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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

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 August 2019 at the United Nations in New York. Johannes Eisele/AFP
Q&A / Multilateral Diplomacy

Behind the Snapback Debate at the UN

In mid-August, Washington notified the UN Security Council that it was launching a 30-day process to “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Ashish Pradhan and Naysan Rafati explain what this step implies for the 2015 nuclear agreement.

What is snapback?

In July 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by passing Resolution 2231. According to the resolution’s Article 11, a “participant state” in the nuclear deal can, on the basis of “significant non-performance” by one of the agreement's other parties, initiate the restoration (or “snapback”) of six Security Council resolutions enacted against Iran between 2006 and 2010 that were terminated under 2231. Snapback would nullify an approaching sunset on restrictions on Iranian arms purchases and exports; strengthen strictures on Iran’s ballistic missile activity; and require Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment, among other measures. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, if the council has not passed a new resolution confirming the continuation of the sanctions terminations after 30 days, the sanctions immediately come back into force.

Didn’t the U.S. leave the JCPOA?

Yes, the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018. But Washington’s contention is that regardless of its exit, it is named in Resolution 2231’s text as a JCPOA participant, thereby giving it standing to use the UN snapback mechanism. The deal’s other parties (France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China, together known as the P4+1, as well as Iran) disagree, reacting to the U.S. claim to be initiating the snapback process by asserting that the U.S. had essentially forfeited its right to do so when it left the nuclear agreement.

Why is this debate happening now?

Resolution 2231 stipulates that UN restrictions on countries selling conventional arms to Iran, or buying Iranian weaponry, are to be lifted on 18 October 2020, five years from the JCPOA’s adoption day. Prior to invoking snapback, the U.S. put forward a resolution proposing that the measures remain in place “until the Security Council decides otherwise” – in other words, an indefinite extension. That resolution failed on 14 August, garnering just one supporting vote from the Dominican Republic. China and Russia voted against the draft, while the remaining eleven members of the council abstained. Rebuffed in its effort to recast the arms restrictions, the U.S. proceeded, as it had previously warned it would, to attempt to initiate the snapback mechanism on 20 August. 

What has happened since the U.S. initiated the snapback process?

The other Security Council members resoundingly rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s snapback trigger notification on 20 August, and since then the U.S. has experienced near-total isolation on the Council. A joint letter the same day from the JCPOA’s three European participants (France, Germany and the UK – known as the E3), saying the U.S. notification was not “effective”, dampened any momentum the Trump administration was hoping to create in favour of its manoeuvre. The E3’s rebuke instead empowered the vast majority of other Council members to also register their objections in writing, culminating in thirteen of the Council’s fifteen members outlining their refusal to recognise the U.S. claim to have standing. 

U.S. diplomats have since adopted a two-pronged approach at the UN. First, they have lobbied unsuccessfully for other members, including Indonesia and Niger – Security Council presidents in August and September, respectively – to table a resolution to continue the termination of UN sanctions as outlined in Resolution 2231, with the intent of vetoing that draft. While such a resolution is not necessary for snapback to be considered successful, some diplomats believed that Washington wanted to add a layer of procedural legitimacy to an otherwise thinly veiled attempt to put an end to the JCPOA. 

Secondly, U.S. diplomats have gone on the defensive in New York to avoid public isolation at the Council while also imposing costs on other members for declining to support snapback. In the days immediately following the snapback notification, the U.S. reportedly objected to the holding of several in-person Council meetings to avoid the possibility of a separate discussion aimed at giving the other members the floor to raise their concerns and outline their continued support for the JCPOA.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York. On 31 August, the U.S. vetoed a resolution on counter-terrorism issues tabled by Indonesia in a move that other Council members interpreted as, at least in part, a reprimand of Jakarta for its failure to facilitate the snapback process as Council president. But other than that, Council business has carried on as normal to date.

What happens next?

The U.S. goal in initiating the snapback process – which it claims to be on track to achieving – is to restore all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on 20 September. But given the divide between Washington’s view and other Council members’ assessment that the U.S. lacks standing to trigger the mechanism, there is likely to be a parallel claim put forward. The Trump administration, perhaps with the support of Middle Eastern allies, will contend that it has restored all UN restrictions on Iran’s activities – and insist that these are binding on all member states. U.S. officials will likely turn their attention toward enforcement, pressuring UN member states to recognise the reimposition of pre-JCPOA sanctions. “All countries are bound to enforce them”, contended Secretary Pompeo in a recent op-ed. “To do otherwise grossly undermines the Council’s authority and credibility, and could normalise selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions”. The vast majority of Council members, including the P4+1 parties to the nuclear deal, will maintain – possibly, again, in writing – that they do not consider these U.S. claims as valid and that sanctions have not been restored. Most Council members will thus consider that the terms of Resolution 2231 continue to define the state of play. These parties will ignore the contrary U.S. claim and decline to enforce sanctions.

Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties

Both arguments are likely to be on display during the UN General Assembly next week. Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties if the Council does not fall in line behind snapback, although most think such a threat would likely be bluster. The P4+1 leaders, who will be addressing the assembly in pre-recorded videos, may restate their commitment to the JCPOA, but they are likely to downplay the issue to avoid generating extra friction with Washington. 

What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and secretariat in this dispute?

