The UN Security Council has finally voted to end the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission (UNITAMS) in Sudan, which was formed at the request of the transitional government headed by former Prime Minister Dr Abdalla Hamdok in 2020 to provide support and assistance in the democratic transition process. The end of the UN mission came in light of Resolution 2715, according to which its operations in the country were ended by a vote of 14 countries; Russia abstained. The curtain has thus fallen on the most controversial UN mission in the relationship between Sudan and the international organisation, and it may open the door to the possibility of increased international pressure for other paths to be taken.
Sudan has been witnessing what is in effect a civil war for eight months, so what does the end of the UN mission mean? Does it constitute a shift in the way UN missions work in countries suffering from exceptional circumstances? Maintaining international peace and security — the aim of the UN as noted in its Charter, and despite criticism directed at the Security Council regarding some states dominating decision-making — requires member states, including Sudan, to abide by resolutions no matter how they might conflict with the inclinations of national governments, especially those that have not been elected or are illegitimate, such as coup regimes. The other dilemma, according to critics, is that the UN should be working to deal with security threats through Article 51 of the Charter, which dictates that the use of force must be sanctioned by the Security Council. However, the permanent members of the council are the main powers which were the victors of World War Two, and each has a veto over council decisions. This makes the Security Council weak by design because it cannot issue binding resolutions which conflict with the national interests of any or all of the permanent members.
UNITAMS faced a lot of criticism, especially its former head and Special Envoy of the Secretary General to Sudan, Volker Perthes, who was deeply involved in Sudan’s internal affairs. He was accused of acting beyond his remit, and faced a death treat earlier this year. In fact, the head of the country’s Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, called on the UN to consider him as persona non grata. The position of the political forces opposed to the military regime and the Islamist coalition was that they saw UNITAMS as an international guarantor of the democratic transition period, and this continued until after the outbreak of the fighting in April. The mission’s achievements did not tally with what it was supposedly set up to do, including supporting the transition, helping to protect the constitution, building peace and coordinating relief operations, as well other political and social roles.
As a mission whose work was related to political issues, it was affected by the political climate that followed the fall of Omar Al-Bashir’s government in 2019, and then the collapse of the state institutions due to the war this year. It did not fulfil any of its tasks due to the prevailing political turmoil, or the difficulty of the tasks themselves. Its procedures were renewed twice until it finally ended. The dispute between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces — the conflicting sides in the crisis — over the mission and its role complicated UNITAMS’ job and pushed it into the political conflict until it became part of the conflict itself. Its heavy presence in Sudanese affairs was the third party in the crisis, with Perthes at its centre.
Throughout Sudan’s history of international and humanitarian interventions at times of famine and seemingly endless wars, the various governments’ dealings with foreign state and non-state actors fluctuated between acceptance and absolute rejection under the pretext of national sovereignty. Following the outbreak of the conflict in Darfur, the largest joint peacekeeping force in the world, UNAMID, was deployed in Sudan. International pressures, not urgent local needs, have always justified the presence of UN missions on Sudanese territory.
In the current exceptional circumstance in what can be called the Khartoum war, the end rather than the suspension of a major UN mission working to maintain peace and support the democratic path was seen by one of the parties to the conflict as a diplomatic victory that it had long sought to implement, while the other, according to its leader’s statements, believes that it may prolong the fighting.
With negotiations between the two parties faltering and the collapse of the state institutions, it seems that there is a need for a peacekeeping force instead of a UN mission with political tasks. The effect of the war on Sudan’s regional and international position made it unrealistic to expect any UN mission to impose a desired reality beyond its capabilities. If Sudanese politicians — those who rely on external considerations for a solution, and those who cling to an internal solution based on their own agenda — could only understand that the situation requires a solution that ends the war with the national will bringing together the national efforts that the fighting has scattered. This is evidenced by the fact that the role of the UN mission is part of the international context of the Sudanese crisis, although the issue is complicated by the number of international and regional interventions taking place with connections that intersect ideologically and geopolitically with several axes and work collectively to deepen the crisis in Sudan. This has increased the suffering of the people without any party to the conflict caring.
An international presence will remain in Sudan, as the UN Secretary-General has appointed Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra as his personal envoy in Sudanese affairs. It is expected that the UN will expand its engagement with the Sudanese crisis by escalating to the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter with all its repercussions, which include direct intervention and the use of force, and a commission of inquiry into war crimes that cannot be avoided if the war continues at its current escalating pace. With the perpetrators of such crimes still at large, the Sudanese leadership and its military and civilian parties must prepare for a new phase of confrontation with international organisations, perhaps in an unprecedented way, which may be an armed confrontation, not a political or diplomatic one.