UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations and the African Union are recommending a 44 percent cut in the number of peacekeeping troops in their joint force in Sudan's troubled Darfur region and a 30 percent reduction in the international police force, a move certain to be welcomed by the United States which is seeking major cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget.
Assistant Secretary-General El-Ghassim Wane presented the proposals to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday following a review of the 17,000-strong U.N.-AU force known as UNAMID that costs over $1 billion annually.
But Human Rights Watch warned that the planned cuts risk leaving civilians in Darfur without much-needed protection in the face of continuing violence.
Ethnic Africans in Sudan's vast western region of Darfur rebelled in 2003, accusing the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes known as the janjaweed and unleashing them on civilian populations — a charge the government denies.
Wane said a decade has passed since the council decided to deploy UNAMID to help protect civilians, and the review found that over the past three years the conflict that led to the peacekeeping mission "has markedly changed."
He said a successful military campaign by the government has reduced the rebellion to "a small presence" of Sudan Liberation Army forces loyal to founder Abdul Wahid Elnur in western Jebel Marra. The number of security incidents between rival communities also decreased through efforts by the government and community leaders, Wane said.
He noted that armed groups attempted to reassert their military presence in North Darfur and East Darfur in late May and early June "but remained unable to conduct sustained military operations in the face of the government of Sudan's military dominance."
But Human Rights Watch's senior Africa director Daniel Bekele said the planned cuts "reflect a false narrative about Darfur's war ending."
"There is no reason to believe that government attacks on civilians and other abuses have ended since the same security forces remain in place," he said. "They have never been prosecuted for their crimes and can't be relied on to protect civilians."
On the political front, Wane said progress has also been made. He pointed to the conclusion of a national dialogue and the inclusion of a Darfur peace document in the constitution.
But he said 2.7 million people remain displaced and "a number of crucial grievances at the origin of the conflict and key issues related to its aftermath still need to be addressed."
He cited the lack of security especially outside state capitals, disputes over land and other resources, the prevalence of weapons and crime, and the effectiveness of institutions dealing with the rule of law.
At present, Wane said UNAMID is dealing with two sets of issues: instability in Jebel Marra and the displacement of civilians in that area, and inter-communal violence.
The U.N.-AU review concluded that most areas of Darfur require greater peace-building efforts while Jebel Marra and its vicinity still need peacekeeping troops to deal with insecurity that has kept thousands of displaced people from returning home, he said.
In light of the changed circumstances, Wane said the U.N. and AU recommended that the number of soldiers be cut from 16 battalions to 8 battalions, with a ceiling of 8,735 troops, which would represent a 44 percent reduction. They also recommended that the police ceiling be lowered from 3,403 officers to 2,360 officers, a 30 percent cut.
Wane stressed the review's call for greater focus on addressing the underlying causes of the conflict "and to create peace dividends for the population in Darfur."
UNAMID's mandate must be renewed by the end of June and diplomats said the cuts are expected to be included in the resolution with a revised mandate renewing it.
The Trump administration is seeking to cut $1 billion from the total U.N. peacekeeping budget and has been reviewing all 16 missions as their mandates come up for renewal.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in April that the United States wants to see "proof" from Sudan's government — not more words — that it is doing far more to help people in Darfur by meeting benchmarks to ensure peace, protect civilians and prevent violence.
Wane said the proposed revisions to UNAMID are "an important milestone toward the completion of its mandate."
But he also stressed that the plan requires the government's "full support and cooperation ... including to ensure that there is no security vacuum in areas vacated by UNAMID."