Today, the United Nations Security Council will get a briefing on the situation in Sudan’s Darfur region. Since March, government-led attacks have surged against dozens of villages in Jebel Mara, a restive mountainous rebel stronghold in central Darfur, resulting in killings, widespread destruction, looting, and mass displacement.
The latest report of UNAMID, the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission, calls the situation in Darfur “generally stable” with some “low scale skirmishes.” With such a gloss-over assessment from peacekeepers, there’s a real risk the dire protection needs of civilians will be ignored or forgotten.
In April the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies reported that between mid-March and mid-April government forces, including the notoriously abusive Rapid Support Forces, attacked dozens of locations burning at least 12 villages to the ground, killing at least 23 civilians and displacing about 15,000 people into the mountains.
A sheikh from Jebel Marra described to me one of these attacks: “They burned huts and looted and searched for people.” He said 16 civilians including two children were killed in the attacks he witnessed.
UN-AU peacekeepers and other international actors do not know the full scale of the death toll and destruction being wrought on civilians in Jebel Marra – or across Darfur – because they are largely absent. Sudan has restricted access and the peacekeeping mission has been under pressure to quickly downsize. While Jebel Marra was recognized as a trouble area over a year ago, construction on a temporary operating base for UNAMID is only just beginning and peacekeepers still face access problems.
As the recent Jebel Marra attacks remind us, and Human Rights Watch warned last year, areas without peacekeepers heighten the risk that civilians will be unprotected from government violence and abuses. The mission’s reporting confirms that widespread rights violations, including sexual violence, are committed across Darfur with impunity.
As it downsizes, UNAMID needs to become agile enough to respond quickly to violence across a vast area and to deepen and strengthen – not abandon– its human rights and protection role, which brought it to Darfur in the first place.