Global Policy Forum

Special Representative for Sudan Rejects Claims United Nations Mission 'Did Nothing' During Abyei Crisis

August 18, 2008

In Wake of Events, Calls for Urgent Discussion to Incorporate 'Use of Force' Provisions into Mandate to Ensure Mission's Robustness

Rejecting claims that the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) "did nothing" while the flashpoint town of Abyei was virtually burned to the ground during clashes between Government and rebel forces in May, the head of that Mission today, nevertheless, called for an urgent reassessment of its mandate to ensure the necessary robustness to tackle on-the-ground needs and expectations.

"The impression that UNMIS did nothing while Abyei was burned and looted is wrong," said Ashraf Qazi as he briefed the Security Council on the work of the three-year old Mission tasked with ensuring that parties in North and South Sudan comply with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended two decades of civil war between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

While he stressed that mutual implementation of the Agreement, though behind schedule, "remains on track", the parties had recently been involved in "some of the most severe violations of the ceasefire" in the past three years, most notably in Abyei. The town straddles the border between Northern and Southern Sudan, and, Mr. Qazi said, the fighting there that broke out on 14 May had left 89 people dead -- including, reportedly, 18 civilians –- and had driven some 50,000 people from their homes.

On the role of UNMIS during the Abyei crisis, Mr. Qazi said that, because of the extreme political sensitivity of the events, there had been a tendency to blame the Mission for the consequences of the decisions taken elsewhere. Indeed, everyone should appreciate who bore the main responsibility for the death and displacement, looting and arson: "The two sides and their respective armies bore the primary and indeed exclusive responsibility for what happened in Abyei," he said, stressing that, as signatories of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the two sides were responsible for ensuring that the Abyei tragedy was never repeated, in that town or elsewhere.

That was not to suggest that UNMIS regarded itself as beyond criticism, he said, acknowledging that complacency or refusal to draw lessons from the experience of such crises would contradict the Mission's obligation to constantly seek ways to improve its own performance. Towards that goal, UNMIS, in the aftermath of the conflict, had carried out a detailed "after action review" identifying both the strengths and weaknesses of its response.

Among other things, he said the assessment noted that UNMIS had sheltered and escorted to safety more than 100 civilians during the fighting. All United Nations and humanitarian staff had been evacuated without a single injury. In addition, emergency security meetings had been convened, during which the parties had pledged to take a number of actions to calm the situation and maintain the ceasefire, although none had been implemented. Ministers had been flown in to end the fighting, also to no avail.

"The fact of that matter is that there was a breakdown of local command and control. Instructions of high officials were simply ignored by local commanders," he said, noting also that the review acknowledged the Mission's failure to protect United Nations agency compounds in Abyei.

At the same time, however, he stressed that, when two regular armies fought each other with tanks, multi-barrel rocket launchers, artillery and heavy machine guns, then, "irrespective of the specific numbers of peacekeepers assigned to Abyei", there was no way they could actively intervene to suppress the fighting. Further, given the scale of hostilities between both sides and their inability or unwillingness to implement measures already agreed upon, there was little UNMIS could do to prevent this loss of life, he added.

"Moreover, UNMIS has no such mandate. Nor do its rules of engagement allow the use of lethal force to protect civilian property," he said, emphasizing that the events in Abyei indicated the need for "urgent discussion on incorporating Chapter VII (use of force) provisions in a Chapter VI mandate (to investigate and mediate disputes) and the expectations it generates [regarding] the capabilities given to the Mission".

The question of the mandates and on-the-ground capabilities of United Nations missions was inevitably linked: "You cannot have a robust interpretation of a given mandate for which a robust intervention capability is not provided," he said. Moreover, the degree of robustness to which a mission mandate could be interpreted was a function of the political and military space allowed to that operation by the parties.

Being a Chapter VI mission, UNMIS neither possessed the robust intervention capability nor was it provided with the requisite political and military space by the parties, including freedom of movement for monitoring and verification, stressed Mr. Qazi, adding that, over the past three years, the Secretary-General and other UNMIS envoys had repeatedly emphasized that fact in their reports to the Council. Further, the issue of the "responsibility to protect civilians under imminent danger" precluded law enforcement activities such as the protection of civilian property.

"Nevertheless, it does create expectations of an international commitment to provide a broad range of protection and enforcement measures," he said, urging the Council to initiate a debate on such issues so that clear guidelines on the subject could emerge which could be translated into "realistic" rules of engagement for peacekeepers equipped with the requisite capability. All that did not detract from the fact that there had been significant progress on Abyei, and that in line with a recent agreement signed by the parties, the redeployment of Sudanese Armed Forces and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was almost complete.

Turning to overall implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, he said that, while the level of mutual cooperation between the two partners had shown some signs of improvement, the foundation for a durable peace "remains fragile". The working relationship between North and South Sudan was relatively cordial, but the lack of mutual trust and confidence remained a significant obstacle to the goals of "making unity attractive" and a peaceful implementation of the Agreement.

He added, however, that "three years down the road the prospects for the [Peace Agreement] are uncertain but not necessarily bleak". Among other things, he noted the completion of the census enumeration and developments relating to the electoral process, as well as progress on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants. Additionally, recovery and development projects had begun to make some difference on the ground.

Ultimate success, however, would require the parties to realize that peace could only be consolidated through the full implementation of the Abyei road map, he stressed, adding that, should the Peace Agreement unravel, prospects for a peaceful outcome in war-ravaged Darfur would largely disappear. "A successful implementation of the [Peace Agreement] brightens the prospects for peace in Darfur".

Regarding recent efforts by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to seek an indictment against the Sudanese President on genocide and war crimes charges, Mr. Qazi said he had conveyed to the Sudanese Government that the Court was an independent institution and that UNMIS would continue to implement its mandate in the country.

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