Challenges Presented by COVID-19 Will Delay Closure of Darfur Mission, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

SC/14169
24 April 2020

Challenges Presented by COVID-19 Will Delay Closure of Darfur Mission, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Delegate Says Sudan, African Union, United Nations Need to Agree on Withdrawal Road Map That Ensures Process Is Carefully Managed, Conditions-Based

Plans to close the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) by 31 October have been rendered impractical by the spread of COVID-19 and challenges envisioned around the June rainy season, the head of United Nations Peace Operations told the Security Council in a 24 April videoconference meeting*, as delegates outlined their views on extending the drawdown beyond the current mandate.

Detailing recent events, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix said Sudan has pushed ahead with its democratic transition.  Progress has been made on women’s participation in decision-making, as well as on accountability and political reforms, in accordance with the 2019 Constitutional Declaration.  To be sure, change is being resisted by some, as seen in the “outrageous” 9 March attack on the convoy of Sudan Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Nonetheless, he said gains also have been made in the Juba peace talks between the transitional authorities and Sudanese armed groups — under the auspices of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, with final agreements signed on the central, northern and eastern tracks of the negotiations.  On the Blue Nile and South Kordofan track, the Government signed an agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N)/Malik Agar.  However, no agreement has been reached with the SPLM-N faction led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, due to the lack of consensus around secularism and self-determination.

On the Darfur track, he said the Government signed a framework agreement with some of the armed groups, but a final deal has yet to be reached and the talks have been extended until 9 May.  Unfortunately, the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW) has remained outside the process, hampering efforts to address the concerns of his supporters in Darfur.  The faction did agree to a de facto ceasefire, while raising concerns about security and humanitarian conditions in Darfur, particularly in Jebel Marra.  Meanwhile, SPLM-N/Abdelaziz al-Hilu extended the unilateral cessation of hostilities to parts of the Two Areas under their control for three months, except for self-defence purposes.

More broadly, he said intercommunal clashes at the end of 2019 into 2020 left 65 people dead and more than 46,000 internally displaced.  Another 11,000 people fled to Chad, amid reports that Sudanese security elements had participated in the violence.  The current harvest season has seen a sharp increase in attacks against farmers by pastoralists and human rights abuses — some at the hands of uniformed personnel — remain prevalent.

“These challenges underline the persistence of some of the conflict drivers in Darfur, which may go beyond the scope of the peace process and will require a heavy investment in peacebuilding,” he said.  The 16 March closure of airports, seaports and land crossings, along with the suspension of peacekeeping rotations, have curtailed the movement of UNAMID personnel.

As for drawdown plans, he said the 12 March special report (document S/2020/202) outlines a sequenced closure of 14 UNAMID bases, the repatriation of 6,550 uniformed personnel and a significant reduction in civilian personnel until the end of the mandate.  However, COVID-19-related travel restrictions, mandatory quarantine and limited shipping options have made it difficult to conduct even basic logistical operations.

While operational units could cease operations gradually before 31 October, he said the drawdown period will need to be extended into the dry season to allow for safe and continuous movements among UNAMID camps, as well as between Darfur and Port Sudan.  For the subsequent liquidation phase, he recommended maintaining a uniformed presence in El-Fasher to ensure the protection of the logistical hub until the completion of activities.

He said the structure, mandate and timeline for the establishment of a new United Nations presence — once decided upon by the Council — will significantly impact the sequencing of UNAMID’s drawdown.  It will define the number of locations to close or hand over, the number of units and equipment to repatriate, and the assets to dispose of or hand over to the follow-on presence.

Stressing that UNAMID’s drawdown “should not signal that there are no more concerns related to the protection of civilians in Darfur”, he said some of the largest camps for internally displaced persons remain extremely volatile.  It is critical that the mission’s departure be accompanied by local and national protection efforts, to build trust with local and displaced populations.  He encouraged Sudanese authorities to invest in these efforts immediately.

In terms of priorities, he said the new mission would reinforce peacebuilding work currently being done by UNAMID and the United Nations country team in the framework of the State Liaison Functions.  It could also reinforce the advisory and support role they provide to local authorities and security services, by deploying police and military advisers.  “Sudan has entered a new phase of its history,” he said.  “It is critical that we configure ourselves in such a way that would enable us to respond to the needs of the Sudanese.”

Plans are under way for a possible future United Nations presence in Sudan, he said, based on discussions with authorities and the guiding principles in the 12 March special report.  The goal is to achieve a smooth transition to a future mission that can help the United Nations better support Sudan’s people.  As such, ensuring that every mandate has the full support of the Sudanese authorities will be a critical element in the planning.  “Their consent is a key aspect of the partnership we envisage with them for the future,” he assured.

Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said challenges persisting six months after the transition have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.  Amid a politically fragile landscape, the humanitarian situation remains worrisome, driven by a deepening economic crisis that has increased those needing aid, from 8 million to 9.3 million at the end of 2019.  At the same time, flaws in the economy have led to inflation and shortages, requiring swift support.

“We should do everything we can to support the transition and the Sudanese people in addressing the existing challenges,” she said.  “We envisage a future United Nations presence that is lean, effective and innovative in employing and coordinating resources across the United Nations system.”  Highlighting areas that require urgent attention, she said that to assist Sudan in its COVID-19 response, the Secretary-General has encouraged the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to show flexibility in granting Khartoum access to financial instruments.

Pointing at steps taken to advance plans for a political and peacebuilding mission that responds to the Prime Minister’s multiple requests, she said the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser was deployed to Khartoum in early March and her office has been drafting a plan.  In a special report, the Secretary-General and the African Union Commission Chair recommended a follow-on presence with a Sudan-wide mandate aimed at supporting Khartoum in completing its transition.

The new mission mandate would be based on needs outlined by the Prime Minister, she said, including support for:  achieving political benchmarks contained in the Constitutional Declaration; implementing peace agreements; national-led peacebuilding and strengthening of human rights and rule of law institutions; and facilitating international support for economic reforms.

Civilian protection and the integration of the mission and the United Nations country team under a single leadership are other priorities, with gender equality and implementation of the women, peace and security agenda as a strong cross-cutting priority.

Given the urgent need to establish such a mission to support the transition, she said her office and Under-Secretary-General Lacroix had instructed a team of United Nations colleagues to lead a planning exercise over the coming weeks to deliver a framework based on principles contained in the special report.  While her team cannot travel to Sudan due to COVID-19 restrictions, she said a virtual planning exercise has been launched from New York and is expected to deploy to Khartoum when the situation permits.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates agreed that any follow-on presence in Sudan must be tailored to meet the country’s critical needs and offered prescriptions for both shuttering UNAMID and establishing an international peacebuilding presence.

In that context, the representative of South Africa, speaking also for Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the Council must take a pragmatic approach to UNAMID’s reconfiguration, as COVID-19 has significantly affected the Juba peace talks and the mission’s operations.  He reiterated the call for Sudan, the African Union and the United Nations to agree on a withdrawal road map, ensuring that the process is carefully managed and sequenced, conditions-based and aligned with Sudan’s priorities.  He expressed support for the Prime Minister and called on all stakeholders to implement the 2019 transition agreement signed in Doha, which should lead to the establishment of a democratically elected civilian Government.  He likewise urged all parties to engage in the Juba peace talks — and in particular, on SLA-AW leader Abdul Wahid El Nur to join them.  “Only through an inclusion of Darfur and its relevant actors will we have […] a real opportunity to address prevailing security and protection threats,” he said, urging that sanctions be lifted and expressing concern over security conditions in Jebel Marra, Kalma and El Geneina.  It is imperative that a follow-up mission is fully aligned to the Government’s priorities, he said, stressing that the African Union’s role should continue during the transition period.  Among other things, he asked about the viability of UNAMID’s exit, given the impact of COVID-19, and whether security conditions in Darfur merit a total withdrawal by October 2020.

The representative of the United Kingdom encouraged all Sudanese parties to fully implement the Constitutional Declaration.  Peace talks between the Government and several armed movements are promising, and he pressed all sides to engage without preconditions to swiftly conclude negotiations on an accord.  Expressing concern over security conditions in Darfur, and the risks facing 1.8 million displaced persons, he supported the Government’s request for a new whole-of-Sudan mission to provide support across the range of issues related to the transition.  There is a role for capacity-building, training and mentoring of police.  In the time needed to carry out such measures, efforts are needed to ensure that a security vacuum does not form.  “In the spirit of the new relationship between Sudan and the United Nations” the new mission should partner with Khartoum in responding to ongoing civilian protection challenges in Darfur, he said.

