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UN Darfur visit could endanger locals it aims to protect

Guest blogger Laura Jones of the Enough Project questions whether the UN visit to Darfur, which was followed by the government's arrest of those the UN met with, hurt more than it helped.

By Laura JonesGuest blogger / October 21, 2010

Halima Ibrahim, 33, and her children stop to talk to a reporter while the UN Security Council workers visit the Abu Shouk refugee camp on the outskirts of El Fasher, North Darfur, Sudan, on Oct. 8. The UN Security Council diplomats came for a fact finding visit with local camp leaders to talk about aid, security, and living conditions in the refugee camp. The team visiting Darfur expressed deep concerns over the increase in violence in the western Sudanese region.

John Heilprin/AP

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Immediately following the UN Security Council’s recent two-day visit to Sudan’s western region of Darfur, sources on the ground reported that Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services, or NISS, was pursuing a number of people who had met with the Council. The drama that transpired as a result of the UN’s high-level visit prompts important questions about how to raise awareness without putting individuals in danger in a volatile place like Darfur.

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As part of its visit to El Fasher (the capital of North Darfur), the Council met with groups of internally displaced people, or IDPs, to discuss a range of issues including ongoing insecurity, humanitarian conditions, lack of access to justice, and abuses by NISS. According to reports, shortly after the Council’s departure, NISS began searching Abu Shouk and Al Salaam IDP camps for 16 people who had spoken to the Council. Although these individuals were able to evade arrest, NISS succeeded in locating and arresting five others, including Abdullah Ishaq Abdel Razek, who heads one of the camp’s nutrition programs and was seen interacting with Council members in the market of Abu Shouk.

In addition, armed men kidnapped a civilian staff member of the UN-African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur from his home in El Fasher on the same evening that the Security Council was staying in town. Although most news outlets reported that the kidnapping didn’t appear to be connected with the visit, it did go a long way towards demonstrating to the Council the daily challenges faced by those on the ground. The kidnapping, in fact, seemed to prompt a more general outcry by members of the Council regarding the increase in violence and insecurity over the past year. As Mark Lyall Grant, British Ambassador to the UN, stated, "There is a climate of insecurity here in Darfur and the level of violence has gone up this year, compared to previous years…We are very concerned."

The government’s rejection of this assessment further prompted US Ambassador Susan Rice say, “I think much of what we heard from the government was counter-factual and strained credulity."

Given the Council’s recognition of the enduring climate of insecurity in the region, and Ambassador Rice’s acknowledgement of the government willingness to hoodwink the international community, it is rather surprising that the Council failed to anticipate some backlash against civilians as a result of its visit. The UN is known for flying high-level delegations into volatile areas, giving them a glance of the tragedy, then flying them out again with a big fuss.

This most recent incident raises some interesting questions, though, about this type of approach: How do you strike a balance between raising awareness about an issue and putting people in danger by virtue of your mere presence? After these delegations leave, what happens to the people with whom they meet? And what obligation do these delegations have to protect the people willing to raise their profile among authorities in order to share information?

Regardless of whether or not the Council should have taken steps to ensure that their sources were protected, it seems fair to say that the Council’s lack of response to the incident is unacceptable. Since returning to New York, the Council has failed to make any public statement condemning the actions of NISS and requesting the release of the prisoners. While a statement alone is likely to yield few results, not issuing a condemnation reverses all the good that might have come from such a trip by signaling to the government that the Council’s promises to work harder to protect civilians in the region – a cornerstone of the peacekeeping mission’s mandate – are hollow. A lack of response from the Council thus will mean that the IDPs from Abu Shouk put themselves at risk for nothing.

Yesterday, Enough and our partners sent a letter to Ambassador Rice and Ambassador Grant urging them to take steps to protect the individuals who risked their safety to speak to the U.N. delegates, as they work to ensure security and humanitarian access throughout Sudan more generally.

Laura Jones blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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