The slow demise of the UN’s Darfur peacekeeping mission


Peacekeepers in Darfur (Courtesy: UN News Centre)

By David Bosco

Evidence is mounting that the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur is in its last phase. The government of Omar al-Bashir has said that it wants a quick “exit strategy” for the force, which comprises almost 20,000 soldiers and many more civilians. Khartoum has signaled its displeasure in other ways, including by closing a UN human rights office and evicting several senior UN development officials. In the face of this official hostility, it appears that the United Nations is considering sweeping changes to the mission, one of the UN’s largest. As the New York Times reports:

One plan being considered is to limit peacekeeping activities to guarding the camps that shelter displaced civilians. A final decision will be made by the Security Council and the African Union, which jointly run the mission, sometime next year.

United Nations officials say Sudanese obstructionism is mostly to blame for the setbacks, while critics accuse the United Nations of ineptitude and cover-ups. The mission remains one of the world’s most expensive, with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.

“Darfur was always a gamble,” said a United Nations diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “The political coalition that was putting pressure on Sudan evaporated, and once that happened, and the Sudanese continued to demonstrate extreme ruthlessness, we found ourselves unable to do our job.”

All of which begs the question: if Khartoum finds the UN’s presence so burdensome, why doesn’t it simply tell the United Nations to pack up and leave? At both the legal and practical levels, the answer is complicated.

Like most modern peacekeeping missions, UNAMID was authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council coercive power. Chapter VII peacekeeping is often contrasted with more consensual missions, which relied on the Council’s Chapter VI mediation and conciliation functions. For these traditional peacekeeping operations, the consent of the parties to the conflict was paramount. The classic case of peacekeepers pulling up stakes when the host state asked it to do so  is the UN Emergency Force, deployed in 1956 to the Suez with the goal of monitoring a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt and facilitating the exit of British and French troops. A decade later, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser no longer wanted the force, and UN Secretary General U Thant complied with the withdrawal request. Thant got plenty of grief for that decision, particularly after war broke out a short while later, but his position was simple: the UN was there with Egypt’s consent and had no mandate to stay without it.

In theory, at least, today’s missions are more robust. But the distinction between consensual and mandatory peacekeeping is clearer in theory than in practice. Most Chapter VII missions still rely heavily on the consent of the government on whose territory the peacekeepers operate. The Security Council resolution that authorized UNAMID gives the peacekeepers the authority to use force to protect itself and to shelter civilians, but it also references Sudan’s consent to the mission’s presence. The resolution is murky on whether UNAMID could stay if Sudan withdrew its consent. That ambiguity is intentional; in the negotiations that preceded Council authorization, China and Russia insisted that Sudanese consent be preserved.

Of course, any defect in UNAMID’s legal authority could be cured with a new resolution clarifying that the force can stay without Khartoum’s consent. But could the Council agree to such a resolution? And would Council members be willing to contemplate a full-scale confrontation between peacekeepers and the Sudanese authorities? The answer to both questions is almost certainly no. Russia and China would likely balk at a resolution deciding that Khartoum’s consent is irrelevant. And even those Council members who insist that UNAMID stay probably lack the will to make it so. It’s unlikely that the states providing troops to UNAMID would want them to stay without some form of Sudanese acquiescence.

These grim political realities do not mean that UNAMID will disappear imminently. Bashir may not want to incur the diplomatic wrath that would come with pulling the plug on the mission. He may even see some advantage in keeping an enfeebled and circumscribed UN mission on the ground. But, at least for now, the political currents are running in his favor. The fate of a peacekeeping mission that many hoped would be a check on Bashir’s ruthlessness now largely rests in his hands.

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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