Interview with Joint Special Representative for Darfur Ibrahim Gambari

Joint Special Representative for Darfur Ibrahim Gambari

22 July 2011 – Ibrahim Gambari, the Joint African Union-United Nations Special Representative for Darfur and head of the United Nations-African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), is at UN Headquarters in New York this week to brief the Security Council on developments over the past three months. The peacekeeping mission has experienced challenges and progress in that time period, including attacks on “Blue Helmets” and the signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese authorities and one of Darfur’s rebel groups. On the sidelines of his meetings and his briefing to the Council, Mr. Gambari spoke with the UN News Centre about the situation on the ground in Darfur.

UN News Centre: How do you describe the security situation in Darfur?

Ibrahim Gambari: I think it’s a tale of two cities. On the one hand, there are several parts of Darfur that are relatively peaceful and calm. As a matter of fact, most of West Darfur – as you’ll recall, Darfur has three states: North, South and West – is peaceful, relatively so, to the extent that a number of internally displaced people from the south of Darfur are voluntarily returning to places in West Darfur. On the other hand, in North and South [Darfur], there is some fighting going on and that is what is worrisome. Fighting is intermittently going on, with more displacWe must not accept as normal a situation that is truly abnormal.ements of people, making the work of UNAMID even more challenging in terms of protection [of civilians] and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those who are in need.

UN News Centre: The return of some of those internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a sign of a new, relative stability in some parts of Darfur?

Ibrahim Gambari: Yes, we have prepared a map which we hope we’ll be able to share with members of the Council, whereby it’s like traffic lights. We have areas in green, that is, ready for recovery efforts; amber, which is not dangerous but still challenging, and of course some red spots where it’s not advisable to do recovery activities.

Nonetheless, it’s our goal – when I say “ours,” that is of UNAMID, the international community, the UN country team – to facilitate the voluntary returns of IDPs. As you are aware, we have 1.8 million IDPs in Darfur. That is not normal. We must not accept as normal a situation that is truly abnormal.

We are doing our best, but for them to return to their places of origin, there are three main conditions: first, security; second, some minimum social services such as schools and health clinics; and third, above all, the means of livelihood. We are working on all of these as part of our package. The map will show that, as we speak, there are areas where it’s safe to commence voluntary returns, safe to commence early recovery efforts.

UN News Centre: Have you had the chance to meet with IDPs, and if so, what have you been hearing from them?

JSR Ibrahim Gambari visits an IDP camp in Shangel Tubaya, North Darfur. (November 2010)

Ibrahim Gambari: There are about 95 IDP camps all over Darfur; I’ve been to several. When you look at the faces of the women and the children, you absolutely cannot help but get emotional. There are people in the camps who have spent six or more years and they want out. Initially, you would have thought that their main concern would be about the delivery of food, of medicines – the basics. But when you talk to the women and the youth, their concern is how to create jobs, how to get out of their situation, how to lead normal lives. And these are the kind of hopes and aspirations that keeps you, when you visit the camps, hopeful. If the international community will be helpful, if the government of Sudan will do even more, then there is hope – because we don’t want a situation whereby you have people in the camps and a feeling of hopelessness on their part and that they are condemned to live this kind of life.

UN News Centre: Last week, the Sudanese government and the Liberty and Justice Movement, one of the rebel groups in Darfur, agreed to adopt the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur. What do you think of the agreement? Are we looking at a real chance of peace in Darfur?

Ibrahim Gambari: In many ways, UNAMID is an unusual peacekeeping mission. It is deployed with no peace agreement to implement, no peace to keep. So for us, any agreement – in this case, signed on the 14th of July in Doha by the government of Sudan and the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) – is a welcome step in the right direction.

But it is not enough. Because as we speak, there are still three other armed movements: JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement, the SLA-Abdul Wahid [Sudan Liberation Army] and SLA-Mini Minnawi, that have not signed up. And in the case of SLA-Mini Minnawi, it has never joined any peace process at all.

JSR Ibrahim Gambari meets Sudanese refugees who have settled outside an UNAMID team site in South Darfur, since fleeing violence in their native villages last December. (January 2011)

So the challenge is how to bring in to the political process those that are currently on the outside. And secondly, how to implement the agreement that was signed in ways that will persuade others to come in and also contribute to normalizing the security situation in Darfur. But nonetheless, the peace process is incomplete, and there are several dimensions, including an internal Darfur-based political process, which have to commence.