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit (the International Court of Justice might, though there is little indication thus far of a Security Council resolution requesting it to deliver an opinion on the matter, which in any case could take months). For now, it is a political and diplomatic issue rather than a neat legal determination.

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit

The next phase of UN diplomacy will likely feature U.S. manoeuvring to reinstate the mechanisms for monitoring sanctions on Iran that were dismantled in 2015. If UN Secretary-General António Guterres believed snapback to be legitimate, for example, he could try to re-form the panel of international experts to monitor sanctions breaches which existed from 2010 to 2015. Although this move would be a technicality (UN sanctions regimes can have legal force regardless of the existence of panels to monitor them), it would send a signal to UN officials that they should take the U.S. position seriously.

Guterres has so far resisted calls to weigh in on the dispute and claimed that Council members “need to interpret their own resolution”, but he may find that it is hard to remain entirely neutral. Even if the Secretary-General takes no action at all, Council members opposed to the U.S. position will interpret this inaction as proof that Washington’s claim has no force. The Secretary-General is supposed to report on Resolution 2231’s implementation to the Security Council every six months and the next report is due in December, pushing him to take a stance on the implications of recent events.

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback.

Nonetheless, the Secretary-General has little to gain from adopting a firm position in this dispute. He would be best advised to do no more than tell Council members to resolve it among themselves. 

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback. One is the status of individuals and entities that were previously under UN sanctions but were de-listed following JCPOA implementation and adoption of Resolution 2231. The reintroduction of past sanctions resolutions could mean that these individuals and entities could once again be designated under a reinstated sanctions regime. The status of the procurement channel established by Resolution 2231 for the “transfer of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology required for Iran's nuclear activities under the Nuclear Deal” will also come into question, as the U.S. will argue that this arrangement should now be terminated. The concrete impact of either measure on Iran in the short term is unclear, and Security Council members and UN officials are likely to get bogged down in inconclusive debates on these technicalities.

What happens when the conventional arms embargo on Iran expires?

Having rejected the U.S. position, most Security Council members accept that the conventional arms embargo on Iran – which the U.S. tried to extend prior to calling for snapback – will end on 18 October. The E3 floated compromise options on the embargo, such as a one-year or six-month extension, but none was simultaneously acceptable to the U.S. and China or Russia, let alone Iran.

The restrictions check Iran’s ability to import or export a range of conventional weapons, including “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms or related materiel”. During an August visit to Moscow, Iran’s defence minister predicted “a new chapter in defence cooperation” with Russia after the restrictions lapse, and U.S. intelligence assessments have pointed to jets and tanks as possible purchases. U.S. officials have told Western counterparts that they will impose bilateral penalties on Chinese and Russian companies that sell arms to Iran, although many of these firms are already under U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials also claim that after the restrictions are lifted the country has “the capacity to export several billion dollars a year in military equipment”; media speculate that Iran could find buyers for its domestically produced missile and air defence systems, ground equipment, naval craft and drones. Nevertheless, after 18 October, Iran’s outgoing transfers would remain subject to other Security Council prohibitions, including those covering Yemen and Lebanon, and an EU embargo continues to be in effect at least through 2023. 

What does all this mean for the nuclear deal? 

The snapback debate is reflective of the divide that has emerged between the U.S. and P4+1 since the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. Washington contends that pressure – unilateral where necessary, multilateral where possible – can coerce Iran into accepting its demands to not only revisit the terms of the nuclear agreement but concede on a wider range of issues. The P4+1 have differing views on Iranian policy, but even in cases where there are shared concerns with Washington (the Europeans, notably, are apprehensive about the expiration of arms restrictions) their priority remains to salvage the existing negotiated framework as a basis for broader discussions, even as Iran has breached its terms in response to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front

The most recent quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes, for example, that Tehran continues to enrich uranium beyond the JCPOA’s 3.67 per cent ceiling and has accumulated an enriched uranium stockpile nearly ten times its 202.8kg limit. At the same time, the IAEA noted a drop in Iran’s heavy-water inventory, and Director General Raphael Grossi on 14 September told the agency’s board of governors that inspections had begun at two sites of concern where access had become a matter of tension (albeit separate from the JCPOA). 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front, as that might scupper continued efforts by all remaining parties to save the agreement (and isolate Tehran rather than Washington). Tehran regards its current breaches as a calibrated response to the erosion of the economic dividends it expected from the JCPOA. It wants sanctions relief, as provided for in the nuclear deal, in return for resuming full compliance. For its part, the Trump administration appears intent on pressing ahead with its “maximum pressure” approach.

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute.

How will the U.S. elections affect the dispute? 

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute. If President Trump wins a second term, he will have ample time and opportunity to kill off the JCPOA, and then hope that Iran will come back to negotiate a different deal (which he has said will be “a deal that’s great for Iran”). Conversely, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has proposed to rejoin the JCPOA, if Iran returns to compliance with the agreement, and then attempt to “strengthen and extend” its conditions. It is not clear precisely what steps a Biden administration would need to take at the UN to unwind the U.S. snapback drive retroactively and reaffirm its commitment to the JCPOA. But diplomats and UN officials in New York are unlikely to let the niceties of UN procedures get in the way of reconstructing the nuclear deal.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
Senior Analyst, Iran