The Peacekeeping Transition in Darfur: Gaining Advantage from Crisis

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A popular revolution in Sudan eight months ago ended the 30-year rule of dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, abruptly transforming the country’s governance institutions and beginning the reshaping of its social contract. It occurred at a time when the African Union (AU) and the United Nations were deep in preparations for the reconfiguration and eventual withdrawal of the hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) from Sudan’s Darfur region.

IPI Policy Analyst Daniel Forti told an IPI audience that UNAMID’s transition is “the most complex mission transition the UN has ever undertaken.” Mr. Forti was speaking at a December 16th policy forum, held in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN, to discuss the upcoming stages of the mission’s reconfiguration and to launch an IPI policy paper that he authored called Navigating Crisis and Opportunity: The Peacekeeping Transition in Darfur.

Charlotte Larbuisson, Political Affairs Officer, UN Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, said that “with the events of the past year, the peacekeeping transition is itself taking place in a transition – in Sudan’s democratic transition. We started this transition from peacekeeping in Darfur in a very different environment. We have had to adapt to changing circumstances and shift the trajectory of the peacekeeping. The outcome will probably look quite different than we were envisioning at the beginning of the transition.”

Suggesting that the crisis might actually amount to an opportunity, she said, “The events of 2019 have impacted the substance and direction of the transition and have resulted in a new enabling political environment in Darfur, testing the flexibility of the transition and its ability to adapt. The transition in Darfur is taking place in a different political environment so we have altered our political engagement.”

Framing the peacekeeping transition within recent developments throughout Sudan, Mr. Forti concluded that “UNAMID’s experience has thoroughly tested many of the UN’s emerging principles regarding mission transitions.” Three of these are that: “Transitions are inherently political and are premised on how the UN reconfigures its engagements with a host country; transitions depend, in part, on how well the UN can achieve system-wide integration on the ground and strengthen coherence with a range of national counterparts and international actors; transitions need to be flexible and adaptable, especially in dynamic political environments where the host country re-assumes ownership over a range of security, governance, and development initiatives.”

Gunnar Berkemeier, Peacekeeping Coordinator, Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN, said he was “optimistic” about the possibilities. “First and foremost, there is buy-in from the government of Sudan. We have a chance to make this a mission that the Sudanese government and people really want.”

At the same time, he said, while the change had been dramatic, one had to be aware of what had not changed. “It is completely fair to say that there is a ‘new Sudan’, but there are also old issues in Darfur that have been drivers of division in the country that remain to be addressed. We have to take into account the duality of supporting the political process but also addressing the remaining peacekeeping and peacebuilding needs. We have to be ambitious with the mandate because in this moment, we have the opportunity to make real headway on these issues. There must be a great deal of flexibility built into the mandate to deal with its outcome and progress.”

Jürgen Schulz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN, introduced the conversation by saying, “We have seen many important developments and decisions in Sudan in the last year, and many Sudanese representatives have called it ‘a new Sudan’, so now we must ask ourselves, ‘What do we do with the peacekeeping mission?’” He noted that the Security Council would soon be taking up the matter of how to reconfigure UNAMID “when we will ask ourselves, ‘What should be the structure? The mandate? The geographical extent?’ There are no easy answers or fixes.”

Looking forward, Mr. Forti enumerated five priorities that should inform the next stages of the peacekeeping transition:

  • Strengthening the engagement with the UN Security Council and AU Political and Security Council.
  • Ensuring the primacy of any follow-on presence’s political mandate.
  • Reinforcing joint planning efforts to strengthen national ownership over the transition process, scale up peacebuilding work and identify fresh complementary opportunities for new actors.
  • Integrating human rights and protection into all areas of work.
  • Sustaining international attention and financial support to make funding more “predictable and streamlined.”

Natalie Palmer, Second Secretary, Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the UN, spoke of earlier divisions over the peacekeeping transition within the Security Council.  “We did not have a sustainable peace agreement in place, many concerns had not been addressed, and for the UK, the priority was to have a flexible and responsible withdrawal,” she said. “There were two camps in the Security Council – those who were very happy to see the mission leave, and do it quickly, and those who were wary of leaving without a peace agreement. Financial pressures also contributed to a rapid drawdown.”

She said that while the current configuration of UNAMID is “probably still not the most appropriate tool to address the challenges in Darfur, we have a new opportunity to support a new government and peace process.” The drawdown had been paused until March of 2020, she said, and “there are still major protection concerns, especially for women and children, and a continued need for humanitarian support and aid.”

Husni Mustafa, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Sudan to the UN, praised the AU and UN collaboration that produced the hybrid peacekeeping force in 2007. “This unique partnership is a success story for us,” he said. “The cooperation between the AU and the UN is ongoing, especially between the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council. We must focus on national ownership.”

Ms. Larbuisson said she was hopeful for the success of the twin transitions underway.  “The current transitions in Darfur and Sudan are an opportunity to ensure that the support we provide is in line with the new phase that the country finds itself in,” she said. “We need to seize it to get the peacekeeping transition right and help the new authorities build peace.”

Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, moderated the discussion.