UN News Centre: Does not having those three groups [the Justice and Equality Movement and the Mini Minnawi and Abdel Wahid factions of the Sudan Liberation Army] sign up to the peace accord pose a threat to peace?

Ibrahim Gambari: I believe it does, but we should also see that as an opportunity because a new reality is being created. Now we have a peace agreement. And also, as opposed to past efforts, this agreement was, in effect, blessed by an all-Darfurian stakeholders conference which took place several weeks ago in Doha, in which the internally displaced persons, refugees, civil society groups, elected officials came, and the message there was loud and clear: “We want peace, we want peace now. Not tomorrow, but now.”

So the hope is that with this peace agreement that has been signed and the voice of the people of Darfur loud and clear, it will really put pressure on those who are outside of the peace process to try to come in – at least that is my hope.

More than 400 ex-combatants from both sides of the conflict arrive to take part in the disarmament and reintegration exercise, partly run by UNAMID. (July 2011)

UN News Centre: From your interaction with Sudanese officials, are you sensing that there is a real willingness to find a solution?

Ibrahim Gambari: I would have to say yes – but of course, as the British would put it elegantly, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So now we have to see concretely when they implement this agreement, the commitment. But I can say that what happened on 9 July had a tremendous impact on the minds of the people of the government of Sudan, which is the realization that they’ve lost one third of their revenue as a result of the independence of the new Republic of South Sudan, one third of the territories, one quarter of the population.

So there’s a need to keep what is left of north Sudan, and I would strongly urge the Government to make the necessary concessions now in order to keep the rest of Sudan united, which means they have to commit to decentralization of power, to power-sharing, to wealth-sharing, to a cessation of hostilities; particularly if one, or hopefully more, of the armed movements will commit to a peace agreement. I think the time is now.

JSR Ibrahim Gambari embraces two newly-released South African UNAMID peacekeepers, who along with two colleagues, had been abducted in South Darfur. (April 2010)

UN News Centre: An UNAMID national staff member was released recently after almost three months of arrest and detention by Sudanese authorities. Why are UNAMID staff members being detained like this and what effect does it have on the mission?

Ibrahim Gambari: There are actually two of them. Hawa, who is a young lady, who was arrested for the fourth time, in El Fasher, in North Darfur; and a gentlemen, Idriss, who was picked up by the national intelligence and security services, and who works for us in Nyala, in South Darfur.

We made a very powerful presentation to the government that while UNAMID cannot support staff members who are engaged in activities that are incompatible with their contractual obligations, at the same time, the Government of Sudan has to follow the Status of Force Agreement in picking up people. It is very clear that if the government has a prima facie case against any of my staff members, they have to talk to me and then, based on that, I would hand over those individuals for the judicial process. This was not done. But I’m happy to inform you as I speak, both of these staff members have been released. Of course, they were incarcerated for far too long and shouldn’t have been, according to the Status of Force Agreement.

UN News Centre: A peacekeeper was recently shot dead in Darfur and another wounded. What does that say for the security situation for the peacekeepers?

Ibrahim Gambari: Let me put it in this context: in terms of fatalities directly from armed clashes, which is the reasons we’re there as peacekeepers, from January to May of this year, the fatalities resulting from direct confrontation between the government and armed movements has declined, I think, to a total of just over 400 in a five-month period.

Now, one doesn’t wish a more difficult situation for others, but if you compare that with the fatalities in South Sudan, for the same period, they are at 1,400 – almost four or five times more.

Rwandan peacekeepers serving with UNAMID escort IDPs on their return from an IDP camp to their original village in Sehjanna, near Kutum, North Darfur. (July 2011)

So that’s an indication that the level of insecurity and violence is decreasing. However, we have to face issues of criminal behaviour by some armed militias. We’ve had a fair share of that. Kidnappings of our staff, of international staff, car-jackings and the latest incident that you refer to, where on 30 June, we lost an Ethiopian peacekeeper during a car-jacking. On 5 April, we lost another peacekeeper, a Sierra Leonean police officer. However, in each of those cases, UNAMID’s posture has been robust. We chase those who try to car-jack us and we’ve recovered our vehicles in all cases, [but] sadly, we’ve lost two peacekeepers.

There are two aspects that I have to emphasize: first, that it is not sufficiently known in Sudan that attacking peacekeepers is a war crime, and we have to make sure that is understood.

