United Nations Mission in Darfur peacekeepers stand guard in Shagra village, North Darfur, October 18, 2012. 

© 2012 Reuters

(New York) – The proposal by the United Nations and the African Union to limit the UN’s protection role in Sudan threatens the safety and security of civilians in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today. In a new report that the Security Council is expected to discuss on March 17, 2020, the UN secretary-general and the AU commission chairperson proposed excluding “physical protection” of civilians from the mandate for a follow-on political and peacebuilding mission in Sudan.

When authorizing a new countrywide mission for Sudan, the Security Council should include armed police units that could protect civilians, quick reaction peacekeepers to respond to threats as they arise, and mobile human rights monitoring teams based in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said.

“Darfur is not like the rest of Sudan,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council should recognize that Darfur requires a far more gradual withdrawal and keep a UN security presence on the ground to actively protect civilians. Past and ongoing violence there means civilians can’t trust Sudanese security forces alone and still look to peacekeepers for protection.”

The current UN/AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, is due to withdraw from Sudan by October 2020, following years of downsizing under pressure from Sudan’s previous government and Western governments eager to reduce costs. The mission will close its last 14 bases and withdraw all its remaining 4,040 military personnel and 2,500 police by October 31.

After the ouster of Omar al-Bashir as president in April 2019, Sudan’s new government asked the UN to delay UNAMID’s withdrawal. In early 2020, the government sent two letters to the Security Council asking it to authorize a new “follow-on” political and peacebuilding mission to cover all of Sudan. While those letters suggested that the new mission should be authorized under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, they also asked for the mission to “support the repatriation and reintegration of internally displaced people and refugees,” “protection of civilians,” and “human rights monitoring and capacity building of national institutions.”

Nonetheless, the proposal set out in the secretary-general’s report does not include any uniformed personnel to protect civilians in Darfur, where risks remain acute. The report only suggests some individual police advisers to train and support the Sudanese authorities, stating “civilian protection is a Sudanese responsibility, while a post-UNAMID mechanism may provide advisory and capacity building support to the authorities who would need to fulfill it.” The report suggests that these advisers should work with “Sudanese police forces, community policing volunteers, the Women’s Protection Networks, and other partners.”

An earlier version of the secretary-general’s report better reflected threats to civilians, credible UN sources told Human Rights Watch. The allegedly deleted passages explicitly recognized that hotspots in Darfur would still benefit from the continued presence of “formed police units” – armed police forces that are authorized to respond to imminent threats to civilians – and “quick reaction forces” – a light protection force made up of peacekeepers. Experts proposed these elements as the most appropriate way to provide protection in hotspots even within a wider mission to support the political transition.

Across Darfur, where large-scale government-led attacks began in 2003, threats to civilians persist. Government and rebel forces have continued fighting in the Jebel Marra area, where UNAMID focused its protection activities since 2018. The Sudan Panel of Experts reported that displaced people in that area have repeatedly been forced to flee their homes to seek safety and protection from clashes, noting that those “multiple displacements” heightened risks of sexual assault and violence.

Peacekeepers from UNAMID’s temporary operating base in Golo, set up in 2018, have provided shelters for people displaced from the fighting and in the wider Jebel Mara area. Since November 2019, they have undertaken thousands of patrols to escort humanitarian agencies and provide greater security, including to camps for displaced people, water collection points, farming areas, and migration routes.

While the secretary-general’s report acknowledges that “new displacement continues to occur in the Golo area,” it makes no recommendations to effectively respond to those needs after UNAMID leaves.

Inter-communal violence, often exacerbated by the involvement of government forces, has killed dozens of people in recent months. On March 8, armed ethnic Arab nomads attacked and burned most of an ethnic Zaghawa village in the Hijir Tonjur area, forcing thousands to flee, witnesses said. Many injured people were unable to get adequate medical treatment, and according to UNAMID at least a dozen people were killed.

In Al Geneina, West Darfur, fighting between Arab and Masalit communities flared up in December 2019, six months after UNAMID forces had withdrawn from their base there. Armed Arab groups, including members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, attacked an internally camp for displaced people and killed dozens of people, including children, raped women, and girls, destroyed schools, and burned homes, causing tens of thousands to flee. As of March 2020, displaced people were still sheltering in schools in Al Geneina. Residents of West Darfur told Human Rights Watch they believe a peacekeeping presence there could have prevented the violence.

The proposal notes that these “clashes in West Darfur have highlighted concerns about remaining security challenges in the areas from which UNAMID has withdrawn. The Sudanese security elements are either implicated in these violent incidents or lack capacities to respond.”

The Rapid Support Force commander, Hemedti, has become deputy head of the ruling sovereign council in Sudan, which could embolden his forces to attack civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Members of Hemedti’s force have been implicated in the June 3, 2019 massacre in Khartoum and in numerous brutal attacks on civilians in Darfur over the past five years, including a series of mass rapes in the town of Golo in Jebel Mara in 2015. Those responsible have not faced justice for the crimes.

Civilians living in camps for displaced people scattered across the region or on the peripheries of existing UNAMID sites, such as in Sortony, are especially vulnerable to attacks by armed groups in the absence of the deterrent presence of international forces, Human Rights Watch said.

In November 2019, a thousand displaced people in Sortony demonstrated to express their fears about any planned return to their places of origin. The Sudan Panel of Experts reported that in “many incidents, internally displaced people claiming legitimate ownership of their lands and trying to return to them were harassed, threatened, chased away and assaulted, and sometimes killed. Women and girls were sexually assaulted and raped.”

In the Kalma camp in South Darfur, UNAMID police have been the only forces able to patrol the area. In April 2019, they stood between rival armed factions within the camp and helped calm simmering tensions that previously resulted in the killing of 16 people and injuries to 17 others.

In its latest communiqué, the AU Peace and Security Council called for “extreme caution on the withdrawal of UNAMID, to sustain the gains made and to avoid relapse and security vacuum.”

“There’s no need for the UN Security Council to accept the limited options being presented,” Roth said. “The Security Council should instead establish a follow-on mission that supports the nationwide transition to rights-respecting civilian rule and peacebuilding, but that also recognizes the need to continue to protect civilians in Darfur.”