UN peacekeepers had just arrived in Abyei, Sudan earlier this month to monitor the withdrawal of warring northern and southern Sudanese forces when their convoy hit a landmine. One died instantly, ten more were wounded. The UN called for a Medevac helicopter to get the others emergency medical attention, but the government of Sudan refused to allow the airlift. In fact, they threatened to shoot the helicopter down. Negotiations for the airlift took three hours during which time three injured peacekeepers died.
Those peacekeepers were part a 4,200 strong peacekeeping force in Abyei called UNISFA. Their deaths were the latest tragedy in a long series of obstructions, obfuscations and official harassment of UN peacekeeping missions operating in Sudanese territory.
Take, for example, the other peacekeeping mission in Sudan, the African Union -United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Last Friday, the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of UNAMID). The one-year extension keeps over 19,000 peacekeepers in Darfur protecting civilians and creating space for humanitarian operations and calls on Sudan to remedy myriad issues — specifically the deteriorating security situation due to aerial bombardments by the government of Sudan. (Just last week, Sudanese air strikes on the village of Abu Hamara killed one civilian and forced others to flee the onslaught according to UN peacekeepers there.)
Both votes on the two peacekeeping missions were unanimous, 15-0. Every state, including three African nations and China, agreed that UNAMID and UNISFA are crucial to maintaining international peace and security. The Chinese state-run press agency Xinhua,lauded “the renewal of UNAMID to continue to implement the Security Council mandate” and said “China maintains that the Darfur issue should be addressed through the dual-track strategy with equal emphasis on peacekeeping deployment and political process.”
But on Tuesday, the government of Sudan began raising objections to the renewal of UNAMID’s mandate with language that it sees as mission creep, “negative signals”, and “false information”. Worryingly, Sudan threatened to revoke consent for UNAMID’s deployment if it should make “any attempt to impose any new obligation in violation of what has already been agreed upon” in the original 2007 UNAMID authorizing resolution.
In a statement, Sudan explained each of its objections, calling references to aerial bombardments an “old issue”—though recent evidence proves otherwise—and paragraph two of the preamble an affront to Sudanese sovereignty because “the mandate of UNAMID was restricted to the Darfur issue.”
While in the initial Resolution 1769 authorizing UNAMID did, in fact, establish UNAMID as “tackling various problems in Darfur, Sudan,” the four subsequent renewals beginning annually in 2008 have all modified the mandate to “tackling the various challenges in Sudan.” Previously, no objections had been raised. Further, paragraph two in Resolution 1769 also reaffirmed the Security Council’s commitment “to the cause of peace,” a phrase which was also dropped beginning in 2008. Of course, the UN has not subsequently dropped its core principle of working towards a peaceful resolution in the Darfur conflict.
Sudan is looking for an excuse to kick UNAMID out of the country while putting the lives of UNISFA peacekeepers at risk. Neither can be allowed to happen. Though traditionally reluctant to intervene in the foreign affairs of another state, China has bowed to international pressure before and publicly pressed Sudan on UNAMID’s deployment. Since China is Sudan’s largest and most important trade partner and has peacekeepers on the ground in Sudan, its statements, both public and private, matter. Already China has stood by its vote extending the mandate of UNAMID, a good start. But if China is to truly become a political as well as economic global power, it must ensure its ally Sudan accepts the new UNAMID mandate and does not endanger the lives of any more peacekeepers.
UPDATE: In a rare move, the Secretary of State weighs in on the death of those four UNISFA peacekeepers. Sharp words for Sudan.
STATEMENT BY SECRETARY CLINTON
The Deaths of Four UN Peacekeepers in Abyei
The United States is deeply concerned by the deaths of four United Nations peacekeepers whose vehicles struck and detonated a land mine in the Abyei region this week, and by the Government of Sudan’s response to this incident. We offer our deepest condolences to the families of the fallen, to the people of Ethiopia and to the United Nations.
We are alarmed by reports that the Government of Sudan delayed granting the necessary flight clearances to allow the expeditious medical evacuation of the injured peacekeepers and threatened to shoot down any UN helicopter that attempted to access the area without approval. Three wounded soldiers died during this unnecessary delay. The United States is committed to ensuring that the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) has the political support to carry out its important and difficult mandate under challenging circumstances and strongly condemns the Government of Sudan’s non-compliance with its obligation and its obstruction of the work of the United Nations.
This tragic incident also underscores the importance of establishing peace and security in Abyei, and between Sudan and South Sudan. We urge the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan to fulfill their agreement to withdraw their forces immediately from the Abyei area, and to allow full and unrestricted access to UNISFA personnel.