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Q&A: Can a new UN peace operation help stabilise Sudan?

‘Expectations are huge and sometimes without any real connection to the mandate we have.’

A man sits at a computer desk with a UN flag behind him. Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
Volker Perthes, the head of a new UN mission in Sudan, sat down for an interview with The New Humanitarian in March.

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A new UN mission charged with supporting Sudan’s transition to democratic rule is ramping up operations in the country following the departure of a long-running peacekeeping force from the western region of Darfur, where more than 1.5 million people are still living in displacement camps.

But the mission, known as UNITAMS, is set to face several challenges, from budgetary constraints to criticism from local communities who had hoped its mandate – limited to political and technical assistance – would include a peacekeeping force like its predecessor.

In a wide-reaching interview (transcribed in full below) with The New Humanitarian in March, Volker Perthes, the head of UNITAMS, said the new mission should not be compared with the Darfur operation, known by its acronym, UNAMID. “It is really two different things,” Perthes said. “A big peacekeeping operation… and a rather small, special political mission.”

UNITAMS became operational at the start of January, a month after UNAMID had its mandate terminated by the UN Security Council after 13 years on the ground in Darfur – once considered among the world’s most pressing humanitarian emergencies.  

Though UNAMID had been slowly drawing down its troops in recent years, the operation faced pressure to fully withdraw from Sudan’s transitional government, which requested that any follow-on mission should have an exclusively civilian character.

Read More → UN peacekeeper withdrawal leaves security vacuum in Darfur

UNITAMS’ main job is to support the transition, which is tasked with steering Sudan to elections, now expected in 2024. Key responsibilities include mobilising international economic assistance, and helping to implement a peace agreement between the government and armed and opposition groups.

The new mission is also mandated to assist in peacebuilding activities – with an emphasis on Darfur and other conflict-affected areas – but will not have uniformed troops on the ground, or Security Council authorisation to use force to protect civilians.

The lack of peacekeepers is viewed as a mistake by many displaced people and civil society groups in Darfur, who say UNAMID’s departure has created a security vacuum as hundreds of thousands flee fresh outbreaks of violence in a still unresolved conflict.

“We told them they are not welcome here because they are implementing an agreement that we are not part of.”

“We are a long way from peace and democratic transformation that could be supported by UNITAMS,” Yaqoub Mohamed Abdallah, the leader of Kalma camp, one of the largest displacement sites in Darfur, told The New Humanitarian. “We still have essential security needs.”

Some displaced communities in Darfur said they were also displeased with UNITAMS’ support for the new peace agreement, which is viewed widely in the region as an elite pact between the government and armed group leaders.

Read More → Holdout rebels, sidelined victims, and other hurdles to peace in Darfur

When a group of UNITAMS officials visited one displacement camp in Darfur earlier this year, community leaders told The New Humanitarian they asked them to leave. “We told them they are not welcome here because they are implementing an agreement that we are not part of,” said Haroun Issa Abakar, a community leader at the camp, known as Hamidiya.

Meanwhile, with a budget of $34 million – a far cry from the more than $1 billion UNAMID received – and around 80 staff members as things stand, analysts fear the new mission may struggle to fulfil its mandate, which covers the entirety of Sudan, where various areas are experiencing conflict, and where more than seven million people are currently acutely food insecure.

Nor will supporting Sudan’s political transition prove easy. Many Sudanese are losing patience in the transitional government, which came to power in 2019 after the fall amid mass protests of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir.

While the ex-president is now behind bars – and many hope will be handed over to the International Criminal Court – army generals linked to his regime have retained power through top jobs in the civilian-military transitional administration. 

As elections draw closer, Perthes said civil society groups should not lose hope in influencing the transitional process. “My call to those who are frustrated, or had a major role in triggering the transition by taking to the streets, is to get organised,” he said.

Here is the full interview with Perthes, edited for length and clarity. 

The New Humanitarian: UNAMID had a large budget and a limited geographical focus. UNITAMS has a much smaller budget and a broader mandate. Is it important to moderate expectations of what you can achieve?

Perthes: People shouldn't compare us to UNAMID because it is really two different things: a big peacekeeping operation, and a rather small, special political mission with a very broad mandate. We are leveraging the cooperation and integration of the UN country team [in Sudan], which makes us a bit more powerful, but we are still a small mission. It is also true that these broad objectives give me some leg room to define where I want to start, and where I would want to put the emphasis. 