The representative of France, noting that Sudan needs full access to international support mechanisms to address COVID-19 and its consequences, expressed hope that the negative impact on UNAMID’s activities and movements can be mitigated.  On the protection of civilians in Darfur, attention must focus on the conflict drivers, as well as on the reform of the security sector and local institutions.  “The protection of civilians in Darfur should remain one of our key priorities in Sudan,” he said, pointing to the new relationship established between Khartoum and its partners following the transition as “the first cornerstone of hope”.  In planning UNAMID’s closure, dialogue with Sudanese authorities is critical and, citing the letters sent by the Prime Minister, he proposed engagement in that regard, including on how to address the protection of civilians in Darfur after UNAMID.  In addition, he called for creativity in designing an ad hoc partnership between the follow-on mission and the African Union.

The representative of the United States, noting that the Council is expected to create a new mission in Sudan in May, said that her country stands in solidarity with Khartoum as it engages in the Juba peace process, particularly in the face of economic challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic.  It would be helpful, however, for the Council to have a more informed understanding of the risks related to the protection of civilians, especially in Darfur, and how the United Nations can assist the Sudanese with that challenge.  Given the pandemic and related constraints on troop rotations, she acknowledged that the 31 October deadline to shutter UNAMID might not be met.  However, the drawdown should happen “as quickly as responsibly possible” to enable its successor to establish itself.  She added that the follow-on mission must support the transitional Government in Khartoum to undertake national-level tasks, including support for the peace process, constitutional reform, elections and conducting a census.  She expressed great concern about ongoing insecurity in Darfur, where a robust police mission is needed — one with a mandate that supports Sudan’s efforts to address remaining security challenges in the region.

The representative of Germany drew attention to the first anniversary of the peaceful revolution which led to the ousting of the regime of Omar al-Bashir.  “We have to thank the civilian protest movement that Sudan experienced this turning point in its history,” he said, also citing the strong political involvement of the African Union.  Germany, with the transitional Government, is coordinating with the Friends of Sudan on how to advance economic reforms, while protecting the most vulnerable.  A support mission should help to consolidate the political transition in Khartoum, bolster the peace process and prevent a relapse into conflict in Darfur.  Germany is encouraged that Sudan explicitly requested United Nations support.  The Council has the responsibility to manage UNAMID’s transition in a way that considers the needs of Sudan and the people of Darfur.  In designing a follow-on mission, it must consider the volatility in Darfur and the continued protection of civilian challenges in parts of the region.  “We have taken over this responsibility,” he said.  “We have to continue to live up to it.”

The representative of Indonesia called for broadened access to health services and food in all parts of Sudan during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The international community should help foster economic recovery and capacity-building, he said, also encouraging the Council to consider lifting sanctions against Sudan.  The drawdown must ensure that gains made in Darfur can be advanced.  National ownership is a precondition for the success of the follow-on mechanism, he said, calling on all Sudanese parties to participate in the planning for a responsible drawdown.  Given the persistent intercommunal violence, a limited number of peacekeepers will be needed, he said, adding that a post-UNAMID presence should be flexible, effective, lean and tailored to meet Sudan’s needs.

The Russian Federation’s representative said he shared most of the observations and proposals outlined in the special report.  The security dynamics in Darfur remain mostly unchanged:  low-scale clashes in Jebel Marra between Sudanese Armed Forces and SLA-AW do not change the picture, nor do developments in areas vacated by the “blue helmets”.  Thus, the agreed phased reduction and withdrawal of UNAMID should be implemented in line with the relevant Council decision.  “Darfur today faces mainly peacebuilding challenges, rather than peacekeeping ones,” he assured, insisting that all unilateral sanctions be lifted, and emphasizing that the opinion of Sudan should be decisive both for the drawdown and exit of UNAMID, and in deploying a possible special political mission.  It seems obvious that the future presence should be based on Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations, he said, stressing:  “Let’s leave the task of protection of civilians to the Sudanese authorities who repeatedly confirmed their readiness.”  It is important not to bypass the African Union, as regional groups which fostered stability in Darfur should play a vital role in peacebuilding.

Viet Nam’s representative, commending the transitional Government for promoting stability and development while responding to COVID-19, welcomed recent progress in negotiations with armed groups in Darfur.  Expressing hope that the Government and relevant parties in Darfur will build consensus and advance the political transition, he said transitional tasks and peace talks remain two critical activities.  However, intercommunal violence and attacks on internally displaced persons camps and United Nations staff remain concerns, he said, urging armed groups in Darfur to exercise restraint and authorities to find solutions.  The international community should continue to support the Government in responding to COVID-19, including by addressing food security and climate change.  Turning to the new mission, he said plans must be carefully considered and discharged in line with the situation on the ground, relevant Council resolutions and the Government’s views.  Women must play an active role in the peace process, he said, commending the mission’s efforts to engage them and anticipating progress in the post-UNAMID phase.

