Security Council Approved A New Peacekeeping Mission in Abyei. Now Comes the Hard Part

On June 27, Security Council Resolution 1990 established the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) for a period of six months.  The Ethiopian force is tasked with monitoring and verifying the demilitarization of Abyei and redeployment of all forces other than UNIFSA and the Abyei Police Service. UNIFSA is authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to use force if necessary to protect UN staff and humanitarian personnel, and to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.

The peacekeepers are also charged with facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid and assisting the Abyei Police Service in protecting the region’s oil infrastructure.  According to Reuters, one diplomat said that UNIFSA may also take on the task of monitoring the border between the two countries, originally a job slated for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.  UNIFSA is the third UN peacekeeping operation in the two Sudans, with a fourth— the post-independence UN Mission for South Sudan (UNMISS)—  just beginning.

The establishment of UNIFSA comes after the governments of the two Sudans reached an agreement in Addis Ababa on June 20 to withdraw all of their forces from Abyei and allow the deployment of an Ethiopian peacekeeping force.  In May, southern forces attacked an UNIMS convoy escorting Sudanese Armed Forces elements of Joint Integrated Units in Abyei.  In its Presidential Statement of May 22, the Security Council condemned these attacks as well as the aggressive reaction of Khartoum, in which government forces took military control of the region, attacking civilians and burning their homes.  It also demanded the withdraw of all military elements from the area.

In addition, after government forces moved in, the Security Council expressed concern at the sudden influx of thousands of Misseriya into Abyei town “that could force significant changes in the ethnic composition of the area.”  How this might actually play out on the ground remains to be seen and will have repercussions on prospects for peace and reconciliation.  Because Misseriya migration routes run through Abyei, it would not be entirely accurate to interpret their flight to the region as simply the moving of a population from their home to another place.  Migration has been and will continue to be a challenge in terms of peacekeeping and peace building, and UNIFSA will have to navigate these complexities as it pursues demilitarization of Abyei.

The mission, then, certainly has its work cut out for it. It will have to oversee the redeployment of both northern and southern forces, and it is not entirely clear what this will mean for the Joint Integrated Units; whether or not they will be split up, and where redeployed forces will be redeployed to.  Meanwhile, UNMIS personnel have been targeted in other parts of Southern Kordofan, and in the Blue Nile, in a resurgence of conflict in those areas.  According to Julie Flint, the Nuba Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army has claimed that in the recent upsurge 400,000 people have been displaced and 3,000 killed or disappeared; and two confidential UNMIS reports obtained by The Observer detail the violence and accuse Khartoum of very serious crimes.  The intensification of this conflict will undoubtedly make UNIFSA’s work more difficult, particularly if problems arise in trying to coordinate with UNMIS.

The resolution establishing UNIFSA was passed unanimously by the Security Council, with no abstentions.  If UNIFSA is to be even relatively successful, Security Council members will have to continue to demonstrate resolve and respond with assertive and unified stances.  The Security Council will have to take the Ethiopian leadership very seriously, keep an ear to the ground, and listen to what the needs of the mission are.  They have given UNIFSA a strong and extensive mandate, now they will have to back the mission, and others in the region, in rhetoric and resources.  Failure to do so will not only put the demilitarization of Abyei at risk, but will endanger the lives of UN personnel, humanitarian workers, and civilians.