“It is the same as in the old days,” Adam Rojal, a coordinator in an internally displaced community in Sudan’s Darfur region told me recently. He was referring to the continuing violence by militias and government forces against the civilian population. I asked how the situation could be the same given that former President Omar al-Bashir, under whose watch Darfur became the site of mass-scale atrocities, was ousted in 2019 and a new transitional government took over, promising peace.
“The abusive forces that have been targeting civilians for years are still roaming around,” he responded.
On December 22, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to end the joint African Union-UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. The remaining UN presence will be in the form of a political mission with no mandate to provide physical protection. While the full details of the mission’s responsibilities are still being worked out, the UN undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the UN Security Council on December 8 that the it would have a team of advisers on child protection and women’s rights, human rights officers, and police trainers.
As December 31, the final day of the peacekeeping mission draws close, residents of this restive region are justifiably concerned. The latest report by the UN secretary-general and the African Union Commission chairperson documents an “uptick” in intercommunal violence and civil unrest, with the peacekeepers recording 146 fatalities between June and October.
Under Sudan’s new national plan to protect civilians, the government is to assume full responsibility for civilian security in compliance with international standards.
Yet Rojal and other displaced people in Darfur worry that the government is a long way from being ready to fulfil this task. “The peacekeeping mission sometimes failed to protect us,” Rojal said. “But the solution should be improving what is here, not removing that and leaving us alone.”
While the peacekeepers’ mandate was briefly extended in October following a request from Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the government seems unwilling to extend the mandate beyond the end of this year. Foreign governments and the UN have shown that they are unwilling to push Khartoum to consider another extension.
The period following al-Bashir’s ouster in April 2019 has been a story of turbulent and fragile transition, especially in Darfur. In August of 2019, civilian political groups and military commanders reached a power-sharing agreement, charting the path for Sudan’s transition. A peace deal was signed in October 2020 with a number of rebel factions, but some key armed groups are active in Darfur.
Darfuris have become quite vocal about their rejection of the UN peacekeepers’ withdrawal. In early December, displaced communities in Zalingi and Kalma camps in south Darfur protested against the move. A journalist who covered the protests told me: “The displaced see UNAMID’s departure at this moment as catastrophic. Intercommunal violence is spiking. Some holdout groups still did not join the peace talks, and their current infighting also poses risk to the civilian population.”
In June and July, communities in Darfur, many from within the displaced population, protested against insecurity and abuses. Some of these demonstrations did not end peacefully.
In response, the government deployed joint forces including the Rapid Support Forces, who have a long track record of serious violations of international law for years, as human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented. What followed was a campaign of arrests of protesters and activists that in many cases involved serious human rights violations.
A 37-year human rights lawyer was arrested by a military intelligence officer on July 19 in the North Darfuri town of Kutum and detained for days. “They accused me of instigating recent protests that ended up with the burning of a police station,” he later told me. “They kept beating me with their boots and punching me, then slapping on my ears.”
Voices from Darfur raise the critical question of how the government is going to protect the population by deploying forces with a documented record of abuses. Tackling this starts with reforming those forces and ending their impunity. The international community should step up its scrutiny on how the government is going to uphold its commitments in line with international standards.
Although the UNSC voted against extending the peacekeepers’ mission, it cannot simply walk away from the civilians of Darfur. Sudan’s partners should ensure that there is robust UN human rights monitoring in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. If there is a spike in violence, the UNSC should consider either a temporary reauthorization of UNAMID if there are still troops on the ground or an expansion of the capabilities of the follow-on mission. hey should ensure there is no security vacuum that leads to more violence against civilians.
With the clock ticking, both Sudan and the international community need to listen to the people of Darfur and ensure they are not abandoned.