s most complex challenges.
Unpacking the New Mandate
Created through Security Council resolution 2524, the new mission is mandated to provide advisory support to the Sudanese government across a range of political and peacebuilding issues.
The mandate also integrates UNITAMS and the UN Country Team in Sudan under unified leadership, with a newly appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) as the head of mission and a Deputy SRSG that will also serve as UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator. In contrast to UNAMID’s hybrid structure with the African Union (AU), UNITAMS will be a UN-led mission that maintains close political and operational ties with the regional organization.
UNITAMS is expected to work alongside UNAMID to share information and coordinate the handover of tasks as the missions start up and drawdown respectively. The Security Council requested that the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres submit a proposed structure and deployment plan within sixty days, and that UNITAMS be prepared to execute all mandated tasks by, at latest, January 1, 2021.
Tradeoffs That Define the New Mission
The mandate of UNITAMS reflects a careful balancing of tradeoffs and compromises among Security Council members. The mission’s strategic orientation and mandated tasks are rooted in a more constructive relationship between the UN and the Sudanese transitional government. The government’s active role in shaping the mandate was a welcome departure from its decade-long confrontation with UNAMID, where it frequently obstructed the peacekeeping operation.
Diplomatic support for UNITAMS from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the civilian-led transitional government reflects the importance of a successful Sudanese transition for both the broader international community and senior UN leadership. The new mission’s strategic priorities were therefore aligned to principles and redlines articulated by the Sudanese government in its consultations with the UN and letters to the UN Security Council.
On the one hand, the new mission can operate across Sudan on an ambitious range of political, peacebuilding, and development initiatives. On the other hand, difficult political negotiations among Council members and the Sudanese ultimately constrained the mission’s potential support to the country on some of the most sensitive political and security issues. How the Sudanese resolve these tensions will ultimately impact the political transition’s long-term viability. These compromises are most evident in two of UNITAMS’ substantive priorities.
First, the Security Council had to situate UNITAMS’ role within a fluid Sudanese political space. The mandate enables the UN to support both the political transition and the ongoing Juba Peace Process (for which UNAMID is currently providing technical support). While some Security Council members initially proposed that UNITAMS should explicitly monitor implementation of the Constitutional Declaration, the final compromises limit UN support in these areas to good offices and technical advice.
Without this explicit emphasis on monitoring the Constitutional Declaration, UNITAMS will need to be politically nimble as domestic debates unfold over the primacy of the peace agreements vis-à-vis the Constitutional Declaration. Even though the Juba negotiations have produced some agreements between the transitional government and Sudan’s armed groups, the process has already been delayed multiple times. Debates about the appointment of civilian governors also demonstrate how the two processes can spill over into one another and delay progress towards a comprehensive peace agreement as well as constitutional reforms.
Second, the Security Council had to balance a series of competing priorities in scoping the new mission’s mandate for protecting civilians. Sudan’s more open domestic political space allowed for a healthy public debate in the country about UNAMID’s continued presence in Darfur, as well as the potential uniformed component of any follow-on mission. This debate was equally as fierce within the UN system and among Council members. The Sudanese government has frequently advocated for the new mission to fall within Chapter VI of the UN Charter and to not include uniformed components. And although Prime Minister Hamdok’s first letter to the Security Council expressed an interest in a role for the new mission to support the protection of civilians and security sector reform, the second letter from the Sudanese government (where the Sovereign Council and military leadership had more input) narrowed this ambition considerably and the first letter was later withdrawn.
UNITAMS’ mandate thus reflects a series of compromises on uniformed components. UNITAMS does not have any uniformed component, nor does its mandate explicitly reference the potential for uniformed advisors to support Sudanese institutions (instead only referencing “United Nations Advisors”). It also does not explicitly have a role in supporting security sector reform, a complex issue that touches many of the country’s deep-seated political fault lines. The new mission is mandated, however, to provide a wide range of support to initiatives that can help Sudan reinforce a protective environment for civilians. It places strong emphasis on helping Sudan implement its National Plan for Civilian Protection (S/2020/429), as well as efforts to strengthen state presence and inclusive governance. This includes community-policing, unarmed civilian protection, capacity support for security authorities, mobile monitoring teams, among others.
