On any given day, hundreds of women in displaced persons camps throughout Darfur can be seen nervously waiting for African Union (AU) troops before venturing outside to collect firewood for cooking. “I would not go out of the camp if there weren’t patrols by the African Union,” said one displaced woman in Western Darfur. She feared rape by heavily armed Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, who often surround and then attack the camps with the support of Sudan’s military forces.
The African Union–not even four years old and badly underfunded, underequipped, and undermanned–has been struggling in Darfur to alleviate what has been called the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster.” Since the conflict in Sudan began in 2003, an estimated 180,000 to 300,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced. Protecting the 3.5 million people considered by the United Nations to be at risk–half of the population of Darfur–has become a test case for African peacekeeping.
In its struggle to prevent atrocities, the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) has had many small successes and has proven innovative in its methods. Despite serious handicaps, AMIS has saved lives and prevented even worse catastrophes for many internally displaced persons (IDPs). But the African Union faces crises of its own. With a weak mandate and near-empty coffers, AMIS is itself struggling to survive.
The AU’s intervention in Darfur is a first for the organization, which replaced the 39-year-old Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 2002. The OAU was notorious for refusing to interfere in the “internal affairs” of member states, taking no action to prevent genocide in Rwanda or the brutal acts of Idi Amin in Uganda. By contrast, the AU is constitutionally structured to be able to collectively intervene in a member state to combat “war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” (The AU is the world’s only regional or international organization that explicitly recognizes the right to intervene in a member state on humanitarian and human rights grounds.) As explained by Salim A. Salim, AU special envoy for Darfur and former OAU secretary-general, the AU was established to ensure that Africa would deal more decisively with African conflicts, a step necessary in part because international partners were unreliable. “It has not been easy to involve our Western partners in active peacekeeping in our continent,” Salim said during a July 2005 presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.