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Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Report 105 / Africa

To Save Darfur

The international strategy for dealing with the Darfur crisis primarily through the small (7,000 troops) African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) is at a dead end. AMIS credibility is at an all-time low, with the ceasefire it could never monitor properly in tatters.

Executive Summary

The international strategy for dealing with the Darfur crisis primarily through the small (7,000 troops) African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) is at a dead end. AMIS credibility is at an all-time low, with the ceasefire it could never monitor properly in tatters. In the face of this, the international community is backing away from meaningful action. The African Union (AU) yielded to Khartoum’s pressure on 10 March 2006 and did not ask the UN to put into Darfur the stronger international force that is needed. If the tragedy of the past three years is not to be compounded, the AU and its partners must address the growing regional crisis by getting more troops with greater mobility and firepower on the ground at once and rapidly transforming AMIS into a larger, stronger UN peacekeeping mission with a robust mandate focused on civilian protection.

The battlefield now extends into eastern Chad, and the escalating proxy war between Sudan and Chad threatens to produce a new humanitarian catastrophe on both sides of the border. Inside Darfur humanitarian access is at its lowest in two years, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence, and political talks are stalled. Fighting is most intense and civilians are at greatest risk in West Darfur along the Chad-Sudan border, where a major invasion by Chadian rebels appears imminent, and in southern Darfur in the Tawila-Graida corridor.

The Sudanese government bears primary responsibility for the deteriorating situation. It is still making little effort to stabilise matters, rein in militias or secure roads from bandits and rogue elements. In violation of numerous commitments, it still uses offensive air power, supports militias and stokes inter-communal violence as part of its counter-insurgency campaign. Security elements from Khartoum are supporting the well-armed Chadian rebels in Western Darfur, while President Deby in N’djamena scrambles to bolster his position by reaching out in turn to the Darfur rebels. A failed coup attempt against Deby on 15 March further underscored the fragility of the Chadian regime. Clashes in eastern Chad between Sudan-backed insurgents and Deby loyalists would not only have drastic consequences for civilians of both countries but could also lead to the complete breakdown of peace talks in Abuja and reignite all-out war in Darfur. But the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the principal rebel group, has increased its ceasefire violations over the past six months, and some elements are more committed to the battlefield than to the Abuja talks. Insurgent dissension plays into Khartoum’s hands and contributes to growing lawlessness.

The AU failed earlier this month to take the timely and decisive action required to reverse these trends. Instead it extended the AMIS mandate to 30 September 2006, neglected to amend it for better protection of civilians and made no provision for either more African or UN troops to come into Darfur to stabilise the situation over the next half-year. While it repeated its previous acceptance in principle that AMIS would eventually have to be replaced by blue helmets, if only because donors’ willingness to subsidise it is running out, it appeared impressed by Khartoum’s complaint that anything other than an African mission would amount to colonialism and its threat that Darfur would become a “graveyard” for any multinational force sent without its agreement.

The AU did usefully commit to making a stronger diplomatic push to deliver an enhanced ceasefire and a peace agreement at the Abuja talks in the next six weeks. It will be important for the U.S., the European Union (EU) and the UN to follow up consultations held in Brussels in advance of that decision and lend their full weight to the effort. But it would be a mistake to delay strengthening international forces on the ground in the belief that such agreements – as desirable as they would be – would remove the need for them. Any agreements would be fragile, requiring proof of goodwill by the parties, vulnerable to multiple spoilers and unlikely to forestall the looming border conflict, which has its own dynamics.

The U.S., the EU and others need, therefore, to act without delay on three fronts to:

  • provide the necessary financial and technical assistance to the AU through at least September 2006, and to help AMIS implement the key recommendations for internal improvements outlined in the December 2005 Joint Assessment Mission report and affirmed by the AU on 10 March;
     
  • do the heavy diplomatic lifting to persuade the AU and the UN Security Council to authorise the immediate deployment of a stabilisation force, ideally some 5,000-strong, as part of a phased transition to a UN mission to be completed in October 2006, to focus on monitoring the Chad-Sudan border and deterring major cross-border attacks, and on bolstering AMIS’s ability to protect civilians in the Tawila-Graida corridor; and
     
  • persuade the Security Council to authorise immediate planning for a UN peacekeeping force of at least double the present size of AMIS, equipped to fulfil a more serious military mission, provided with an appropriately stronger mandate, and ready to take over full responsibility on 1 October 2006.

This is not ideal. Crisis Group has long contended that because AMIS has reached the outer limits of its competence, and a UN mission authorised today would not be fully ready to take over from it for some six months, a distinct and separate multinational force should be sent to Darfur to bridge that gap and help stabilise the immediate situation. We have argued, and continue to believe, that NATO would be best from a practical military point of view. Unfortunately, political opposition to this in Khartoum, within the AU and even perhaps within the Atlantic Alliance itself, means it is not achievable at this time.

What we now propose, therefore, is a compromise driven by the urgent need for a more robust force in Darfur. A militarily capable UN member state – France seems most promising since it already has troops and aircraft in the area – should offer to the Security Council to go now to Darfur, wearing blue helmets, as the lead nation in the first phase of the incoming UN mission. It could be joined from the outset by forces from one or two other militarily capable UN members (and would probably need to be if the desirable target of around 5,000 personnel for this force is to be achieved). This stabilisation force would be a self-contained, separately commanded UN mission with identified functional or geographic divisions of responsibility that would work beside AMIS and through a liaison unit at its headquarters until arrangements were in place for a 1 October transition to the full UN mission. That full mission would need to be recruited from the best AMIS elements as well as a wider circle of Asian and other member states – no easy task at a time when several large UN peacekeeping missions in Africa and elsewhere have exhausted the capabilities of many contribution candidates.

The U.S. and other NATO states should respond generously and quickly to requests from it or AMIS to provide logistical help as well as regular access to satellite imagery, air mobility and close air support, especially to deter or react to egregious movements of men or heavy weapons in the border area.

The accord signed on 10 February 2006 in Tripoli by the presidents of Chad and Sudan accepted the need for a border monitoring force. The AU and the Security Council should build on this by passing the necessary resolutions. Simultaneously, planning should begin for the handover from AMIS to a Chapter VII UN peace-support operation and money be identified to guarantee that AMIS can remain in place until this happens. At the same time, the AU should continue to play a lead role at Abuja, while the wider international community pursues accountability by enforcing the UN sanctions regime and facilitating the work of human rights monitoring mechanisms and the International Criminal Court (ICC). A lasting solution to the Darfur conflict can only come with a three-part strategy to produce physical security, an inclusive political agreement and an end to impunity.

The consequences if these steps are not taken are all too easy to foresee: tens of thousands more lives lost, spill-over of the conflict into Chad and proxy wars that destabilise a wide swathe of Africa.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 March 2006

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.