Decisions about UNITAMS’ role in protecting civilians also need to be ready concurrently with resolution 2525 that extended UNAMID’s mandate. Even though the peacekeeping mission has historically struggled to protect civilians throughout Darfur, it still offers protection throughout the Jebel Marra region and to camps for internally displaced persons in Darfur. The Security Council narrowed UNAMID’s strategic priority exclusively to the protection of civilians as outlined in the October 2019 mandate.
UNAMID also carries symbolic importance to many individuals across Sudan—representing a life-saving force to some, and an intrusive arm of the international community to others. Even though Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre LaCroix indicated the challenges of quickly withdrawing UNAMID, the extension date became a negotiating point. Positions ranged from October 31 (when the previous mandate expired) to May 31, 2021. The AU Peace and Security Council’s (AUPSC) May communiqué requested an extension until December 31, thus helping break the deadlock. UNAMID will still continue to play a role in providing physical protection, and its collaboration with UNITAMS to seamlessly transfer responsibility for peacebuilding, non-physical protection, and rule of law support will be important.
While the mandate of UNITAMS provides a clear set of areas for engagement, the new mission’s potential impact in Sudan will also be influenced by a range of other variables.
Security Council unity in future engagements on Sudan, reverberating across many aspects of its work, will be a critical determinant for future success. For example, Council members will need to endorse core and contextual benchmarks for UNITAMS. The extent to which the Security Council builds a common understanding of their objectives, what they will measure (and how), and what thresholds are relevant will eventually define the scope of future action by the Council.
Another area relates to close alignment of the UN Security Council and the AUPSC on political developments in Sudan. The AUPSC can complement the Security Council’s political role and can leverage its comparative legitimacy with Sudanese stakeholders to proactively engage on sensitive political discussions. However, close cooperation between the two Councils is not guaranteed and requires consistent effort between the African three members of the Security Council (A3), the co-penholders, and the Sudanese government.
Widespread economic support is framed by many as the key ingredient for the political transition’s survival. Senior UN leadership has consistently advocated on behalf of Sudan to the International Monetary Fund but have not yet broken the deadlock on Sudan’s outstanding debts. While Germany is set to host a donor conference on behalf of Sudan later this month, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a plethora of humanitarian crises suggest that Sudan is unlikely to receive all of the financial support it needs. The Friends of Sudan group recently established a Mutual Partnership Framework to coordinate the delivery of macroeconomic support. Although UNITAMS has a mandate to mobilize economic and development assistance, and by extension align all UN engagements on these issues—many of these economic variables will be decided by political and institutional forces well beyond the mission’s control.
How the UN navigates this significant operational reconfiguration represents another potential barometer for success. While the UN planning team has already started working on the new mission’s administrative and operational design, COVID-19 travel restrictions have so far prevented them from conducting necessary consultations and assessments in-country. These efforts will become even more important considering that the mission has to integrate its operations with the UN Country Team and begin work on a UN-wide Integrated Strategic Framework. Establishing operations in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States where the UN has not previous had a presence will add another layer of complexity.
Despite many inherent compromises, UNITAMS has a genuine opportunity to offer valuable support to Sudan. Unanimous support in the Security Council for this new mission should not be taken for granted, and represents tangible progress in the UN’s relationship with Sudan. However, the mission will have to walk a very narrow tight-rope in order to achieve its ambitious objectives.
The main reason is that, beyond the mission itself, Sudan’s political transition is still in a fragile state. Disagreements within the civilian-led government and between the country’s security and civilian institutions highlight the tenuous nature of existing coalitions. Limited progress in the Juba negotiations belie the difficult political decisions inherent to the constitutional revision process. Long-term drivers of violence and conflict in Darfur and the Two Areas persist, while economic and humanitarian conditions across the country remain dire. While the Sudanese social contract continues to evolve, tangible progress in human rights, justice, and inclusive governance will ultimately define whether the aspirations of Sudan’s revolution are realized.
The UN transition in Sudan also marks a crucial opportunity for member states and the UN system alike. Member states have a unique opportunity to support Sudan’s transformation through political engagement and financial support as the country pursues a more sustainable and inclusive peace. The UN system similarly has a unique opportunity to demonstrate that it can undertake significant reconfigurations anchored by system-wide coherence and integration. And for all of its compromises and limitations, UNITAMS represents an imperfect but worthwhile vehicle to help the UN balance many competing interests and accompany Sudan throughout its political transition.