A woman rides a donkey loaded with water jerry cans, while UNAMID troops from Tanzania conduct a routine patrol in the camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Khor Abeche, South Darfur. In the foreground a woman rides a heavily laden donkey with a UN armed truck in the background.

This month, Norrie MacQueen looks at the three United Nations (UN) operations underway in what was, just seven years ago, one country: Sudan.

The loosely interlinked conflicts the UN has to deal with there are at least as complex as those facing any peace operation anywhere. They involve visceral political and ethnic divisions in both Sudan and the still relatively new state of South Sudan. But these internal – ‘intrastate’ – issues are complicated by the woeful, conflict-prone international relationship between Sudan and South Sudan. The three operations represent a range of peacekeeping approaches.

In South Sudan, the UN has deployed a wide multifunctional operation, mixing security duties with complex political and humanitarian tasks. In Darfur, the UN is operating in partnership with a regional organisation on a pattern both celebrated and denounced when attempted elsewhere in Africa. In the Abyei region, the peacekeeping approach is close to the ‘classical’ model of interposition and military observation.

Arguably, the spectrum needs to be even wider in view of the range and depth of the problems the UN confronts. Should the United Nations deploy its ‘ultimate’ peacekeeping technique and simply impose a period of transitional administration based on international sovereignty?


Three parallel but separate UN peace operations are currently underway in what was, until 2011, ‘Sudan’. This type of peacekeeping cluster is unusual and has been seen only once before – in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Yet the attention is a fair reflection of Sudanese history and the complex ethnic, religious and cultural mosaic that shapes it. UNAMID, the hybrid United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, operates in the restive west of the country. The huge UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is deployed in the precarious and unstable new state that came into being in July 2011. Just to the north, in the very south of today’s territorially reduced Sudan, the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) is responsible for securing the sensitive and contested post-2011 border region.

For most of the 19th century, ‘the Sudan’ (as it was generally known in Europe at the time) was ruled jointly by Ottoman Turkey and Egypt. This rather rickety arrangement ended with a local revolt in 1881. But the European imperial mindset of the time couldn’t countenance the appearance a new independent African state. This was especially unthinkable in view of Sudan’s pivotal geopolitical position. It straddled North Africa and equatorial Africa where the competitive colonial ‘scramble’ was at its febrile high point in the last years of the 19th century.


Benefits are difficult to locate in any imperial project. However in the case of Sudan, external rule in the first half of the 20th century may have served to dull underlying internal divisions.

Additionally, Sudan’s Red Sea coastline made it a major trading and cultural link between Africa and Arabia. Consequently, in 1899, after a protracted series of wars (which incidentally provided Britain with one of its most celebrated imperial martyrs, ‘Gordon of Khartoum’), the Sudan was again brought under foreign rule, this time jointly by Britain and Egypt.

Benefits are difficult to locate in any imperial project. However in the case of Sudan, external rule in the first half of the 20th century may have served to dull underlying internal divisions. In 1956, however, in an early case of the epochal wave of decolonisation about to sweep across Africa, Sudan became independent. The relative and artificial calm imposed by external rule was now disrupted as the various national borderlines – ethnic, religious, and regional – began to threaten fragmentation.


 

The village of Um Zaifa in Darfur burns after an attack by government-sponsored militia. 12 December 12 2004. © ‘Private’ [HRW]

In 1962, civil war broke out as the sub-Saharan south of the country rose against perceived domination by the ‘Arab’ north. In parallel, the Sudanese state was challenged in the west as well. In 2004, slow-burning tensions, again between the ‘Arab’ rulers in Khartoum and the non-Muslim population of the 500,000 square kilometre Darfur region, flared into violence. This situation was then further inflamed by a brutal government response.

UNAMID IN DARFUR: HYBRID MISSION, HYBRID PROBLEMS 

The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) – or the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur as it’s usually called – was created by the UN Security Council in July 2007. It replaced an earlier, ambitious but failed, attempt to apply ‘African solutions for African problems’ in the form of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). Deployed shortly after the outbreak of the 2004 fighting, AMIS had simply been unable to make any significant impact on the conflict and its consequences. UNAMID’s responsibilities were not tightly defined by the Security Council. Broadly, the mission was to protect civilians and aid workers from attack, and to help advance the peace process.


Not only did the people of Darfur suffer the repression of central government forces, they were also subject to the depredations of so-called Janjaweed militias, composed of marauding gangs of horse-mounted pro-government Arab tribesmen.

