UN renews Darfur peacekeeping mandate, US abstains

The UN Security Council renewed the mandate for peacekeepers in Darfur on Thursday in a resolution that Washington criticised for raising concerns about moves to indict Sudan’s president for genocide.

Most Western powers accepted wording that makes clear the council would be willing to discuss freezing any International Criminal Court indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide in the interest of peace in Darfur.

Of the 15 council members, 14 voted for the resolution. Washington rejected the section on the ICC and abstained.

Five years of war have brought humanitarian disaster to the western Sudanese region, and Darfur campaigners accuse the world of failing to provide helicopters and other badly needed support for the struggling peacekeeping mission there.

Washington backed the basic point of the resolution to extend the mission through July 2009, but criticised a key paragraph in the British-drafted text added to accommodate African concerns about the ICC.

”The United States abstained from the vote because language added to the resolution would send the wrong signal to Sudanese President [al-]Bashir and undermine efforts to bring him and others to justice,” said US Deputy Ambassador Alejandro Wolff, who repeatedly referred to the ”genocide” in Darfur.

The US delegation did not veto the resolution, which would have left the peacekeeping mission in a legal vacuum.

But council members had wanted a unanimous vote to show undivided support for peacekeepers in the line of fire in Darfur.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the US abstention, saying it was a vote against ”get out of jail free card” for al-Bashir.

Britain’s UN ambassador John Sawers, who led negotiations on the resolution, said he regretted the lack of unanimity. He also criticised linking the ICC to the troops’ mandate.

Chinese ambassador Wang Guangya said an ICC indictment of Bashir would ”seriously undermine” prospects for peace in Darfur and told reporters he would soon raise the issue of suspending any ICC prosecution in the council.

Sudan’s ambassador Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem also welcomed the adoption of the resolution and the suggestion that the council would discuss blocking any ICC moves on al-Bashir.

But he warned that an indictment of al-Bashir would have grave repercussions: ”No one will be immune from its catastrophic consequences, the whole of Sudan and the entire region.”

The vote was postponed several times as council members tried to persuade the Americans to vote yes. The vote took place hours before the mandate for UNAMID — the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force — was to expire at midnight (4am GMT on Friday).

Seven council members — South Africa, Libya, Russia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burkina Faso — had made a reference to the international court in the text a condition for voting for renewing the peacekeeping mandate.

International experts and UN officials estimate at last 200 000 people have died and 2,5-million been driven from their homes in Darfur since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing central government of neglect.

Khartoum says 10 000 people have been killed.

Security in Darfur, an area roughly the size of France where oil was discovered in 2005, has been deteriorating, making work ever harder for the world’s biggest aid operation. Tension has grown since the moves to indict al-Bashir.

The resolution expresses the council’s deep concern at the insecurity and the killing of aid workers. It also demands an end to all attacks on civilians ”including by aerial bombing”.

The rebels accuse the government of backing militia who have devastated Darfur villages and of carrying out bombing raids, charges Khartoum has denied. But the council also has the rebels in mind with its call for an end to all violence.

UNAMID has struggled to stabilize the situation, but has only about 9 500 troops and police out of a planned force of 26 000, mostly due to Khartoum’s demands and UN bureaucracy.

Adding to the force’s difficulties, troop contributing countries have failed to provide badly needed helicopters.

A report by aviation expert Thomas Withington, backed by 30 rights groups and think tanks, named countries which could easily provide the helicopters and said Nato members alone could supply 104 helicopters — six times the number needed.

The Security Council resolution calls on member states to provide the helicopters and everything else UNAMID needs.

The United Nations hopes to have 80% of the mission deployed by year-end.

The Non-Aligned Movement on Thursday joined the African Union and Arab League in expressing concern about the international court’s efforts to try Bashir. – Reuters

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Louis Charbonneau
Louis Charbonneau is a UN director

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