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Is the U.N. about to cause another Darfur-related catastrophe?

If you've been following developments in Darfur, then you know the situation is dire. Last month, the U.N. reported that fighting between the Sudanese army and an obscure rebel faction rendered the Jebel Marra region in southern Darfur inaccessible to humanitarian aid, cutting off some 100,000 Darfuris who had relied on aid agencies for food, water, and medical care. In late April, not far from there, dozens were killed in a shootout between Arab nomads and the armed forces of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the rebel group that holds sway in the country’s semi-autonomous south. And, earlier this month, the Darfur peace process suffered a blow when the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Darfuri rebel group, suspended its participation in the Doha peace talks, alleging that the Sudanese government had bombed JEM positions near the Chadian border.

But there is another danger to peace and security in the region. The next setback will likely happen in neighboring Chad, where an estimated half-million genocide survivors have taken refuge in a volatile area near the Sudanese border, patrolled by a U.N. peacekeeping force called MINURCAT. The mission is considered vital to the refugees’ continued safety. In a February letter to the U.N. Security Council, Human Rights Watch’s Africa division head Georgette Gagnon wrote that “the peacekeepers appear to have prevented a resumption of large-scale violence and mass killings.”

So it's worrisome that—with MINURCAT's mandate set to expire on May 26—Chad's dictator, Idriss Deby, who calls the mission a "failure," seems poised to send more than one-third of the nearly 4,000 U.N. peacekeepers back to their home countries. Deby, who famously diverted World Bank development grant monies to his military despite Chad's seventh-to-last position on the Human Development Index, understands that he cannot get rid of the entire force at once. Instead, he has convinced the U.N. to agree to a phased withdrawal: According to a report from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the first 1,400 MINURCAT troops will leave Chad by July 15, and the remainder of the mission’s military component will begin leaving the country on October 15.

Ban’s recommendations create the outward appearance of a compromise, since they mean that at least some peacekeepers will stay in Eastern Chad for the next five months. But the consequences of this deal are potentially catastrophic. (And, as of May 12, Deby is stonewalling even this compromise—probably because of the report’s strong language on the Chadian government’s responsibility to protect civilians in the absence of a U.N. peacekeeping force. When the U.N. finally does pass a resolution, it could be on terms that are even more favorable to the Chadian government.) MINURCAT patrols a region that the International Crisis Group describes as a “powder keg” of ethnic and political tensions. The Sudanese government has used Eastern Chad as a staging area for attacks by its militant proxies, who have come alarmingly close to overthrowing the Chadian government (they reached the capital of N’Djamena in 2006 and, less than two years later, nearly overran the presidential palace). For its part, Chad has used ethnically “African” rebels from the region as its own proxies—including the JEM, which attacked Khartoum just three months after the 2008 siege of N’Djamena. The potential for inter-ethnic violence in this region is so great that scholar Roland Marchal has characterized the Darfur conflict as a "continuation of a war (in Chad) that had never ended."

Sudan and Chad have recently had a rapprochement, which enabled them to reestablish diplomatic relations in late 2008. But even that is in danger. Peace between the two countries is very closely connected to the now-suspended Doha process. And the last week of April brought an ugly relapse of the kind of violence that necessitated the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force in the first place—when the Chadian military announced that it had fought a major battle with anti-government rebels in eastern Chad, reportedly killing over 100 militants and losing one of its own soldiers.

This means that MINURCAT will withdraw from an increasingly violent region, in the midst of a decaying regional peace process. Two governments that were actively plotting to overthrow each other until just a few years ago, each with variously appalling human rights records, will then go back to holding effective veto power over regional security.

The United Nations' decision to accommodate Deby exposes the moral poverty of the international community’s approach to Darfur, which involves an apparent willingness to play dice with both regional peace and the protection of a half-million refugees. Ideally, the U.N. would not be setting a timetable for MINURCAT's withdrawal—it would be bolstering the force, increasing the number of peacekeepers and expanding the mission’s mandate. As an Enough Project report from 2009 recommends, MINURCAT's mandate should be upgraded so that the mission can become a means of “pressuring the Chadian government" to “identify and discipline predatory local government officials in the East who are contributing to insecurity and threatening the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in the region.” Instead, the reduction of MINURCAT to a skeleton force will only add to the Deby regime’s sense of impunity and set the stage for future human rights abuses. What it will not do is bring a troubled region any closer to long-term peace.

Armin Rosen is a freelance writer based in New York.

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