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Wanted: UN Troops

Darfuri camps housing some 2.5 million displaced persons are poised to explode in violence. Insecurity throughout the region is threatening further reductions in humanitarian efforts. Major combatants are edging closer to an all-out fight. And yet, Khartoum’s president and génocidaire-in-chief Omar al-Bashir continues to block the deployment of a United Nations-authorized peacekeeping force to protect civilians and humanitarians in Darfur.

Selected after months of deliberation by the UN and African Union, these troops and specialists were to be part of a protection force authorized this past July--four long months ago--by UN Security Council Resolution 1769. But cleaving to the notion that only troops from African nations would be allowed into Darfur, al-Bashir peremptorily rejected personnel from Nepal, Norway, Sweden, India, and Thailand, announcing this weekend, "When they [the UN and AU] told us that they wanted to bring other troops from other countries, we rejected them." He continued, "Even if there is a shortage of troops from the African continent, we are not going to accept those people. Because we were not consulted about it."

The notion that al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front regime “were not consulted” about force composition is a preposterous lie. Indeed, a deferential series of negotiations, extending back to November 2006, has included Khartoum at every step. What al-Bashir is attempting to do is convert the privilege of consultation into the right of rejection, a danger that should have been foreseen and decisively forestalled in the language of a long string of documents. But even excessive UN and AU deference has not prevented unambiguous stipulations from being set. Resolution 1769 specifies that the UN/AU “hybrid” operation “should have a predominantly African character and the troops should, as far as possible, be sourced from African countries.” But “predominantly African in character” is not at all the same as “exclusively African.”

In fact, a lengthy document that serves as the underpinning for Resolution 1769 (“Report of the Secretary-General and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on the hybrid operation in Darfur,” May 2007) declares:

“[at] the extent that African troop- and police-contributing countries are unable to meet the Force requirements, offers from other contributing countries will be considered.”

The final choice on the specific, often technical needs of the force lies with the UN and the AU; Khartoum is guaranteed only “due consultation.” But the problem in Darfur hasn’t been too little consultation; it’s been too much--and all this talking accounts for why deployment has been delayed for months already, and may be for many more still. Just yesterday the head of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno declared that if Khartoum's obstructionism persisted the entire mission might have to be aborted.

For its part, Khartoum is well aware that time is on its side: as long as genocide continues, its stranglehold on Sudanese national wealth and power will only grow. The violence that was recently reported by the UN and humanitarian organizations in some of the huge displaced persons camps around Nyala (capital of South Darfur) involved the forcible relocation of hundreds of women and children. Khartoum has long envisioned a strategy of emptying the camps--leaving displaced persons without land, livelihood, or security--and those around Nyala have special priority in this broader campaign. Further such efforts could lead to pitched battles between Khartoum’s forces and the increasingly militant and militarized camp populations.

Thus, without a credible, well-trained, and well-protected civilian police force (Resolution 1769 contemplates over 6,000), there is no way that security can be restored in the camps, either for civilians or for the humanitarians upon whom a vast population now depends. (The UN figure for conflict-affected persons in need of humanitarian assistance stands at approximately 4.2 million--two-thirds of Darfur’s pre-war population.) But trained civilian police are in particularly short supply in African nations, a problem that has been highlighted in various assessments of the current disastrous AU mission in Darfur.

For self-serving reasons, Khartoum has agreed to allow the military forces of two non-African countries into Darfur: Islamic ally Pakistan (which has stood unquestioningly by Khartoum during the entire Darfur crisis) and, more notably, China. A range of sources in Washington, Beijing, and New York, including a well-placed UN official, have told me that in recent weeks Beijing has become more, not less, encouraging of Khartoum’s obduracy. Al-Bashir’s weekend announcement reflects enormous confidence, defying as it does the international community with such spectacular prevarication.

Indeed, China seems to be the key international actor ensuring that Khartoum feels safe in keeping non-African (and non-Pakistani and non-Chinese) troops out of the country. But the international community should see through this gambit, or at least call China to task for it. As just one more indicator of the security crisis in Darfur, many humanitarian organizations are now left with the soul-destroying choice of staying, or of leaving before even more of their humanitarian workers are killed. This is unacceptable. Fifteen months after first passage of a UN Security Council Resolution to protect civilians and humanitarians in Darfur, insecurity has deepened, the death count has risen, and the obstacles to effective deployment of a peace-support operation have grown dramatically. If the millions of people who are suffering are to have any hope at all, security forces under UN and AU auspices need to touch ground in Darfur, and at speed.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.

By Eric Reeves