The vagueness of the mandate perhaps reflected the complexity of the situation. Not only did the people of Darfur suffer the repression of central government forces, they were also subject to the depredations of so-called Janjaweed militias, composed of marauding gangs of horse-mounted pro-government Arab tribesmen. The close relationship between the government and the militias was obvious to observers but denied by Khartoum.

The consequences of the fighting went beyond the immediate human casualties. It also led to the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into neighbouring Chad and Central African Republic. All of this was played out in a disastrously poor, and unproductive, territory where life was frighteningly precarious even at the best of times.


United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID)

First deployed: July 2007; Total strength (2017): 17,817; Contributing states (2017): 46 total. >100: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Tanzania, Zambia; Fatalities (since 2007): 259


The situation facing the peace operation in Darfur couldn’t be further from the straightforward face-off of rival militaries which traditional peacekeeping was designed to deal with. Darfur represents a complex humanitarian emergency in which armed conflict takes place in – and further generates – famine and displacement on a massive scale. The death toll from the conflict is disputed, with the Sudanese government claiming a ridiculously low figure of about 9000; some expert calculations have put it as high as 400,000. The depth of the humanitarian crisis is reflected in International Criminal Court’s (ICC) indictment against the long-standing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. (Bashir is the only serving head of state ever to be indicted by the ICC.)

The general context of the UN intervention – where an external force is deployed to protect Sudanese citizens threatened by the Sudanese government – makes for a hostile relationship between Khartoum and the UN. The ICC indictment of Bashir has made it absolutely toxic. This means that UNAMID has faced problems in a key area that ‘classical’ peacekeeping was supposed to be able take for granted: ‘host state consent’.

The Sudanese government has alternated between different, often inconsistent, positions towards the UN presence in Darfur. A cheap and easy line for Khartoum has been to denounce United Nations efforts as neo-colonialism, and the government has attempted to control the composition of the force by insisting that it should be predominantly African in personnel.


Sudan/Darfur. Image: CIA World Factbook.

Beyond Sudan itself, international politics have conspired to create further difficulties for the Darfur operation. Consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council has been elusive.  US administrations, hostile to Khartoum for reasons beyond its violence against its own citizens, have been willing to use the term ‘genocide’. In contrast, Russia persists in its long-standing suspicion of the peacekeeping project as a whole, while China prioritises pursuit of its economic and diplomatic interests in Sudan.

In view of these obstacles, it’s perhaps not surprising that UNAMID’s impact on the conflict as a whole has been limited. Khartoum’s attitude towards the UN intervention, and its insistence in having a say over its composition, have led to accusations that the force, and in particular its African commanders, have been ‘soft’ on government actions on the ground.

Yet in Darfur, as in most of the UN peace operations we’ve already looked at in this series, the positive impacts of the mission are to be found in low-profile but important contributions made under the radar of international attention. UNAMID has been immensely important in the organisation and protection of camps for Darfur’s IDPs (internally displaced persons). This has provided a measure of day-to-day human security, as well as reducing cross-border refugee flows into Sudan’s poor and unstable western neighbours. UNAMID forces have also been essential to protect aid distribution by other UN agencies and independent NGOs, and perhaps preventing famine on a biblical scale.


The situation facing the peace operation in Darfur couldn’t be further from the straightforward face-off of rival militaries which traditional peacekeeping was designed to deal with. Darfur represents a complex humanitarian emergency in which armed conflict takes place in – and further generates – famine and displacement on a massive scale.

The prospect of any fundamental breakthrough in Darfur is slim, despite the existence of a supposed peace process between local movements and the central government. Independence from Sudan is more or less unthinkable after the secession of South Sudan in 2011; no regime would preside over the stage-by-stage dismemberment of its territory in this way. But meaningful reconciliation between Darfur and the central government is equally difficult to see, given the length and the depth of the conflict. In the meantime, UNAMID is left to carry on with its workaday but important work to make life just a little less intolerable for the people of Darfur.

UNMISS IN SOUTH SUDAN: NEW STATE, OLD PROBLEMS 

In 1972, ten years after the beginning of the civil war, a measure of self-government was agreed for the south and brought some respite. But this wasn’t to last. The divisions between the two parts of the country persisted and the differences began to look irreconcilable in the context of a single state. The discovery of oil in the south in 1978, more or less on the line of division between the two antagonist forces, raised the stakes further.

