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How to Stop Darfur’s Descent Into Darkness

The military authorities need to be pushed to protect their own citizens from a staggering rise in violence.

By , the United Nations Special Representative for Sudan and head of the Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan.
Internally displaced Sudanese hold a banner as they stage a sit-in to protest against the end of the mandate of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission, known as UNAMID, in Nyala, South Darfur, on Dec. 31, 2020.
Internally displaced Sudanese hold a banner as they stage a sit-in to protest against the end of the mandate of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission, known as UNAMID, in Nyala, South Darfur, on Dec. 31, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

Over the last two months, the world has seen many images from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, of its Oct. 25 military coup, the return of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Nov. 21 under a fraught and tenuous agreement, and the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people marching on its streets to demand democracy and full civilian rule. But there has been much less reporting of the situation in Sudan’s peripheries, outside of the capital and its surroundings. A staggering rise in violence illustrates the fragility of the transition underway in the country.

The people of Darfur, a region in Sudan’s west about the size of France, have already borne witness to so much violence over the past two decades: ethnic cleansing, rape and other gender-based crimes, child soldiers, and other exploitation of youth. Now, they are experiencing a resurgence in conflict. In Darfur alone, more than 400,000 people have been displaced this year, four times more than in 2020, making them vulnerable during the rise in intercommunal conflict and armed attacks. With a reduction in social and protective networks, an alarming and all-too predictable pattern of sexual violence has also emerged: Reports of some 200 cases this year alone points to a concerning trend. When women and girls are displaced and do not have a proper home to protect themselves, it is not uncommon to see a rise in sexual violence as they become more vulnerable under such precarious conditions. 

Some of the violence we see today in Darfur is due to seasonal migration, with routes often from and along the border with Chad, south toward the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and north toward Libya—and worsened by climate change. Continued attacks on civilians appear to be a pattern aimed at displacing farmers from their villages for occupation by nomadic communities. Armed banditry and criminality are also to blame. The return of fighters from Libya’s battlefields—where some 9,000 Sudanese have been fighting on different sides of the civil war—and beyond has added to a massive proliferation of guns and heavy weapons. Many of those returning from Libya and possibly also those returning from Chad engage in illegal activities, such as armed banditry and smuggling, leading to further destabilization in Darfur. Some of the armed groups who signed the Juba Agreement for Peace more than a year ago between the authorities and rebel factions have experienced some degree of rebellion and defection within their ranks as a result of this volatile situation. Observers also blame government forces, including the mainly locally recruited Rapid Support Forces, of either standing by or actively supporting one side in local conflicts and being generally unaccountable for crimes committed. 

Over the last two months, the world has seen many images from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, of its Oct. 25 military coup, the return of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Nov. 21 under a fraught and tenuous agreement, and the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people marching on its streets to demand democracy and full civilian rule. But there has been much less reporting of the situation in Sudan’s peripheries, outside of the capital and its surroundings. A staggering rise in violence illustrates the fragility of the transition underway in the country.

The people of Darfur, a region in Sudan’s west about the size of France, have already borne witness to so much violence over the past two decades: ethnic cleansing, rape and other gender-based crimes, child soldiers, and other exploitation of youth. Now, they are experiencing a resurgence in conflict. In Darfur alone, more than 400,000 people have been displaced this year, four times more than in 2020, making them vulnerable during the rise in intercommunal conflict and armed attacks. With a reduction in social and protective networks, an alarming and all-too predictable pattern of sexual violence has also emerged: Reports of some 200 cases this year alone points to a concerning trend. When women and girls are displaced and do not have a proper home to protect themselves, it is not uncommon to see a rise in sexual violence as they become more vulnerable under such precarious conditions. 

Some of the violence we see today in Darfur is due to seasonal migration, with routes often from and along the border with Chad, south toward the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and north toward Libya—and worsened by climate change. Continued attacks on civilians appear to be a pattern aimed at displacing farmers from their villages for occupation by nomadic communities. Armed banditry and criminality are also to blame. The return of fighters from Libya’s battlefields—where some 9,000 Sudanese have been fighting on different sides of the civil war—and beyond has added to a massive proliferation of guns and heavy weapons. Many of those returning from Libya and possibly also those returning from Chad engage in illegal activities, such as armed banditry and smuggling, leading to further destabilization in Darfur. Some of the armed groups who signed the Juba Agreement for Peace more than a year ago between the authorities and rebel factions have experienced some degree of rebellion and defection within their ranks as a result of this volatile situation. Observers also blame government forces, including the mainly locally recruited Rapid Support Forces, of either standing by or actively supporting one side in local conflicts and being generally unaccountable for crimes committed. 

