6 August 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference by United Nations force commanders in darfur,

 

Democratic Republic of the Congo


While the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue a warrant for the arrest of the President of Sudan had made the peace process more difficult and challenging, it had not really dislocated operations or had a drastic effect on the ground, General Martin Luther Agwai, Force Commander of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) said at Headquarters today.


The indictment of President Omer Hassan al-Bashir had hampered “a little” any possible “smoothness” the peace process might have enjoyed had the Court not decided to issue the warrant, General Agwai said at a press conference where he was accompanied by Lieutenant-General Babacar Gaye, Force Commander of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).


He said he was happy to have seen visiting special envoys interacting with Sudanese Government officials and each other, as well as meeting with the Joint Chief Mediator.  “I think this may help, but definitely there was a slowdown in the peace process itself because of the issue of indictment.”  The expulsion of international non-governmental organizations following the indictment had been a big blow, he added.


General Agwai said that despite the challenges of deploying and meeting each of UNAMID’s mandated tasks owing to a lack of capabilities, the mission had been able to stabilize the situation in Darfur and was one of the best sources of authenticated information on what was happening in the region.  It had also been able to sensitize people to the extent that some rebel movements were beginning to disarm and remove children from among their ranks.  While there was undoubtedly a lot still to do, the mission had done well on the whole.  “We may not be hitting the headline news every day as a force, but in our interaction with the people on the ground every day, we have been able to make a lot of difference on the ground,” he declared.


Lieutenant-General Gaye said MONUC was facing a “very unique situation” since it was effectively engaged in three military operations at once:  alongside the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA); against the militias in Ituri; and against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the Kivus.  The Mission, the largest United Nations peacekeeping operation deployed anywhere in the world, was facing all the challenges faced by any mission, including the use of force and the protection of civilians.


Responding to questions, both commanders stressed that the lack of essential assets, such as helicopters, was a serious hindrance to what their respective missions could accomplish.  General Agwai stated:  “I have said on a few occasions that the challenging thing that we have in UNAMID is that there is no peace to keep.  But having said that, I think we are acting as a catalyst in the whole peace process itself.”


Describing it as a “very taxing” process, he recalled the efforts undertaken in Doha and in Libya during the last African Union Summit, noting that everyone was now trying to consolidate what had been achieved so far because following the failure of the Darfur Peace Agreement, there had been a lot of fragmentation of rebel movements into small groups.  That had only added to UNAMID’s challenge because it had resulted in the loss of command and control even among the groups themselves.  Additionally, the groups had become too small and too weak, with the result that they had begun to act in a manner that increased the insecurity now being witnessed in Darfur.


That notwithstanding, he said, the mission had gone a little further on the ground, particularly in sensitizing people to the dangers and consequences of some of the actions taken either by the movements or by individual groups.  As a result, some improvement was now beginning to appear, he stated, citing one movement that had decided on its own to hand children back to UNAMID’s child welfare department and to exclude them completely from combat.  “So we are making some progress, but without a comprehensive political peace process, peacekeeping in Darfur is a real challenge.”


Asked whether the United States should “unwind” its sanctions against Sudan and institute tougher actions through the United Nations, General Agwai said the United States “definitely has a big role to play in peace in Darfur”.  Due to the efforts of the United States Special Envoy, even the movements had started to listen.  “Because of the role played by the US Government, we’re beginning to see some of the movements who earlier on gave so many unnecessary conditions that we have to abide by before they attend any peace negotiation have now decided to start coming to the table to negotiate and talk.”


When asked how the decision to indict President Bashir -- and the African Union’s refusal to support it –- had improved the conditions in which the mission could do its work, General Agwai responded:  “At the strategic level, I will not be able to answer so much about the ICC issue vis-à-vis what AU is saying, especially after their Summit, and what ICC itself is doing.  But one thing I can tell you at the operational level on the ground is that there are now beginning to be understanding and stability on the ground.”


UNAMID had all along tried to engage all stakeholders, he continued, pointing out that just prior to the 4 March announcement of the arrest warrant for the Sudanese leader, the mission had been able to sensitize the internally displaced persons and others that no action was to be directed at, or taken by, any group, whether pro- or anti-Government; that would create further instability in Darfur.  What was needed now was all hands on deck to find a solution to the existing challenges, and an all-inclusive peace process that all would buy into.


He asserted that UNAMID would continue to work along those lines because, even when there were skirmishes on the ground, the mission had been able to stabilize some of the issues involved, as had happened in Muhajeria in the south, and in Umm Barru in north-western Darfur, where a Chadian opposition group had crossed over from Sudan, and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had crossed into Sudan from Chad.  “So there are challenges on the ground, obviously, and there will continue to be until there is an acceptable peace process.”


Had UNAMID been properly and fully equipped, and its forces deployed, it would have been able to cover more ground, he said, adding that he had no doubt that the situation had stabilized greatly in comparison to just a year ago.  More people had been able to return home and work on their farms, an indication that the security situation had improved.  Even without a comprehensive peace agreement, things were beginning to stabilize.  Rape and assault figures had declined, as had the numbers of people dying because of the crisis, which had fallen to a range of 120–150 per month compared to “hundreds or thousands” a month in the past.


Asked how much progress had been made on obtaining much-needed equipment, he pointed out that by the corresponding time last year, not one country had pledged any helicopters.  Ethiopia had now pledged that five of the six mandated attack or tactical helicopters would soon be deployed in Darfur.  “So looking at it from that angle, I am sure if my successor comes in by next year, he may tell you a much brighter story about the resources,” added General Agwai, whose tour is nearing its end.


Asked about allegations of gang rape on the part of FARDC soldiers, General Gaye noted that MONUC was monitoring, denouncing and putting pressure on the Government with regard to that issue.  However, the sustainable solution to the problem was sector-security reform, which the Mission was pursuing actively.  “So there are, I think, things that are really very bad on the ground, but we need to look into the long-term issue:  how to change this army; how to turn this congregation of former rebel groups into a real army; I think this is the lasting solution for this issue,” he said.


Additional boots on the ground would help MONUC implement its protection mandate, he stressed.  Unfortunately, the reality was that the first extra boots were still expected, and the Mission was yet to receive the 18 helicopters authorized by the Security Council.  The advance party of a Bangladeshi battalion was on its way and would be deployed in Ituri this month.  That would allow the movement of the Pakistani battalion from Ituri to South Kivu while the Egyptian battalion’s site was already prepared and predeployment visits were currently under way.


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