Then, in 1983, the central government revoked the south’s limited autonomy and civil war resumed. This saw the secessionist Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, led by the charismatic John Garang, pitched against the ‘northern’ government in Khartoum.


National Anthem singers at the Dr John Garang Memorial site in Juba, South Sudan, celebrating Independence Day. 9 July, 2011. Image: USAid/JennWarren [CC]

Talks in Kenya in 2002 brought an agreement designed to end the civil war on the basis of a new Sudanese constitution. The settlement recognised southern autonomy and undertook to hold a referendum on independence. In 2005, by the terms of a so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Garang became Vice President of Sudan, though he died in an air crash later in the year. In January 2011, the promised referendum in the south returned an overwhelming vote of 99 percent for independence. The new state of the Republic of South Sudan came into being the following July.

The challenges faced by the new country in both its external relations and its internal governance were daunting. Although Sudan had accepted the outcome of the referendum, it was not an amicable divorce. In the months before and after the separation, there were frequent and bloody clashes in border areas. The new state itself had only limited material and human resources for the challenges of nation-building, and was threatened from the outset by ethnically-based political rivalries.


United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS)

First deployed: July 2011; Total strength (2017): 17,139; Contributing states (2017): 63 total. >100: Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mongolia, Nepal, S.Korea, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, UK; Fatalities (since 2011): 51


Recognising this, the UN Security Council agreed to establish UNMISS to help create a secure environment within which the new state could establish itself. Specifically, the mission was to ‘consolidate peace and security’, and to strengthen local capacity ‘to govern effectively and democratically’. And, as if this wasn’t burdensome enough, UNMISS was also to help the government ‘establish good relations with its neighbours’ (Security Council resolution 1996).  The new peace operation was ambitiously scaled in terms of personnel and resources, necessarily so given the range of its responsibilities and the difficulty of the physical terrain in which it had to operate.

A BAPTISM OF FIRE

The new state, and the UN mission put in place to ease its entry into the international system, certainly didn’t have their troubles to seek. Hundreds died in inter-ethnic clashes in the first months of independence in 2011. This violence was followed by serious fighting with Sudan on the new international border over control of oil production. Then, in mid-2013, South Sudan plunged into full-scale civil war when President Salva Kiir (who had replaced John Garang as leader of the SPLM in 2005) sacked his entire cabinet. Among those ousted was Vice-President Riek Machar, who immediately put himself at the head of a rival movement. Catastrophically, the schism followed ethnic lines: Kiir was from the Dinka tribe; Machar was from the nomadic Nuer.


In 2016, the UN formally accused the sides of systematic ethnic cleansing and at the beginning of 2017, famine was declared in large parts of the country, a catastrophe the UN has insisted is entirely man-made.

Terrible atrocities have been committed by both sides, with entire towns being destroyed in the fighting over the past five years. In 2016, the UN formally accused the sides of systematic ethnic cleansing and at the beginning of 2017, famine was declared in large parts of the country, a catastrophe the UN has insisted is entirely man-made.

Amidst this, the performance of UNMISS, frankly, has not been impressive. Perhaps, given the huge space between the UN’s mandate and the realities on the ground in South Sudan, it never could be. The mission has had some success in creating and overseeing camps for the thousands of IDPs created by the fighting. Its efforts in the protection of threatened civilians have been generally lacklustre, however. Indeed, uncomfortable echoes can be heard of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and the failure of the UN peace operation there to prevent it (a still-unhealed sore in the broad narrative of UN peacekeeping). The principle of protection of civilians (‘PoC’) rightly became a preoccupation of peacekeeping planners after Rwanda, failed the following year at Srebrenica, and seems to be failing again in South Sudan.


Chinese peacekeepers serving with UNMISS in Juba are awarded the UN Service Medal. A line of blue-bereted women in fatigues stand in line.
Chinese peacekeepers serving with UNMISS in Juba are awarded the UN Service Medal. Image: Eric Kanalstein (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Before assigning blame here, it has to be acknowledged that the physical and mental demands on peacekeepers in South Sudan over the course of the operation are probably greater than in any other contemporary operation. But there have been frequent reports of UN contingents simply failing to act in the face of desperate appeals.

One particularly shameful case in the capital, Juba, in 2016 came to international attention because it involved the abuse and rape of western aid workers as well as the killing of locals. The crimes were being committed only metres from a UN compound – from which troops of various national contingents steadfastly refused to emerge.