At the same time, expectations are huge and sometimes without any real connection to the mandate we have. We have civil society actors who want us to enforce legislation, to set up the transitional legislative council, or actually to do physical protection – to protect them against infringements on civil space.

Many people are angry at us for not being what they would want us to be: namely a continuation of UNAMID, or an even stronger UNAMID. There are people that are angry at us for not having the mandate that they would want us to have. But whether we like that or not, missions don't decide their own mandates. It's about communication and being very honest about what we are and what we are not. 

The New Humanitarian: UNITAMS is mandated to support the new peace agreement, but in Darfur a lot of communities are rejecting it, as is the biggest rebel group. What’s to be done?

Perthes: Peace agreements can always be better, and particularly in this case they can be more inclusive. You can always think about integrating society better into the institutions that are being set up. 

The main criticism I would have – and it is not the fault of those who negotiated [the agreement] – is that you have two main factions with real power on the ground [the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid in Darfur and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu’s faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which is active in the southern states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan] that aren't included. Phase two of the peace process will be about having a real process with these two remaining factions. 

“Peace agreements can always be better, and particularly in this case they can be more inclusive.”

There are different interpretations [of what should be done] even in the Security Council. Some country representatives say the two remaining factions should simply sign up to the [existing] peace agreement. I think that may be a non-starter and I think the government knows that, so they are speaking about new negotiations [one with al-Hilu commenced today], not just forcing the two remaining factions to sign up to something which they haven't negotiated.

The New Humanitarian: This peace deal will be expensive to implement, but state coffers are empty. What’s your plan for drumming up support?

Perthes: Peace doesn't come free; it costs money. In Juba [where the peace agreement was signed] they put numbers on that need for economic assistance – it's around $750 million a year that should be channelled into Darfur.

Aside from funds which the government is making available from its own budget, there is of course the expectation – and I think rightly so – that the international community will provide the major part of the funding that is necessary to make the peace deal a living reality, where people can actually see there is something in it for them.

We cannot make the money ourselves, but we can work with both sides in order to explain what the risks are, what the challenges are, and what has to be done in order to overcome them.

What we are asking the authorities and the peace partners is to define more exactly what the needs are so that we can communicate that to the international community. The more concrete these needs are defined, the easier it is to get international support.

The New Humanitarian: Could you give some examples of the kind of civilian protection work UNITAMS will be doing in places like Darfur?

Perthes: I don't have a mandate for physical protection but protection of civilians is part of my mandate. And that means we have to work with authorities, civil society, and community groups. You can advocate. You can give advice. You can bring in technical expertise. You can train, help, and nudge. 

Before its withdrawal, UNAMID still had [thousands of] peacekeepers. I have zero peacekeepers. I have 21 individual police officers who are here to support the Sudanese police to train their police force – and that includes human rights training and providing expertise on community policing, and other areas where the Sudanese counterpart will say they need support. That could be working on criminal justice, on forensic evidence. But so far the fields where there is most need – as expressed by the Ministry of Interior here – are community policing, human rights training, and rule of law training.

The New Humanitarian: One of your key tasks is supporting Sudan's transition. But people are getting increasingly frustrated with the government. What are the risks going forward?

Perthes: There are real risks and challenges to the transition. But I think frustrations are a normal part of political transition processes. 

We [recently] had an interesting exchange with youth representatives. My main message to them – and this is the political scientist and historian in me – was that while all revolutions have been made by unorganised people, those who won the battle afterwards were the ones who were best organised. So get organised. 

“If you want to have an influence on the transitional process, [you have to] enter the process.”

There are a lot of possibilities – not only for the UN but for a lot of international NGOs – to help these people get organised. It's about encouraging civil society forces, youth groups, and women's groups to get into the game of politics. Many don't like that. [But] If you want to have an influence on the transitional process, [you have to] enter the process.

The New Humanitarian: Is Sudan’s old regime also a threat to the transition UNITAMS is mandated to support?

Perthes: I think you are right when you say there is a lot of deep state left, but what do you expect? For 30 years there has been a regime that has been recruiting people that wanted to work with them – or were from their constituency – and they have been training them. 

And, of course, some of these people have become efficient bureaucrats and experts, so you cannot do away with all of them. They are there, and I think part of them are prepared to support the new Sudan, and part of them are resisting it. 

But this is nothing extraordinary to Sudan, you have that in transitional situations. I don't think the way to deal with it is a de-Baathification strategy [the process which saw former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party – mostly Sunnis – barred from government jobs] to get everybody out. You have to win these people over.


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