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Chairman Menendez Statement for Senate Record on Escalating Violence in Darfur Following UNAMID Dissolution

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted the following statement for the Senate Record in response to ongoing tensions and violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. The statement calls for the United Nations Security Council to reconsider its December 2020 move to dissolve the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which had a Chapter VII peacekeeping mandate allowing it to provide critical support and protection for vulnerable civilians. The Chairman’s statement also calls for a renewed bipartisan commitment to couple assistance for Sudan’s transition to democracy with efforts to bolster security in the region.

"Mr. President, I rise today to express my concern about increasing insecurity in the Darfur region of Sudan, and to call for immediate action to prevent further violence and protect civilians. 

As many of my colleagues will recall, in 2003 the regime of toppled Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir began a vicious and deadly campaign against his own citizens in the Darfur region.  Millions were driven from their homes, and hundreds of thousands killed and sometimes raped by militia armed and supported by the government.  In 2004 Congress and the State Department stood united in determining that what was taking place in Darfur was in fact, genocide.  Three years after that determination, the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) was established. 

UNAMID has not been perfect.  However, despite numerous obstacles the Government of Sudan put in place under al-Bashir to obstruct the mission’s ability to carry out its mandate to protect civilians, UNAMID has provided critical support for the people of Darfur. UNAMID policewomen have served as trusted confidants for Darfuri women to report sexual and domestic violence, and UNAMID soldiers have provided a protective presence, deterring violence against civilians in areas where they have been deployed. Overall, the presence of international forces has reinforced some sense of security and stability for the hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur who remain displaced, so that that they can continue to live full and dignified lives.  These efforts have come at significant cost both in blood and treasure: 64 UNAMID peacekeepers have been killed, and billions of dollars spent, in support of the mission. 

With the fall of Bashir, many had hoped that the situation in Darfur would improve.  However, those hopes have yet to be fully realized.  Violence in West Darfur in late December of 2019 killed dozens and displaced an estimated 40,000 people.  In January 2020, two separate violent incidents in North Darfur were additional indicators that all was not well in the region, as were deadly attacks on internally displaced camps in July.  In January of this year, communal clashes in West and South Darfur resulted in the death of over 250 people and the displacement of over 100,000. These episodes raise the specter of a return to the catastrophic and genocidal violence that engulfed the region in 2003. But instead of redoubling its commitment to Darfur’s long-suffering people at this critical time, the international community risks abandoning them.

This past December, the United Nations Security Council made the decision to dissolve UNAMID. Although it will retain a presence in the region until it completes its full drawdown at the end of June 2021, UNAMID’s core civilian protection functions have now ceased. UNAMID is to be replaced by United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, or UNITAMS.  UNITAMS is a Sudan-wide political mission that is aimed at assisting with the transition.  I agree that such a mission is needed to ensure that Sudan’s transition to democracy is successful.  However, supporting the transition and protecting vulnerable civilians are not mutually exclusive, and the mandate for UNITAMS could have included both.  Unfortunately, Sudan’s transitional government refused to accept this course of action, and UNITAMS therefore lacks UNAMID’s Chapter VII authorities to deploy military tools in service of civilian protection and the advancement of peace in Darfur. Officials in the transitional government at the highest levels have argued that a Chapter VII mission is not necessary because the security situation in Darfur has improved; that many of the warring parties in Darfur have made peace with the Government of Sudan through the Juba Peace Agreement; that Bashir’s genocidal regime, which bore primary responsibility for the crisis in the region, is no longer in power; and that the transitional government is implementing a security plan for Darfur that will adequately protect civilians.

I do not share this assessment of the situation in Darfur, and recent clashes, as well earlier rounds of violence that have plagued Darfur since Sudan’s transition began in 2019, demonstrate that the region remains fragile.  Communal tensions over land, water, and political power persist, and Darfur is awash in weapons. The Government’s program to provide security to the region, including through its National Plan for Civilian Protection, has yet to be adequately fleshed out let alone implemented. Just last week, the UNAMID team site at Saraf Umrah that was  transferred to the Sudanese government on January 21, was looted by unnamed assailants, and all of the buildings on the site were reportedly destroyed, despite the government’s prior commitment to secure it. The Juba Peace Agreement, while promising, has not been endorsed by all of Darfur’s warring parties. And most worryingly, those likely to be charged with protecting civilians in Darfur, including components of the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, are the same actors that for years worked to implement Bashir’s campaign of terror and genocide in the region.

In this context, the United Nations Security Council’s ill-timed and poorly conceived decision to end UNAMID’s mandate – facilitated by the Trump administration’s lack of a well thought out diplomatic strategy and approach – and rapidly drawdown the mission exposes the Darfuri people to significant harm.  It could derail Sudan’s civilian-led transition to democracy, resulting in another round of instability Sudan and the broader region can ill afford. That is why in February 2020, I led a group of Senators in writing to the Trump administration urging it to ensure that the UN maintain a mission in Darfur with an adequate number of peacekeeping troops operating under a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians from violence, and that is why I am raising the alarm again here today.  The United States, along with its international partners, must work rapidly to put in place mechanisms that can protect Darfur’s civilians until such a time that Sudan’s transitional government is capable of providing security to the region.

Fortunately, the plight of Darfur has long attracted the bipartisan support of Congress and multiple administrations. At this critical time, it is vital that our commitment remain steadfast. I hope to work with the Biden administration to urgently address the security vacuum created by UNAMID’s drawdown, and call upon Secretary of State Blinken and United Nations Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield to take urgent steps.

First, we must use our voice and vote at the UNSC to encourage a temporary reauthorization of UNAMID so that it can carry out critical protection of civilian functions, at the very least until it fully draws down in June 2021. Second, we must work actively at the UNSC to strengthen the mandate of the UNITAMS so that it includes robust civilian protection mechanisms. Third, we should press Sudan’s civilian-led transitional government to develop  a credible  civilian protection plan in Darfur that does not, I repeat does NOT involve the RSF or any other forces implicated in violence in Darfur.  Fourth, the Administration should carefully monitor progress on civilian protection in Darfur, and provide support where necessary, including by considering how much of the recently appropriated $700 million for Sudan needs to be set aside to support civilian security in Darfur.  Fifth, we must make clear to all that sustainable peace in Darfur requires justice and accountability for past atrocities, no matter how powerful the people implicated. 

Mr. President, I strongly support a closer bilateral relationship with Sudan and will continue, as I have for the past two years, to do what I can to ensure the United States does its part to see to it that Sudan’s civilian-led transition to democracy is successful.  We have what may be a once in a generation opportunity. A healthy political transition at the national level will only aid the cause of peace in Darfur, and vice versa.

Mr. President, the situation in Darfur requires our urgent and considered attention. Let us continue our strong tradition of bipartisan support for the long-suffering people of Sudan at this critical time.  

I yield the floor."