The representative of Belgium said the political situation has changed dramatically since the Council started to reflect on the mission’s future.  Citing areas for cooperation between Sudan and the United Nations — support for the transition and the peace process, coordination of humanitarian aid and institutional capacity-building, among them — he said the follow-on mission can help address the causes of conflict in Darfur, with a mandate that includes protection of civilians, beyond a mere advisory role and in cooperation with Sudan’s authorities.  Support for human rights and the rule of law must be at the core of the mission, he said, welcoming the Government’s recent statements regarding cooperation with the International Criminal Court.

Estonia’s representative expressed full support for Sudan Prime Minister Hamdok, welcoming Khartoum’s engagement with the Council on planning the follow-on mechanism.  “We are looking forward to the establishment of a new United Nations mission, which supports Sudan in bringing democracy, peace and prosperity to the country,” he said, cautioning that violence in Darfur underscores the fragility of the situation.  It is crucial to ensure sufficient capacity to protect civilians where necessary, based on a realistic risk-assessment.  Despite COVID-19 and possible delays in the drawdown schedules, the Council must replace UNAMID with a new United Nations presence that is better equipped to meet Sudan’s current needs.

The representative of China called on parties in Darfur to respond to the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire initiative, stressing:  “It’s time to resolve disputes and differences through political dialogue.”  He agreed that unilateral sanctions should be lifted and that international financial institutions should show flexibility on the country’s debt.  Decisions on a follow-up presence should be made based on Sudan’s views and fully consider the ground situation.  Critical issues, including on whether to establish a special political mission, should fully respect Sudan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and recognize the role of the African Union.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity to urge that extreme caution be taken in the withdrawal of UNAMID to ensure long-term stability, aligned with Sudan’s priorities.  Urging parties to agree on all outstanding issues, he voiced concern over violence in West Darfur, an area from which the mission has withdrawn.  “We cannot allow Sudan to become the next Haiti,” he insisted.  Darfur requires a gradual withdrawal that prioritizes the safety of those at risk of sexual assault.  Welcoming the 11 March signing of the Framework of Cooperation to address sexual violence in Sudan, he likewise recognized efforts by interim authorities to advance women’s participation in decision-making and advocated the creation of a follow-on mission that supports a transition to rights-respecting civilian rule.

The representative of Sudan welcomed the recommendations in the special report, stressing that “the transitional Government of Sudan is doing its utmost to safeguard Darfur’s stability”, notably by preventing intercommunal conflict, and that the Government is “able and willing to perform all of its responsibilities” to protect civilians, with a strategy in place to tackle the causes of conflict.

He said the Government has engaged for months in ceaseless negotiations with various Sudanese factions to achieve peace.  To that end, the Sovereign Council, Council of Ministers and political forces agreed on 18 March to timetables for seven areas, with the deadline to achieve a settlement that is viable, sustainable and responsive to people’s aspirations set for the second week of May.  “Negotiations are now continuing between partners, not adversaries,” he said, as armed group leaders are now part of the change taking place in Sudan.

Recalling the Sudan Prime Minister’s letter sent 27 February to the Council President and the Secretary-General detailing areas in which his country requires assistance from the Organization, he said the follow-on mission must be mandated according to Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations.  “The current situation in Darfur no longer necessitates any Chapter VII provisions,” he assured, stressing that the follow-on mission must uphold the principles of sovereignty, national consent and national ownership.  Deployment of United Nations police or military personnel, based on Chapter VII, would be contrary to what Sudan seeks, and discussion about a reference to Chapter VII would not have the Government’s consent, he clarified.

Underscoring Sudan’s commitment to enhance security in Darfur by deploying law enforcement teams and recalling the Prime Minister’s visit to El Geneina following tribal clashes there, he strongly urged the Council to reconsider the sanctions imposed against Sudan 15 years ago, especially restrictions on arms and troop movements to and within Darfur.  Lifting them would enable Sudanese security forces to prepare for potential threats posed by Boko Haram, Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups active in areas near Darfur.

In addition, he said the United States designation of Sudan as a State sponsor of terrorism, along with the economic and health impact of COVID-19, have threatened the success of a revolution that toppled “the most notorious dictatorship in Africa”.  Khartoum must be fully engaged in evaluating the UNAMID drawdown and devising options for a follow-on presence, in a transparent and consultative manner.  Stressing that Sudan will cooperate with UNAMID during its liquidation and exit, he said the Government is ready to work with the international community to jointly achieve stability and development in the country.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.