Moreover, local violence often has or takes on a political dimension. Intercommunal tensions have been exploited by many political actors. Also, and not less importantly, in the course of the Oct. 25 coup, almost all Sudanese actors, the government, and armed groups have concentrated on the political struggle in Khartoum. Withdrawing some of their best trained forces from Darfur to the capital thereby contributed to instability and insecurity in the region. The situation in the country’s capital, Khartoum, remains challenging, but this is no excuse for withdrawing state capacities form the region. Sudan’s authorities have the responsibility to safeguard their own people from harm while trying to resolve the center’s political crisis brought about by the coup. 

Until Dec. 31, 2020, the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was mandated to contribute to the security of civilians in the region with at its height, close to 20,000 troops and 6,000 police and civilian staff. This mission has come to an end, and while a residual team was still packing up the last remaining camp and handing installations and equipment over to North Darfur State authorities, the site was overrun by thousands of people, including armed groups and security forces, stripping the base of its contents, which were meant to eventually go to state agencies for the protection of civilians. Similarly, a World Food Program warehouse was looted this week, emptying its contents of food items meant for the most vulnerable. 

Since the UNAMID mandate has ended, the Sudanese state can no longer “outsource” the security of its citizens and refugees. The new U.N. mission in Sudan—the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, which I lead—is much smaller, its mandate is focused on all of Sudan, and as a special political mission, it does not have any executive function to run the country, which U.N. missions like those in Cambodia or East Timor had. We do work with Sudan’s law enforcement agencies as well as with local governments and community networks by giving advice on civilian protection. But actual security provisions and physical protection of civilians are the sovereign tasks of the Sudanese government.

In the transition period’s first two years after the fall of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, Hamdok’s government developed a National Plan for the Protection of Civilians, led by then-Cabinet Affairs Minister Khalid Omar Yousif. Key to the plan’s success was strengthening legitimate state capacities. The police, not the military or militias, should be the primary agent to protect any country’s citizens. The current absence—since the Oct. 25 military takeover—of a functioning government exacerbates the situation of a state whose presence in the peripheries has always been weak.

There is no longer a civil war in Darfur. The 2020 Sudanese Peace Agreement brought Sudan’s main armed groups into the political fold. It gave them seats of power in government and expected them to bring their militias into a joint security keeping force. 

Unfortunately, most of these security arrangements have yet to come to life, other than the U.N.-led Permanent Ceasefire Committee, a rare bright light that continues to operate despite the political morass in Khartoum. The Ceasefire Committee, however, as it was originally envisaged, does not have the means to protect civilians and cannot lead to sustained peace in Darfur. 

Concerted action is now needed if Sudan is to manage these risks and avoid further escalation, thereby preventing a return to the situation in Darfur that horrified the world 20 years ago. 

My mission continues to push the military, the Sudanese Peace Agreement’s signatories, and who remains in Hamdok’s government to live up to the No. 1 expectation of any state: to protect its own citizens. It is critical that security arrangements provided for in the Sudanese Peace Agreement are stood up as a matter of urgency. The achievements made since the horrors of the early 2000s must be preserved. I raised this in the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. 

Setting up a new cabinet and government to oversee the security agencies tasked with protecting civilians and enforcing the rule of law would go some way toward ensuring more Sudanese lives are not lost, creating the means to hold perpetrators accountable through responsive justice mechanisms for Darfur.

The international community must also not lose sight of what’s afoot in Darfur. We should seek to hold the Sudanese authorities accountable for progress made against these commitments, and we should fund projects to train and capacitate the Sudanese security forces to do their job properly. In addition, a whole of Darfur conference is being planned and should be supported by our international partners to drive resources to those in need. For our part, the U.N. mission and its agencies, funds, and programs in the country are prepared to redouble our efforts in the region. The U.N. mission has sought additional support to execute our mandate, especially in protecting civilians, and we are working to support local actors to ensure more lives are not lost.

What we are witnessing in Darfur should be heard. We are all on notice that the rise in violent conflict in Darfur requires immediate attention to end impunity and save lives. We—the United Nations, the international community, and (most importantly) the Sudanese themselves—should recommit ourselves to these goals. The world, but mostly Sudan, cannot afford to see an erosion of the gains made over the last decade. In spite of the country’s current delicate state, the Sudanese people deserve peace and prosperity.

Volker Perthes is the United Nations Special Representative for Sudan and head of the Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan.  Twitter: @volkerperthes

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