The second dimension, which is even more important, is that the government has to pursue cases of impunity because they have to arrest, prosecute and punish those who are responsible to the full effect of the law. They have made some tentative steps forward in this regard. They’ve tried a group of people who kidnapped some Latvian peacekeepers, but we think more can be done in that direction because it’s only with the combination of our robust posture by UNAMID and an attack on impunity that we can get a reduction in this level of attacks. But overall though, attacks against peacekeepers have declined over the last several months.

UN News Centre: Given the events taking place in other parts of Africa, such as in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and the famine concerns throughout the Horn of Africa, have you noticed a shift in the international community’s attention from Darfur or has it remained fixed there? It seems the attention has been focussed north of Darfur or east of Darfur.

JSR Ibrahim Gambari speaks with local people during a visit to North Darfur where he announced a project designed to increase accessibility for humanitarian agencies to meet the needs of hard-to-reach communities in the conflict-affected areas. (May 2011)

Ibrahim Gambari: Or south of Sudan! I think there is a fair amount of attention. There are some constituencies – the Save Darfur group, Justice Now – and their focus has not diminished at all. But, frankly speaking, what I would like to have Darfur known for is progress towards a peaceful settlement, so that UNAMID can perform its functions as a peacekeeping mission with peace to be kept.

And for that, we need the international community’s focus. Not only focus, but concrete help. How do they help us to get those movements outside of the peace process to commit? How do we get those who have signed – both the government and the LJM – to actually implement the spirit and letter of the agreement? Because it’s one thing to sign an agreement, it’s another to implement it.

That is why I need the focus of the international community, beginning with the African Union. I was there last Monday to brief the African Union Peace and Security Council and they came up with a communiqué that I thought was forward-looking. And the Security Council too. It’s expected to strengthen UNAMID, support UNAMID, to consolidate the gains we’ve made so far; but more importantly, to give guidance, advice and support for really getting those who are not in the peace process to commit. The people of Darfur have suffered for far too long and too deeply and we have to end their suffering and the first step is stop the fighting.

UN News Centre: You mentioned the role of the Security Council. Have you felt that it’s been well-focussed on Darfur or has it slipped a bit given everything else on its agenda?

Ibrahim Gambari: I must commend the Security Council. First, they came out to Darfur last year, all the members. And then, they came back a few months ago to Khartoum. They couldn’t make it do Darfur because the focus was on south of Sudan, but the interest has been sustained and every 90 days they’ve had the report from the Secretary-General on how things are going. And individual member states have also maintained their interest. Every month, without fail, I, as head of UNAMID, brief the five permanent members of the Security Council on the situation and the way forward as we see it, being the force on the ground. We also invite ambassadors of other countries, including from the African Union, the League of Arab States and others, to come to Darfur and see our operation.

UN News Centre: Last month, a major conference on water in Darfur was held in Khartoum. Can you give us some idea on just how crucial the role of water is in Darfur? And, are you satisfied with the outcome of this water conference?

Ibrahim Gambari: If you look at one of the root causes of the conflict in Darfur, it’s about water: the availability of water, the management of water, and the justice in the distribution of water to those who are in need.

We felt that with water being one of the root causes, addressing it will contribute to sustainable peace and that is the reason why we had the International Water Conference for Sustainable Peace in Darfur in Khartoum last month, and I’m happy to say it was really a huge success.

Security Council members watch and listen to JSR Ibrahim Gambari, via video link, as be briefs them on the situation. (January 2011)

We had 65 projects that were approved and we were seeking $1 billion. On the spot, about $500 million, half of it, was pledged, including over $200 million from the Government of Sudan itself. And even more importantly, there was an exhibition around the conference and I think about 47 booths of private sector people who are geared up to take advantage of this focus and to really move in terms of increasing the availability of water, reviving some old dams that can be revived, and the overall management of the entire water resources. I was very, very delighted with the outcome. But now, we can’t rest. Now we – when I say “we,” the government of Sudan principally, the UN Country Team, and UNAMID – have to see that those pledges are actually honoured and those projects are commenced and completed as soon as possible.

UN News Centre: When you are finished briefing the Security Council during this visit, what messages do hope Council members will have taken away from your briefing?

Ibrahim Gambari: Continue to get engaged in Darfur. Support UNAMID. We are the largest international peacekeeping mission in the world now. We need the Security Council as a partner, to give guidance and to remain engaged, and support, after all, their peacekeeping mission, the first of its kind, being the first hybrid involving the African Union and the United Nations.

The world celebrated the independence of South Sudan – we need to celebrate the end of the fighting in Darfur, so the people of Darfur can begin to live normal lives, and these 1.8 million IDPs can safely and voluntarily return to their homes.