Document of The Week: Sudan’s Paramilitaries Are Seizing Abandoned U.N. Outposts in Darfur
The United Nations halts withdrawal of peacekeepers amid fear that Sudan’s notorious Rapid Support Forces are filling the security vacuum.
The violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan, this month has been carried out by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a notorious paramilitary force that has committed mass atrocities in Darfur and other parts of Sudan.
In a bitter twist of irony, the Sudanese Transitional Military Council recently issued a decree demanding the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, or UNAMID, which deployed thousands of peacekeepers in Darfur more than a decade ago to protect civilians, hand over its peacekeeping facilities to the paramilitary force as UNAMID carries out a dramatic drawdown of its mission there.
The U.N. is in the middle of an effort to shut down the troubled peacekeeping mission—which has long faced criticism of falling short in its mission to protect civilians—by next summer. Last year, facing pressure from the United States to cut peacekeeping costs, the U.N. Security Council ordered a phased reduction of a force that once numbered over 16,000 strong, citing a reduction in large scale armed clashes—though human rights abuses remain endemic. For our Document of the Week, Foreign Policy is publishing a copy of the May 13 decree in Arabic, along with an English translation.
The Rapid Support Forces—which was formed in 2013 by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service to put down rebellions in the states of Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan—has drawn its forces from the ranks of Darfur’s janjaweed, fighters who were implicated along with Sudan’s armed forces in the killing by violence and conflict-induced starvation, dehydration and disease of over 300,000 Darfurian villagers between 2003 and 2005. The paramilitary group led a pair of counterinsurgency campaigns in Darfur in 2014 and 2015, during which its forces “repeatedly attacked villages, burned and looted homes, beating, raping and executing villagers,” according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch.
The paramilitary is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a former janjaweed leader who goes by the nickname “Hemeti.” The leader, who has emerged as the second-highest-ranking official on the Transitional Military Council, has also reportedly forged close ties to key Arab powerhouses including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. His forces have participated in the Saudi-led military coalition fighting alongside Sudanese soldiers against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Once loyal to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in April following months of public protests, Hemeti claimed he broke ranks with the fallen Sudanese leader that month, refusing an order from the military to open fire on the protesters. But with Bashir out of the way, Hemeti’s forces launched a bloody raid on the protesters, allegedly killing more than 100 civilians, and dimming hopes of a democratic transition.
Back in Darfur, the U.N. has already evacuated 10 peacekeeping team sites. An internal UNAMID review obtained by Foreign Policy shows that the Rapid Support Forces have occupied nine of those sites, including U.N. outposts in Buram, South Darfur, where the paramilitary has been accused of subjecting civilians to physical abuse, including sexual violence, and Labado, East Darfur, where Rapid Support Forces fighters and Arab nomads have allegedly engaged “in acts of criminality, harassment, and attacks against farmers,” according to an internal document reviewed by Foreign Policy.
For now, the U.N. still has about 4,000 peacekeepers, down from about 6,000 a year ago, and some 2,300 police. Since the decree, the United Nations has put on hold plans to evacuate 13 additional U.N. peacekeeping outposts, including one of its largest installations, in the town of Nyala. It has informed the Sudanese military that it will not proceed with the evacuation until the transitional government rescinds the decree and pledges to use the sites exclusively for civilian purposes. The decree, said one U.N. official, “is not in keeping with our existing agreement with the Sudanese government and our insistence that the facilities be used solely for civilian purposes.”