The stark question raised here – and it’s one with real significance for UN operations in general – is simply this: who is willing to die for the United Nations?

The stark question raised here – and it’s one with real significance for UN operations in general – is simply this: who is willing to die for the United Nations? In this regard, while Rwanda is one shadow from the 1990s, there is another which also looms over contemporary peacekeeping: Somalia. There is an obvious nervousness among peacekeepers about crossing the so-called ‘Mogadishu line’. On the wrong side of this lies deadly conflict with local forces, with no obvious benefit to the foreign forces on the ground.

Putting aside the actual performance of UNMISS’s contingents, the operation has seen some interesting developments in ‘troop contributing countries’ (TCCs). The operation has been a major vehicle for China’s new engagement with UN peacekeeping. The mission very conveniently parallels China’s rapidly developing economic and political interest in sub-Saharan Africa (though, it should be said that Chinese troops were reportedly among the worst offenders in the failure to protect civilians in the 2007 Juba incidents.) UNMISS has also provided the occasion of Japan’s tentative arrival as a new TCC – being the first time its forces have been operational abroad in seventy years. Britain too has used UNMISS to emerge from a period of very limited activity as a UN peacekeeper, deploying specialist technical units in 2017.

 UNISFA in ABYEI: MEDIATING THE BORDERLANDS 

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), negotiated between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and which began the final journey towards an independent South Sudan, glossed over some tricky issues. While this ‘blind eye’ approach made tactical sense in the urgent search for an agreement, time bombs had been set to detonate in the future.

One of these ‘bombs’ was Abyei, in the border area between Sudan and South Sudan. In 2005 and subsequently, it was uncertain which side of the new international frontier Abyei should be placed: it was coveted by both sides for its oil wealth. The years after the signing of the CPA, and going beyond the independence of South Sudan, have seen frequent bloody clashes and refugee movements around this issue. The conflict continued despite both sides having agreed to abide by a determination from the International Court of Arbitration which gave most of the territory – including the oilfields – to Sudan.


The disputed Abyei area between Sudan and South Sudan. A map shows highlighted in grey a small area of land straddling the border of Sudan and South Sudan.
The disputed Abyei area between Sudan and South Sudan. Image: Nicolay Sidorov (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In light of the situation and its potential spread, the UN Security Council created an Interim Security Force (UNISFA) for the area,  in June 2011 (just days before the establishment of UNMISS for post-independence South Sudan). The mission was to ensure the demilitarisation of the region (agreed by both Sudan and South Sudan), and then to work with local police to guarantee protection of civilians and provide security for oil installations. UNISFA was also to undertake de-mining (the area being infested with them following the fighting between the two national armies).

In contrast to UNMISS – and indeed to UNAMID in Darfur – UNISFA has been relatively successful in carrying out its tasks. In fairness to the two larger missions, the comparison is somewhat skewed. UNISFA’s mandate is fundamentally more achievable than theirs as it is basically a peace operation on old-fashioned, Cold War era classical lines. Its primary functions are interposition between the forces of Sudan and South Sudan, both of which have agreed their disengagement, and the military observation. In short, there is a peace to keep in Abyei and the UN is keeping it. As a result, UNISFA is able to carry out its secondary tasks – de-mining, refugee return, and police training – in an optimum setting.


United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)

First deployed: June 2011; Total strength (2017): 4796; Contributing states (2017): 27 total. >100: Ethiopia; Fatalities (since 2011): 24


Beyond the terms of its mandate, UNISFA perhaps has one other advantage over its regional counterparts in Darfur and South Sudan. It has just one principal Troop Contributing Country (TCC). To all intents and purposes, the military component of the mission consists of the Ethiopian army. As regional neighbours, Ethiopian personnel can be expected to have special knowledge and cultural understanding of the area of operations. The single TCC model also removes most of the issues of inter-contingent relations which, even with the best will in the world, often hamper the performance of multinational peace operations.


Like most peace operations, UNISFA is limited in what it can achieve in terms of a final and durable settlement. This responsibility lies with the protagonists.

Regardless of the effectiveness of the mission in relation to its specific mandate, like most peace operations, UNISFA is limited in what it can achieve in terms of a final and durable settlement. This responsibility lies with the protagonists. And here, as in other theatres where UN forces are deployed, the interim stability provided by the mission can have the unintended effect of delaying this by removing the element of urgency. We could think, for example, of the Cyprus mission, which we looked at in a previous article. On the ground now for more than half a century, the very success of UN peacekeeping in Cyprus may have innocently sabotaged the larger peace-making process. One has to hope that Abyei will find a viable long-term settlement more quickly.

