Darfur: colonised by ‘peacekeepers’

The new 26,000-strong UN force being sent to the war-torn western province of Sudan is likely to stir up further tensions rather than deliver peace.

Philip Cunliffe

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The United Nations (UN) Security Council yesterday passed resolution 1769. It establishes another peacekeeping mission in Sudan, UNAMID, for Sudan’s war-torn western province of Darfur. With a total authorised strength of 26,000, UNAMID is expected to be the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world by next year. What’s more, UNAMID peacekeepers will deploy under the terms of ‘Chapter VII’ of the UN Charter, which legally entitles them to use force beyond self-defence. In other words, this will not be a neutral, monitoring contingent, but a militarised force and de facto protagonist in Darfur’s conflict.

The creation of UNAMID comes on top of the two other peacekeeping missions already in Sudan: the 7,000-strong African Union force deployed in Darfur, and the 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping force policing a ceasefire in south Sudan since 2005 (UNMIS). In June this year, the European Union also began planning its own 3,000-strong peacekeeping operation to police the border between Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic. Further south, Africa is already host to the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation, the 18,000-strong MONUC operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are some further 36,000-odd UN peacekeepers scattered across the continent (see the table below). In light of all these multinational forces descending on Sudan and already stationed across Africa, it is unsurprising that some analysts have pointedly asked whether Africa is in the process of being ‘re-colonised’ by the UN (1). The reality is more complex, however, though no less disturbing.

The UN’s latest peacekeeping plan for Darfur is designed to quell the strife that erupted in the province in 2003, when local rebels took up arms against the central government in Khartoum. The conflict is complex, with a variety of interlocking factions and ethnic groups whose political antagonisms and struggle with the central government gird longstanding rivalries over the region’s depleted resources (2). But it is not only regional politics and economics that represent a barrier to peace – the international community’s involvement in the conflict has served to prolong and escalate the bloodshed.

Evading the bloody involution of the American crusade to liberate Iraq, a swathe of Western politicians, human rights groups and liberal intellectuals have tried collectively to regroup around Darfur (3). Dictated by a desire to cohere the agenda of international interventionism, these groups have systematically portrayed the conflict in Darfur as a genocide launched by racist, fanatical ‘Arabs’ against victimised ‘Africans’ (4). For the incoming governments of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy in Britain and France, a joint focus on Darfur – complete with a promise to visit the refugee camps – has helped to dissociate them from the disaster of Iraq, while simultaneously affirming their moral authority to dictate affairs around the globe (5).

This skewed presentation of the conflict has warped its dynamics, by offering Darfuri rebels the tantalising prospect that they could opportunistically convert international sympathy into military intervention in their favour. According to a State Department official a few years back, the rebels ‘let the village burnings go on, let the killing go on, because the more international pressure that’s brought to bear on Khartoum, the stronger their position grows’ (6). Transfixed by the moral gaze of the international community, the Sudan Liberation Movement splintered, with various factions jostling for advantage and demanding international guarantees and troops, thereby wrecking last year’s peace negotiations (7). One African analyst described the background to the earlier 2005 peace negotiations: ‘Unlike many liberation movements in Africa, which had to depend on the people to build and plan with them, these rebels have too many willing regional and international actors indulging their delusions of grandeur.’ (8) If this were not enough, the intense international pressure on Khartoum also encouraged other rebels – this time in eastern Sudan – to renew their war against Khartoum, further destabilising Africa’s largest country (9).

Peace negotiations are supposed to restart before the deployment of the new UN force. But given that the insertion of this new force into Darfur is the logical extension of the previous internationalisation of the conflict, there is no reason to think that the UN presence will not further upset the local balance of forces, as each belligerent reorganises their strategy around the new military presence on the ground, with rebel factions potentially goading the UN into military action on their behalf.

The more that African governments – or indeed would-be revolutionary movements – cede their own authority to a shimmering and remote international community, the more that ordinary Africans’ lives are beholden to more distant and unaccountable powers in place of their own governments. Under the auspices of the UN, wars are no longer treated as political affairs, with peace founded on Africans’ own efforts, but as ‘conflict management’ activities to be administered by bureaucrats and jet-setting international diplomats.

Although the substance of political independence in Africa is undoubtedly being eroded by the relentless expansion of peacekeeping, the UN is much too ramshackle to represent anything like a real empire. The growing intrusiveness of the international community represents not colonialism but a new form of international hegemony – albeit one that is no less alarming and in many ways more insidious. Under colonialism, by annexing and conquering territories, imperialist powers assumed direct political responsibility for their colonies – a system that at least had the benefit of making clear who was oppressing whom. Today, the international community preaches human rights instead of racial supremacy, and it compromises a variety of actors: states, state-sponsored mega-NGOs, the UN and other international and regional organisations.

Not only are there no clear lines of institutional accountability in this decentralised network – there is also no single agent that is willing to be held responsible for particular outcomes. This moralised multilateralism lends itself to passing the buck: states blame the UN, the UN blames states, and both blame Africans for their corruption and backwardness… In these circumstances, the scrambling of political responsibilities is usually resolved by greater coercion: sanctions, Security Council resolutions and punitive international laws. And, of course, by the deployment of more and more peacekeepers, more heavily armed. This new international system can only bode badly for Sudan and Africa as a whole.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here; buy the book from Amazon here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said Darfur has been damned by pity, and that saving Darfur has become Hollywood actors’ burden. Philip Cunliffe said Bernard-Henri Lévy’s report from Darfur shows that liberal lust for Western intervention survived Iraq, and that African Union troops are being enlisted in Darfur to give a respectable face to Western intervention. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) Martin Plaut, The UN’s all-pervasive role in Africa, BBC News 18 July 2007

(2) Mahmood Mamdani, The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(3) On the wide variety of political groupings supporting intervention in Darfur, see Mahmood Mamdani, The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(4) Mahmood Mamdani, The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency, London Review of Books, 8 March 2007

(5) BBC News, Brown and Sarkozy vow Darfur trip, 20 July 2007

(6) Cited in Roberto Belloni, ‘The trouble with humanitarianism’, Review of International Studies, 33:3, July 2007, p461

(7) Alex de Waal, I will not sign, London Review of Books, 30 November 2006

(8) Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, cited in Alex de Waal, I will not sign, London Review of Books, 30 November 2006

(9) Mark Doyle, Sudan’s interlocking wars, BBC News, 10 May 2006

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