As devastating videos and bone-chilling accounts of massacres continue to come out of Sudan, the United Nations has appeared to jettison what little remained of its civilian protection role in the country. The apparent decision to shut down the UN’s political mission there, known as UNITAMS, came mere days after another wave of atrocities was committed by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied Arab militias in West Darfur.
On November 16, the UN Security Council was receiving a briefing from UNITAMS when acting Foreign Minister Ali Sadeq announced in a letter that Sudan had requested that the UN “immediately terminate” UNITAMS. The mandate of UNITAMS was slated for renewal on December 3. The next day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Ramtane Lamamra as his personal envoy to Sudan. But Lamamra is just one person. It is unclear what kind of staff he will have and to what extent he will be able to publicly report to UN member states on human rights abuses and war crimes.
The UN mission’s role in Sudan had been circumscribed for months, but shutting it down is still a significant setback. On the practical side, the termination of UNITAMS will most likely reduce UNSC’s scrutiny of the warring sides’ conduct. Symbolically, this marks the end of the UN’s 20-year mixed-bag experiment with protecting civilians notably in Darfur. UNITAMS was established in 2020 to assist Sudan’s political transition after the toppling of longtime President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. It had a countrywide mandate. It started operations as the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, was being drawn down before being shut down in December 2020.
UNAMID had a 20,000-strong uniformed force positioned in dozens of bases across Darfur. Many Darfuris criticised the mission’s withdrawal, aware of the important deterrent role it had played. Instead of heeding calls to extend UNAMID’s mandate, the UNSC followed up by rubber-stamping further UN disengagement. Replacing the peacekeepers was the UNITAMS, with a significantly watered-down mandate, budget and no physical protection presence. Since the onset of conflict in Sudan in April the UNSC has not adopted a single substantive resolution.
Today, the need for robust protection of civilians is greater than ever. The UN should be actively working to fulfil its responsibilities to protect civilians in Darfur and other parts of Sudan, not walking away. With six million people having fled their homes, Sudan is witnessing the world’s largest displacement crisis. The country’s civilian infrastructure and services, including healthcare and education, have been devastated.
More parts of Sudan are engulfed in violent fighting than ever before. In the first week of November, the RSF and its allied militias killed hundreds and resorted to widespread looting, arson and acts of sexual violence in Ardamata, West Darfur. The UN special adviser on genocide recently warned that “a number of these attacks, if confirmed, may constitute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”. The RSF also attacked civilians in southern Khartoum, where pillage, sexual violence and killings have plagued communities since the conflict’s onset.
The Sudanese army, on the other hand, has continued to bomb heavily populated neighbourhoods of the country’s capital and to obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid, including urgently needed medical supplies. Some members of the UNSC, including Gabon, Ghana, Mozambique and the United Arab Emirates, have blocked the Council’s efforts to condemn the abuses. Meanwhile, media reports have indicated that the UAE is also implicated in providing weapons and material support to one of the warring factions. The United Kingdom, which leads action on Sudan at the UNSC, has played a waiting game instead of actively working to build a robust response. The inaction of the three African states has further enabled this passive strategy to continue.
In 2007, after atrocities perpetrated against the civilians of Darfur mounted, the UNSC took action by voting to establish UNAMID. Today, as Darfuris are facing the same horrors, they should not be abandoned. All UNSC members should work with critical stakeholders, including Darfuri refugees and displaced communities, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, to explore the viability of alternative structures of deployment that could deliver on civilian protection and provide robust human rights documentation and reporting to the UN. The Council can start by organising a visit to eastern Chad to meet some of the tens of thousands of people who have fled the widespread abuses in Sudan. This would send an important message to survivors that the UNSC cares about what they have experienced and that it is still watching.
It should also publicly condemn those violating the arms embargo on Darfur as a first step towards sanctioning the parties responsible for serious violations. The UNSC, the UN as a whole and the AU have a duty to protect civilians. They must act to fulfil this duty and safeguard the safety, security and rights of the Sudanese civilian population.