DARFUR, SOUTH SUDAN, AND ABYEI: THE SPECTRUM OF PEACEKEEPING PRACTICE  

The three operations we’ve looked at here – UNAMIUD, UNMISS, UNISFA – represent in their different ways the breadth of the peacekeeping project. In Abyei, UNISFA carries out a mandate that would be familiar to the man often regarded as the father of peacekeeping back in the 1950s: the UN’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld. It is tasked literally with ‘keeping peace’ through interposition and military observation.

Immediately adjacent to Abyei, in South Sudan, UNMISS attempts, not altogether successfully, to carry out the kind of complex multifunctional operation involving military, political, and humanitarian roles. This is an approach to peacekeeping that the UN adopted (could only adopt) with the end of the Cold War.

To the west, in Darfur, UNAMID represents a type of ‘partnership peacekeeping’, involving a joint venture between the UN and a regional organisation. This is a style of peace operation unknown in the Hammarskjöld era but which emerged amidst the intense pressures of the 1990s. In principle, it’s a means of relieving the UN of resource burdens, of bringing local knowledge and sensitivity to a conflict, and of developing regional capacity for peacekeeping. In practice, the jury has been arguing long and hard about its merits and demerits for the past twenty years.


Internally displaced people sheltering at the United Nations Protection of Civilians site in the capital used the opportunity of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley's visit in October 2017 to plead for help from the US administration which is the largest humanitarian donor in South Sudan. A woman waves a South Sudanese flag with a group of blue-helmeted UN soldiers in the background.
Internally displaced people at the UN Protection of Civilians site in Juba gather during the visit of US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley (October 2017 ). Image: UNMISS Nektarios Markogiannis (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is another category of peacekeeping which, for various reasons, has never been applied in Sudan/South Sudan. The suffering of the peoples of the region over decades now raises the question as to why the UN has never, in any of the three locations, imposed a transitional administration. This form of ‘deep peacekeeping’, which involves the UN exercising comprehensive sovereignty over a country or region, has a fair track record in West New Guinea in the early 1960s, in Cambodia in the 1990s, and in Kosovo and Timor-Leste in the 2000s.

It’s difficult to escape the thought that a period of UN ‘rule’ could have been a preliminary to a much more successful Republic of South Sudan. On a more modest scale, it could re-set the terms of peace-making in Abyei, putting the UN in the lead role. In Darfur, it would ease the necessity for the UN force to constantly tip-toe around Sudanese government forces in their PoC efforts.


It’s difficult to escape the thought that a period of UN ‘rule’ could have been a preliminary to a much more successful Republic of South Sudan.

But the obstacles are many, and they unite local and international interests. Sudan’s relationship with the UN is perpetually on a cliff edge. Quite simply, Khartoum would never agree to cede sovereignty over any part of its territory, let alone the running sores of Darfur and Abyei. For South Sudan, where the idea of a period of UN transitional government seems to make most sense, the prospect was dead as soon as the clean break from Sudan was agreed. Once in prospect, the prize of immediate statehood was irresistible to a leadership desperate to seize the reins of power.

And, even putting these local blockages aside, the inescapable fact is that the United Nations itself would probably have ducked the responsibility. If there had been an open door for transitional administration, the UN wouldn’t have pushed on it. By the end of the last century, just when the problems in Sudan/South Sudan were reaching crisis point, UN peacekeeping capacity was at breaking point. The Security Council had its sights set on reduction, not expansion, of peace operations. The consequences of this, of course, lie in the wasted lands of Darfur, South Sudan, and Abyei, not with the decision-making elites in Khartoum, Juba ,or New York.


Norrie MacQueen is the author of several books on the United Nations, peace operations, and humanitarian intervention. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations which has recently appeared in paperback. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of International Peacekeeping. Norrie was part of the Democratic Governance Support Unit of the UN integrated peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste during 2012 in the final phase of the operation. Norrie is also a Contributing Editor at CABLE. He’s on Twittter at: @NorrieMacQueen Contact him at: nm47@st-andrews.ac.uk 


Feature image: A woman rides a donkey loaded with water cans, while UNAMID troops from Tanzania conduct a routine patrol in the camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Khor Abeche, South Darfur. Image: UNAMID/Albert González Farran