UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Security Council members have affirmed their commitment to end the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s western Darfur region, but were divided on the timing, with Russia and African nations calling for a Dec. 31 termination and several Western nations urging more time before an exit.
The council is under pressure to decide because the mandate of the joint mission, known as UNAMID, runs out on Dec. 31.
In June, the council voted unanimously to move toward ending UNAMID, which has well over 6,000 military and police personnel and more than 1,500 civilian staffers, and replacing it with a much smaller U.N. civilian mission. But the council did not set a date for UNAMID’s end and the official start of the new political mission, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, known as UNITAMS.
“Sudan is at a critical juncture,” U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday. “It can move forward decisively in its transition, but that process can still be derailed by the many challenges it faces.”
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when ethnic Africans rebelled, accusing the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of discrimination. The government in Khartoum was accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes and unleashing them on civilian populations — a charge it denies.
In recent years, as the result of a successful government military campaign, the rebellion has been reduced to a rebel Sudan Liberation Army faction headed by Abdul Wahid Elnur in Jebel Marra.
DiCarlo and all council members welcomed the peace agreement signed by Sudan's transitional government and rebel groups on Oct. 3. But she pointed to Sudan’s “dire economic situation,” exacerbated by a five-month shutdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as rising humanitarian needs driven in part by severe flooding and intercommunal violence.
The Sudanese government has been pressing for UNAMID to end on Dec. 31, and Russia’s deputy ambassador Anna Evstigneeva backed the end-of-year termination, as did Niger’s U.N. ambassador, Abdou Abarry, speaking on behalf of South Africa, Tunisia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“The situation on the ground and arrangements set up by the transitional government to provide stability and protection of persons and property in Darfur are conducive for UNAMID to begin its withdrawal process and to hand over control to UNITAMS as of Dec. 31,” Abarry said.
DiCarlo said Sudan’s transitional government has underscored that UNITAMS should have “a light footprint.” In response, she said, the mission will focus on assisting the political transition, supporting peace processes, assisting peacebuilding, protecting civilians and the rule of law, and supporting Sudanese efforts to mobilize economic, development and humanitarian assistance.
DiCarlo said the U.N. goal is for UNITAMS and the U.N. civilian country team to begin delivering on those objectives by Jan. 1.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix noted “recent positive indications” by rebel leader Abdul Wahid “for a potential involvement in the peace process.”
He said Sudan's transitional government is resolved to take responsibility for protecting civilians — a key role of UNAMID’s peacekeepers — but questioned who would protect civilians during a transition.
Lacroix said the AU, U.N. and the government have recommended the termination of UNAMID on Dec. 31 “followed by a six-month drawdown and liquidation thereafter.”
U.N. logistics chief Atul Khare warned the council that closing down one of the largest U.N. operations “would be a major undertaking,” explaining that the mission's personnel are spread out at a base in El Fasher, mission headquarters in Zallingei, 13 team sites, as well as in Khartoum and Port Sudan.
In addition to equipment deployed with the 22 military and police contingents, Khare said the mission has more than 10,000 “assets plus inventory.” The drawdown will take no less than six months, he said, followed by a 9 to 12 month period “of asset disposal and liquidation” that will require “full cooperation” of the government.
Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, echoed DiCarlo, warning that Sudan is at “a critical juncture” and “the transition process could still derail.”
He pointed to the floods, a poor harvest, COVID-19, reports of internal fights over control of gold mines, attacks against government forces, and low representation of women in transitional bodies.
Heusgen urged the council to look at its obligations in deciding on the drawdown and how to cooperate with the government “in the most effective way possible in order to cope with all the challenges we face.”
Jose Singer, the Dominican Republic’s U.N. ambassador, said he was reminded of what happened in neighboring Haiti after “the premature withdrawal” of U.N. peacekeepers, a reference to the ongoing insecurity in the country.
Britain's new U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, called on the U.N., working with Sudan's government, “to ensure that the transition from UNAMID to UNITAMS is responsible, sequenced and sustainable."
Estonia’s U.N. ambassador, Sven Jurgenson, said “Estonia is supporting a responsible withdrawal which is not politicized, but based on the needs on the ground.”
“Rushing the withdrawal risks losing the significant gains made by UNAMID over the years,” he said.