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Bolstering civilian protection in Sudan

The #BlueforSudan movement has drawn worldwide attention to the ongoing political crisis in Sudan. Blue was the reported favourite colour of 26-year-old Mohamed Hashim Mattar, one of more than 100 civilians killed during the violent crackdown on a sit-in protest on 3 June by government security forces in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

The sit-in was the culmination of months of protests since December 2018 against Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir and his government’s austerity measures. Taking place outside the Sudanese Defence Ministry, the sit-in initially called on the military to oust al-Bashir and his government - a call taken up in a peaceful coup successfully carried out on 11 April. The movement then turned to calls for civilian rule of the country.

With the Transitional Military Council (TMC) now in power, rocky negotiations followed with a coalition of protestor groups called the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) to pave the way for a transition to a civilian government. An initial agreement in May set a three-year timeline, but on 3 June the TMC backflipped on the agreement, resulting in the fatal crackdown on protestors by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government-sponsored paramilitary group.

At first glance, international efforts to solve the crisis politically seem to have been effective. After 3 June, the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership of the regional body. The breakdown of talks between the FFC and the TMC saw the Ethiopian Prime Minister step in as a mediator, convincing the FFC to cease nationwide civil disobedience and restart negotiations with the TMC. Despite the TMC rejecting Ethiopia’s initial proposal for a power-sharing arrangement, the TMC later accepted a joint African Union-Ethiopia proposal on 27 June.

Yet support from Sudan’s regional allies are undermining these efforts. Sudan’s regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt have the most influence over the TMC, filling a void left by limited diplomatic engagement from the United States. All three countries support Sudan’s military government, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledging US$ 3 billion (approximately AUD$ 4.3 billion) in aid in early April to the TMC.

Sudan’s uncertain future does not bode well for the security of civilians in the country. As such, the international community’s commitment to tackle the political source of the crisis is undoubtably necessary for long-term peace. Yet the events of 3 June show more is required to deal with the flaring symptoms of the crisis, such as failing human security.

A potential way to improve the degrading human security situation in Sudan is already in place. The United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) has been operational since 2007 to monitor the Darfur Peace Agreement (2006) and the subsequent Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (2011). These were established due to a civil conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region between the Government of Sudan, militias and other armed rebel groups, which has led to atrocities against civilians, hundreds of thousands of deaths and nearly two million internally displaced persons.

Part of UNAMID’s mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter permits the defensive use force to protect civilians in line with the three principles of peacekeeping: consent of parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate.

Several aspects of the mission’s mandate hinder its effectiveness for civilian protection during increasingly dangerous times in Sudan.

Firstly, looking map of Sudan, Khartoum is far from the troubled region of Darfur where UNAMID is deployed. To deploy peacekeepers to Khartoum would require a change in the mission’s mandated area of operations. As a peacekeeping force, UNAMID relies on the consent of Sudan's government to operate; a change in UNAMID's area of operations is a step the TMC is unlikely to agree to.

Secondly, UNAMID is in the final phase of its foreplanned drawdown, aiming for a complete withdrawal from Darfur by June 2020. A further downsize of UNAMID’s forces that was scheduled for 30 June 2019 was postponed for four months by a unanimous UN Security Council decision citing the volatile situation in Khartoum.

The drawdown has already had some problematic outcomes. Part of the plan consists of handing over UNAMID bases to the Sudanese authorities. Although it was specified that the bases be transferred to only civilian authorities, the RSF now occupy nine of the ten former UNAMID bases in the past eight months. The significance for civilian protection is that the RSF’s commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, is deputy head of the TMC. Some members of the RSF are also known to be former members of the ‘Janjaweed’ militia, which - human rights groups allege - has committed war crimes against civilians in the Darfur region.

Given these stumbling blocks, is there a way to make the mission more effective in its civilian protection mandate? One consideration called for by some Darfuris is to permit an offensive use of force to achieve civilian protection.

When carried out through a mandate of robust peacekeeping or even peace enforcement, offensive use of force is not without its caveats and must have its checks and balances. For example, The UN-authorised Force Intervention Brigade was an African offensive force sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 to actively neutralise armed groups committing widespread violence against civilians. However, the mission actively supported the DRC government.

In Sudan’s case, such a mission would be actively operating against the government of Sudan. The implications of the international community undermining the sovereignty of Sudan could rival that of using civilian protection as grounds to overthrow the Libyan government in 2011.

Philip Taleski is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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