Ten years ago, stories about endemic violence in the Darfur region of Sudan often made headlines in the West. The conflict there continues sporadically but is all but forgotten today. This month, the Security Council agreed to slash the number of peacekeepers in the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, by almost half, with a view to closing the mission entirely in 2020. The decision created barely a ripple beyond the council.
Nonetheless, the drawdown of UNAMID potentially marks a turning point for U.N. peacekeeping operations. As I have previously noted, the mission is one of five big blue-helmet operations in volatile countries in Africa that now represent the bulk of the organization’s peacekeeping work. The others are in the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. All five face recurrent violence. None has a clear exit strategy. But Security Council members, notably the U.S., insist that these missions cannot continue indefinitely. So how will they end?
UNAMID has been a particular headache for the U.N. since it replaced a smaller African force in 2008. Strung out over a huge area, the mission struggled in the face of attacks by local forces and bandits. Its presence did not deter the Sudanese government from launching campaigns against local rebels, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Just last month, the mission reported that government forces were blocking its personnel from investigating a serious new outburst of violence.