Why UN peacekeepers have failed to protect the people of Darfur

Amid rising violence and a new report of mass rape in the war-ravaged region, questions have arisen over the effectiveness of the UN mission in Darfur.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
A African Union United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peace keeper walks near shelters at Zamzam IDP camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), near El Fasher in North Darfur February 4, 2015. Thousands have fled areas in east Jebel Marra and north of Tawilla due to clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups, according to local media.

Sudanese soldiers allegedly raped 221 women and girls in a retaliatory attack in Darfur last fall, one of the worst atrocities to occur in the troubled region in recent years, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

The report says that beginning on Oct. 30, hundreds of soldiers looted homes and beat and raped civilians in Tabit, a town of 7,000 people, in an attack that lasted 36 hours. HRW says the soldiers' actions were tantamount to war crimes.

The report, which catalogs the attack and the Sudanese Amy’s attempt at a cover-up, indicates escalating violence and highlights the failure of United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians in war-ravaged Darfur. 

Though details are unclear, witnesses claimed the rapes were a retaliatory move by the Army following the alleged killing of a Sudanese soldier.  

"Immediately after they entered the room they said, 'you killed our man. We are going to show you true hell,'" Khatera, a Tabit resident who was raped along with her three daughters, told HRW.

“They did it one by one," she said. "One helped beat and the other raped. Then they would go to the next girl. Two were holding the girl and one would rape."

Descriptions of the attack – which HRW culled though phone interviews with dozens of witnesses and Sudanese soldiers who defected after it – reveal a planned operation, as seen in the rounding up of the town’s men before attacking the women. The soldiers said they were ordered by superiors to "rape women”.

Though credible media reports emerged days after the attack, it has taken three months for a full report to surface because of the Sudanese government’s attempt to prevent further investigation and silence witnesses.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which commands some 16,000 armed troops, sent a team of investigators, but they were under heavy supervision by Sudanese forces and stayed only two hours. Following the incident, Sudan expelled several top UNAMID officials from the country and has prevented UN troops from returning to Tabit.

Government officials, military commanders, and traditional leaders have reportedly whipped and electrocuted witnesses whom they've caught talking about the attack. Survivors refuse to go to hospitals for fear of reprisal. One resident described Tabit as an "open air prison."

"This [report] is vindication for the victims who desperately tried to draw attention to what happened to them last year," says Mukesh Kapila, who led the UN's mission in Sudan from 2003 to 2004.

Darfur has experienced escalating violence as government troops continue to fight rebels who rose up over a decade ago. Last year, over 3,000 villages were burned and half a million people fled their homes, according to the UN.

Peacekeeping skepticism

The attack comes amid questions of the beleaguered UN troops' ability to protect civilians and work towards the elusive goal of establishing peace in the region since they first deployed there in 2007. The HRW report describes UNAMID's ability to protect civilians as "hamstrung”. Its convoys often come under attack, and they have been repeatedly accused of covering up government attacks. 

Sudan has a long history of atrocities in Darfur. The International Criminal Court indicted President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and for his involvement in the Darfur genocide in the early 2000s. That campaign also featured widespread sexual violence, including the rape of over 100 people in Tawila village in March 2004.

Mr. Kapila, who presided over the UN's mission in Sudan during the genocide and the Tawila incident, says the rapes in Tabit highlight the need for more robust action to end the military's impunity in Darfur.

"The international community has gone through rituals of putting peacekeepers on the ground, indicting the president ... but substantially these have proved to be alibis for incomplete action," Kapila says. 

"I'm not surprised that these things are happening again and again and again," he adds.

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