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The Successes and Shortcomings of the African Union in Darfur

Although armed conflict in Darfur continues to leave millions of people homeless, vulnerable to violence, and susceptible to potentially life-threatening diseases, a report released today by the Brookings Institution–University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement says that, contrary to popular belief, African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops have made a difference in the region.

According to the report, their presence has deterred the rape of women, reduced the recruitment of children into armed forces, protected humanitarian corridors and aid convoys, reduced the looting of animals belonging to Arab nomads, and helped displaced persons who returned to their homes. However, the report also finds many shortcomings and offers detailed recommendations to deal with the deteriorating situation in Darfur, including an increase in AU troop strength to at least 20,000.

In the report, Protecting Two Million Internally Displaced: The Successes and Shortcomings of the African Union in Darfur, co-authors William G. O’Neill and Violette Cassis provide a first-hand look at how AU troops on the ground have saved lives and prevented atrocities against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other civilians, but also suffer from “grossly inadequate” numbers of troops and police, a weak mandate, and limited equipment.

“Darfur has become a test case for African peacekeeping,” says Roberta Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement. “As millions of men, women and children remain crammed into displaced persons’ camps, and continue to face attacks by heavily armed militias, they look to African Union forces–now some 6,700 in number–to provide them with a degree of protection.”

Based on interviews with AU troops, IDPs, and humanitarian and human rights officers over a seven- month period, the report finds that AU troops did not “stand by and just watch innocent people get slaughtered.” While AU soldiers do not have the strength or authority to remove or disarm Janjaweed and other paramilitary forces from displaced persons’ camps, they have “demonstrated a willingness to patrol, be visible and try to deter violence,” according to the report.

To build on these achievements, the report recommends at the very least a 20,000 strong force with a more robust protection mandate. It offers three principal options to accomplish this: 1) provide the AU with the material and financial support to enable its force to grow and deploy rapidly; 2) merge the AU force with UN peacekeeping forces in southern Sudan, which would give the troops in Darfur the stronger mandate they need and allow the force to draw on the deeper peacekeeping resources and experience of the UN; and 3) call upon NATO or the European Union to contribute their own forces to reinforce the AU and assume responsibility for the operation.

Recommendations in the report to address the AU force’s weaknesses include:

  • Increase logistical, transport and communications support to sustain additional troops and police and their accelerated transport to and throughout Darfur.
  • Strengthen AU headquarters’ capacities in command, planning, and information management.
  • Establish clear rules of engagement that authorize the AU to use force to protect civilians and IDPs in danger.
  • Improve operational capacities, in particular: additional aircraft and vehicles; satellite surveillance to enable quick reaction to threats to IDPs and peacekeepers; introduction of night patrols; a continuous presence in and around IDPs camps, especially those known to be high-risk (to date, there is AU 24-hour presence in only two camps).
  • Enlarge the civilian component of the AU mission with political affairs officers, humanitarian and human rights officers, and sexual and gender-based violence experts.
  • Close the gender imbalance of AU forces (out of 816 police, there are only 126 females, and out of 454 military observers, there are only two females). This will enable more effective handling of the widespread sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Improve coordination and communication between the AU’s troops and police and between AU forces and humanitarian workers whose operations the AU is supposed to safeguard.
  • Promote greater accountability of Sudanese soldiers and police through training programs and frank, public reporting by the AU of violations of the ceasefire, of interruptions in humanitarian aid efforts, and of abuses against civilians.
  • Hold rebel forces to greater accountability.

William O’Neill, an international lawyer, trained the UN’s human rights officers in Darfur, Sudan in 2005 and has served in senior positions with UN missions in Kosovo, Rwanda and Haiti. Violette Cassis has worked with UN agencies, NGOs, and the African Union on the protection of internally displaced persons in West Darfur, Sudan for the past year.

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The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public.

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