Shame on the UN

This week, seven UN/African Union peacekeepers were killed in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. This brings the total number of peacekeepers killed there to 157 (1). At the end of this month the UN will vote whether to continue the world's most expensive mission, known as UNAMID. But until the UN gives the mission the political backing necessary to fulfill its UN Security Council mandate, more money and lives will be wasted, and the people of Darfur will continue to be terrorized, raped and killed.

In theory the peacekeepers are in Darfur to protect civilians, but in practice they cannot even protect themselves. The latest ambush happened in an area controlled by one of the Sudanese regime's proxy militias. Khartoum has promised to investigate, as it always does. But to date no one has been brought to account for the deaths of other slain peacekeepers, or humanitarian aid workers, such as the two World Vision staff also killed recently in similar circumstances in Darfur.

Until recently the UN insisted Darfur had become less violent, and that people who had been ethnically cleansed by their own government were finally returning home (2). No mention was made of the continuing systematic rape of girls and women, or the destruction and looting of villages. The UN's claims were shown to be politically-motivated nonsense: since January this year another 300,000 unarmed civilians have fled to camps, such is the increasing level of terror (3). Ten years since the Khartoum regime began its policy of aerial bombardment of non-Arab villages, 1.4 million Darfuris (out of a population of six million) are in refugee camps over the border in Chad or struggling to survive without any protection in squalid internally displaced persons' camps (4).

The UN stopped counting the numbers of dead in Darfur at 300,000 in 2007 (5). For the same reasons in January 2009 the UN ceased publishing the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' "Darfur Humanitarian Profile" on the dire conditions in Darfur, hoping that by appeasing the regime, the architects of the ethnic cleansing might have a change of heart (6). UN staffers admitted the chief UN aid official, Georg Charpentier, submitted his press releases to the regime for approval (7). No wonder the wretched people of Darfur are convinced the UN sides with their oppressors in Khartoum.

It is this track record of pandering that endangers the peacekeepers' lives. UNAMID officers know they have little support from UN officials further up the chain of command. If they challenge local Sudanese security services and authorities they are unlikely to receive the backing of their superiors whose priority, it seems, is to appease those responsible for the violence rather than challenge them. If the peacekeepers interpret their mandate broadly, trying to protect civilians from attack, or pointing the finger of blame in the aftermath of attacks, they risk their personnel with no guarantee the UN in New York will stand by them.

On a daily basis the Sudanese authorities invent new rules to prevent UNAMID performing its duties; bureaucrats stop their supplies reaching them; security officers require them to obey a curfew, rather than going out on patrol; Sudanese soldiers and police prevent peacekeepers reaching villages where there are reports of violence. But instead of demanding that Sudan fulfils its own promises, abiding by the international treaties and conventions it has signed, the UN fails to back its own staff.

At its most absurd, in 2007 the UN apologized to Khartoum after a local UN agency had revealed that the Sudanese were disguising their military planes as UN planes in order to ship weapons into Darfur, contrary to UN sanctions (8). Meanwhile UNAMID is short of essential equipment, such as helicopters, necessary to protect unarmed civilians in imminent danger or monitor events in Darfur, both core elements of the UN mandate.

The indicted war criminals in Khartoum draw the correct conclusion from the UN's acquiescence: the UN secretary-general's occasional expression of disapproval counts for nothing while the UN fails to hold Khartoum to its international commitments. The UN could apply and enforce sanctions already passed by the Security Council -- personally targeted smart sanctions which would make the lives of the Sudanese leaders inconvenient. The UN could also terminate discussions on rewarding Sudan with much-needed debt relief. Yet it persists in believing Khartoum will respond favorably to further displays of spinelessness, rather than interpreting it as weakness to be further exploited.

For years Khartoum's proxy militia have harassed and killed UN staff, including peacekeepers. Their actions are met by nothing stronger than words of condemnation from UN headquarters in New York, signalling clearly that the Sudanese regime is at liberty to do as it wishes. And Khartoum breaches international sovereignty by bombing refugee camps in neighboring South Sudan, with no penalty (9). No wonder the soldiers of UNAMID are reluctant to risk their lives protecting civilians. We owe it to the memory of their dead colleagues, and to the Darfuris facing violence every day, to insist that, for once, Khartoum investigates and punishes those found responsible for the continuing loss of life in Sudan.

1. UNAMID Facts and Figures - African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur

2. UN says Darfur situation improving as peacekeepers report violent incidents - Sudan Tribune: Plural news and views on Sudan

3. BBC News - Darfur conflict displaces 300,000 in five months - UN

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. :: Humanitarian Conditions in Darfur: The most recent reports reveal a relentless deterioration

7. Darfur Daily News: Does UN humanitarian coordinator George Charpentier follow orders of Omar al Bashir's Minister for Humanita

8. Sudan Flying Arms to Darfur, Panel Reports - New York Times

9. BBC News - Sudan 'bombs refugees' in South Sudan's Unity state