This article originally appeared in Dissent magazine.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has not made good on his recent threat to expel the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID (UN/African Union Mission in Darfur). But the volatile atmosphere that has enveloped one of the region’s largest camps for displaced persons suggests such expulsion may be only a matter of time. UNAMID and al-Bashir’s brutal regime are at a standoff over the fate of six camp leaders and their purported role in recent violence at Kalma camp, where some 100,000 people live in overcrowded, underserved, and extremely insecure circumstances. (One measure of this insecurity is the August 2008 murder of several dozen unarmed protesters in Kalma by Khartoum’s security forces.) Kalma has long been one of the most politicized camps, and its general allegiance to one rebel faction has created severe tensions with several dissident factions.
The most recent violence followed strenuous disagreement among camp residents about whether Sudan Liberation Movement leader Abdel Wahid el-Nur should be supported in refusing to participate in sputtering peace talks in Doha, Qatar. The highly popular el-Nur has long refused, insisting that the establishment of security in Darfur is a non-negotiable prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy. His views appear to have shifted in recent weeks, however—perhaps a sign that he is aware of growing disaffection among his followers, people who have suffered so many years in the camps and during that time increasingly lost faith in el-Nur’s ability to help them. Those pushing for participation in the talks (an implicit rebuke of el-Nur) created a sharp political fault line, and this appears to have precipitated the violence that killed at least five people in Kalma camp and three more in another camp.
Khartoum is now bent on arresting six camp leaders from Kalma in connection with the violence, but these men (and one woman) have taken refuge with UNAMID, which has instructions from New York not to turn them over to the regime’s security forces. This is for good reason, since they will almost certainly be tortured, detained indefinitely, or perhaps executed (the fate of many arrested or detained in Darfur). The U.N. has boxed itself in by (rightly) insisting on a number of conditions to ensure a fair administration of legal justice for the individuals they are now protecting, insisting that they will release those in custody only if Khartoum “[brings] them to trial in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.” But of course none of this is remotely possible in the regime’s judicial system. So Khartoum has adamantly declared that such U.N. conditions are an infringement upon its national sovereignty, i.e., the right to torture, imprison, and execute as it wishes. Either the U.N. backs down—a disaster on many counts, not least in destroying their almost nonexistent credibility among Darfuris—or Khartoum will use the incident to make a decisive change in UNAMID’s status, a process well underway in any event. With regime backing, the governor of South Darfur has (according to a Khartoum newspaper report) threatened to “take the wanted men ‘by force if UNAMID does not hand them over.’” UNAMID, we should recall in assessing the implications of this extraordinarily brazen threat, was created by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 in July 2007, with Chapter 7 authority.
The threat by al-Bashir to expel UNAMID is real, and there is a good deal of evidence that we’ve been moving toward this moment of confrontation for many months.
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Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.