Time for the AU and UN to renew their vows in Darfur


The relationship between the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) in Darfur has all the makings of a highly dysfunctional marriage, with one side throwing around its weight to show power and make decisions, while the other ends up being excluded from day-to-day affairs.

Given their inability to address the challenges within the relationship, it seems the UN and AU might be on the verge of losing an important opportunity to improve coordination and to craft a meaningful partnership in peace operations.

The mandate of the UN-AU Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) expired on 30 June 2015, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decided to renew it for another one-year term.

In 2013, the UNSC requested the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to develop an exit strategy for UNAMID, which was later followed by a request from the government of Sudan that the mission should exit the country. As a result, over the course of the next year, the mission is expected to downsize its presence while an exit strategy is being developed, led by a joint working group established between the UN, AU and the government of Sudan. This is therefore a critical time for Addis Ababa and New York to show they can still jointly plan and implement effective peace operations.

Darfur, located in the western part of Sudan, has been exposed to protracted conflict since 2002. This has caused up to 300 000 civilian deaths and the forced displacement of at least two millions civilians, according to the United Nations. The situation in Darfur is the result of three complex and interlinked types of conflict: communal conflict; conflict between different regional elites; and periphery-centre conflict.

The situation in Darfur is the result of three complex and interlinked types of conflict
Tweet this

Some level of stability was achieved in the past four years, but renewed conflict in 2014 led to the displacement of more than 430 000 people, demanding greater humanitarian assistance, protection and support.

The mid-2000s crisis provided a test case for the AU to show its increased commitment towards supporting continental peace and security. It was one of the first opportunities for the AU to engage in a fully-fledged peace support operation, through the establishment of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). The mission was intended to monitor the ceasefire agreement and engage with the peace process in the country, but was criticised for its inability to protect civilians from attacks. The lack of resources, however, impacted on the sustainability of the operation and led to a request for the UN’s involvement.

After the government of Sudan rejected the idea of replacing AMIS with a UN mission, a joint operation – to be headed by both the AU and the UN – appeared to be a viable and innovative alternative. It was seen as a chance to increase coordination between the AU and the UN, where each could promote their respective comparative advantages in the deployment. The UN would have the logistical capacity and know-how, while the AU would bring political legitimacy and the ability to engage with the government of Sudan. UNAMID formally took over from AMIS on 31 December 2007 with a mandate to support the implementation of the Darfur Peace Process and to protect civilians. It is, to date, the first and only operation where the UN and AU jointly run a peace operation.

UNAMID is, to date, the first and only operation where the UN and AU jointly run a peace operation
Tweet this

The reality of implementing this new partnership was quite different to the initial idea, and coordination between the UN and AU has been far from effective. The relationship between the two organisations has been fractured on the ground. A diplomat recently described UNAMID as ‘the most dysfunctional peacekeeping mission in the world’. The reality, however, is that the UN, AU and government of Sudan each has its own ideas as to what a UNAMID success story might look like.

While in principle the AU has (and ought to have) a critical role in running the mission, the organisation has played a limited role in day-to-day operations. 

The AU did not use the opportunity to show ownership in the running of the mission, and AU Commission officials have been largely absent from visiting or engaging with the mission. The role of the AU somehow became limited to approving senior leadership appointments and providing recommendations for mandate renewal. Anecdotally, during a field mission in November 2014, some peacekeepers told ISS that the AU seems to be represented in the field only by the use of its flag and peacekeepers’ arm badges.

The UN dominated the mission operationally: all personnel processes, policies, guidelines and other operational tools are those of the UN system. In principle this should not be a problem. However, on the one hand, the UN has gone beyond its role with its rules and operational decision-making processes. On the other hand, the AU failed to engage closely with the mission, as had been expected. This imbalance could be linked, at least in part, to the fact that UNAMID is funded entirely by the UN.

This would show that a strong UN-AU partnership is more than just words on a report
Tweet this

Certainly, the challenges for the UN and AU go beyond technical aspects, and the two organisations have struggled to ensure that the political dialogue with the conflicting parties could create a space that is conducive for the mission to operate effectively. For a long time there were two separate mediation processes: one driven by the AU, the other driven from UNAMID.

Greater coordination in this regard was only reached last year. Although the AU had the leverage to improve engagement with the government, it was not able to ensure stronger political support for UNAMID.

Recently, the UN Independent Panel on Peace Operations called for a stronger, more responsive partnership between the two organisations, with a key focus on predictability of actions. These reflect some wider challenges in the development of a partnership between the two organisations more generally. Paul D Williams, an associate professor at the George Washington University and Arthur Boutellis from the International Peace Institute in New York described the relationship between the UN and the AU as being characterised by ‘considerable conflict, mistrust, and tension, often hindering the predictability and conduct of effective peace operations.’

Instead of concluding that the UNAMID type of partnership between the UN and AU was just not viable, the current limitations of the mission should be viewed as opportunities to learn from and improve in the future. In its engagement with the UN, the AU could draw on its experiences in volatile environments, particularly situations where there is less peace to keep. By becoming more engaged with UNAMID, the AU could also use the opportunity to identify best practices that could be applied in other difficult contexts, including Somalia.

Darfur is in desperate need of renewed global and regional engagement from the UN, AU and its respective member states. While it is acknowledged that they operate in a very difficult environment, the two organisations could have (and can still) perform better in ensuring that together they make a difference on the ground.

By enhancing their commitment towards UNAMID, these organisations would show that a strong UN-AU partnership is more than just words on a report.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher and Meressa Kahsu, Researcher and Training Coordinator, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria and Addis Ababa

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT