“Who Speaks for the UN on Darfur?” The Role of Nigeria’s Ibrahim Gambari

Dissent Magazine (on-line) August 25, 2010
http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=244

By Eric Reeves

Darfur has never been so vulnerable to a collapse of humanitarian operations, never so insecure, and never so unprotected by the peacekeeping force that the UN has deployed. As the recent events at Kalma camp in South Darfur demonstrate, now is perhaps the last moment for decisive leadership on the part of the peacekeeping force in Darfur, known as UNAMID. Kalma camp—one of the largest and most politicized of Darfur’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps—has been the focus of a three-week standoff that has seen a complete shutdown of humanitarian access and a brutal dispersal of much of this population of some 100,000 civilians to other camps and nearby villages. Further, an acute challenge to UN authority has been posed by officials of the National Congress Party regime in Khartoum, which has demanded that UNAMID surrender six Kalma IDPs who sought sanctuary at a UNAMID police center a month ago following an outbreak of violence.

As I noted in my most recent post (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=235 ) on this politically fraught situation, there is a standoff: so far the UN has refused to yield to Khartoum’s demand, insisting that the regime guarantee that it will “[bring the six IDPs] to trial in accordance with international standards of justice” (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article35871 ). Since such “standards of justice” prevail nowhere in northern Sudan—and least of all in Darfur—the UN has effectively boxed itself in. For Khartoum is adamant about the turnover of these IDPs, and its actions over the past two weeks have been ever more ominous. More than half the camp, some 50,000 people, has now fled in fear, many encountering violence (http://www.radiodabanga.org/node/3501 ). For its part, the regime has announced plans to dismantle the camp and remove the remaining IDPs to new (and of course unconstructed) camps.

So who is the voice of the UN in this crisis? Who is in charge of UNAMID? Who will make the final decision about whether or not to hand over the six IDPs purported to be politically responsible for violence in Kalma (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=235 )? Who will presume to weigh the consequences of such a turnover to Khartoum’s security officials, whose treatment of these people, we may be sure, will be brutal and not at all concerned with “fairness and due process of law”? Negotiations over a stand-down continue, but without a demonstration of UN leadership that has been nowhere in evidence in Darfur over the past six years, capitulation seems inevitable. Certainly all actors are aware that in the event of UN acquiescence, whichever local officials are nominally in charge of receiving the six IDPs, these civilians will certainly be turned over immediately to Military Intelligence, the most powerful regime presence in Darfur.

But who will bear responsibility for any capitulation? Ultimately, the decision is being made by the UN Secretariat in New York, with advice coming from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). On the ground, however, the titular leader of UNAMID is Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria—the “Joint Special Representative of the UN and the African League to UNAMID” (UNAMID itself is an unprecedented and hopelessly compromised “hybrid” of the UN and AU). We don’t know precisely what Gambari has said in his negotiations with Khartoum’s officials, or how much leeway New York has given him in these talks. But we do have an extraordinary dispatch from The Sudan Tribune, which reports that Gambari threatened the IDPs over one of Khartoum’s demands in negotiations:

"In an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune Wednesday [August 11, 2010], the five sheiks and a woman said the Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari met [them in the] presence of a government delegation led by state minister for humanitarian affairs Mutrif Sideeg. According to the IDP representatives in the troubled camp, Gambari asked them to accept the presence of joint patrols formed by the Sudanese government and the hybrid peacekeeping mission. ‘If you refuse to accept this deal I will have no choice but to hand you over to the Sudanese authorities,’ Gambari told them according to the six representatives who are still in the UNAMID policing center inside the camp." (August 12, 2010, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article35928 )

If this report is accurate, Gambari is clearly not concerned with bringing these IDP representatives “to trial in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.” He is trying to strong-arm acutely vulnerable civilians into accepting what is completely unacceptable, given Kalma’s troubled history. For this is the camp where in August 2008 Khartoum’s security forces attempted a forceful entry and in the process opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing at least thirty-two and injuring many more (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122065894281205691.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ). Permission to mount “joint patrols” inside Kalma by these same murderous security forces is Khartoum’s demand and it has nothing to do with justice or protection of civilians; it is about military control.

Gambari denies having made such a threat, and is backed by the UN spokesman in New York (on what basis other than Gambari’s word is unclear). But we know that Gambari had already lost the confidence of most Darfuris, and the number of disaffected is now growing rapidly. Their chief criticism is that Gambari is entirely too close to the regime, too willing to be a chum to Khartoum’s génocidaires. And for those who have followed Gambari’s career, especially his stint as UN ambassador to Burma, this is hardly surprising.

GAMBARI IN BURMA

Criticism from human rights groups, Burma advocacy groups, and even UN officials has been scathing, and focuses primarily on Gambari’s record of accommodating the country’s brutal junta in the name of “engagement,” even as he left his position without any tangible results. Indeed, during his tenure “the number of political prisoners in Burma almost doubled and more than 130,000 people were forced from their homes in an ethnic cleansing campaign” (I’m indebted here to an excellent overview of Gambari in Burma by Seyward Darby at http://www.tnr.com/article/world/gullible-gambari ). The house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel peace laureate, was extended shortly after Gambari’s first meeting with the junta (Suu Kyi eventually refused even to meet with Gambari). When the junta blocked international humanitarian assistance following Cyclone Nargis (May 2008), Gambari was not even on the scene.

Revealingly—and all too telling as we look to Darfur—Gambari “did not meet with ethnic [Burmese] opposition groups such as the Karen.” As Darby notes, citing a UN insider, “In terms of the Myanmar political situation, he wasn’t vastly interested. [ ] He didn’t have a great command of detail.” Gambari’s attitude toward democracy and rule of law was on full display when he celebrated a constitution drawn up by the junta—one that didn’t bother to consult with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which had won the 1990 election in a landslide. By way of explanation, Gambari kept speaking about his mission as a “process, not an event”; but in the end the process was vacuous. As David Mathieson, Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Darby, “He had all these meetings and nothing to show for it.”

Nor was Burma was Gambari’s first foray into politics or in dealing with a repressive regime, as Darby notes in writing about the diplomat’s previous political career in his native Nigeria:

"[Gambari’s] role in Nigeria angered, and continues to anger, many human rights activists. He served as the country’s UN ambassador under the repressive regime of President Sani Abacha. During Gambari’s tenure, the government executed democracy advocate Ken Siro Wiwa. Gambari publicly referred to Siro Wiwa as a ‘common criminal’ and didn’t condemn his execution. He later explained that he was afraid the international community would place sanctions on Nigeria."

So much for speaking truth to power.

GAMBARI IN DARFUR

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Gambari in December 2009 to be the UN/African Union Joint Special Representative to UNAMID. He replaced the bombastic and hopelessly incompetent Rodolphe Adada, who declared at the end of his foreshortened tenure:

“I have achieved results” in Darfur. [ ] “There is no more fighting proper on the ground.’ ‘Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur…. Call it what you will but this is what is happening in Darfur—a lot of banditry, carjacking, attacks on houses.” (http://inform.com/politics/darfur-war-departing-chief-646947a )

Such breathtaking arrogance, such a hopelessly inaccurate assessment, was the perfect measure of Gambari’s predecessor. But perhaps persuaded out of ignorance that Adada was right, Gambari was not content with his UNAMID mandate; he has insistently tried to insert himself into the peace process in Doha (Qatar), attempting to displace the current UN/Africa Union Chief Mediator for Darfur peace talks, Djibril Bassolé of Burkina Faso (apparently Gambari enjoys the support of the AU Peace and Security Council, and Chairman Jean Ping in particular). Gambari’s self-assertion has already further confused a thoroughly muddled negotiating process.

But it is in his supposedly primary role as UN special representative to the UN/African UN peace support operation that Gambari has most dismayingly distinguished himself, and in the process extended the disgrace of the UN in responding to Darfur’s catastrophe. For Gambari has again fashioned a policy of accommodation that rewards a brutal regime, even as this regime violates UN Security Council demands as well as a range of agreements with UNAMID itself (which was authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769, July 2007).

For example, Resolution 1591 (March 2005) imposes a total ban on offensive military flights; yet bombing attacks against both civilians and rebel targets have continued relentlessly for more than five years (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/07/19/un-strengthen-civilian-protection-... ). UNAMID is, in turn, barred from investigating the sites of reported bombings. Gambari says nothing.

UNAMID negotiated with Khartoum a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) in February 2008, guaranteeing UNAMID forces, including aerial assets, unfettered access and freedom of movement. In fact, UNAMID is squeezed ever more tightly in its movements, and is denied all access to many locations, including the populous eastern Jebel Marra region, where perhaps 100,000 people have been suffering without any humanitarian assistance or UNAMID protection since early February. Gambari merely pleads weakly and infrequently for the regime to relent.

Tactical helicopters from Ethiopia arrived in Darfur in February, but have still not been utilized except in training missions because of the regime’s objections, a clear violation of both the SOFA and the terms of Resolution 1769. An exceptionally important “force multiplier” has been completely undercut by these actions. Even non-military helicopters are often grounded or delayed; one such delay recently resulted in the failure to effect a timely medical evacuation from an ambush site, and two UNAMID soldiers bled to death on the scene. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declares in his most recent report on UNAMID (July 14, 2010) that this “must never happen again” (http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,,COUNTRYREP,SDN,,4c4697fe2,0.html ), but there had been no change in the regime’s behavior. Instead, humiliation and obstruction of UNAMID have only increased, with no meaningful pushback from Gambari.

So the issue that may determine UNAMID’s future in Darfur takes the form of a question: will Special Joint Representative Gambari find an effective voice in dealing with the ruthless ambitions of the regime in Khartoum? Or will we continue to hear from him what we have from all UN officials dispatched to Darfur—words of appeasement, fear, and expediency? I am reminded yet again of the ominous words from an exceptionally well-informed UN insider: “It’s not a question of if, but when, UNAMID is forced to withdraw from Darfur.” And from such withdrawal it is but a short step to the spectacle of mass evacuation by humanitarian organizations that remain only because of the highly tenuous security afforded by the presence of UNAMID. Either the UN and the rest of the international community find their voices, and make clear that they will no longer accept the abuse and restriction of a force with UN auspices, Chapter 7 authority, and critical humanitarian protection responsibilities—or unimaginable human destruction and suffering are just over the horizon.

[Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]