Issue 30 - Article 2

The UN Security Council’s response to Darfur: a humanitarian perspective

June 22, 2005
Oliver Ulich, OCHA

The UN Security Council first considered the crisis in Darfur more than a year ago, on 2 April 2004. From the very outset, briefings to the Council characterised the events unfolding in Darfur as a crisis of protection, with large-scale atrocities and other human rights violations being at the root of the humanitarian emergency. The Council’s involvement has helped open up and maintain humanitarian access, and its referral of the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been hailed as a historic step. But the Council’s response, combined with the gradual deployment of an African Union (AU) mission to Darfur, has not stopped the atrocities, nor has it provided adequate protection against other human rights violations. This article provides an overview of the Security Council’s response to date, and offers a preliminary assessment.

Overview of the Security Council’s response

Pressure on the Security Council to discuss the situation in Darfur grew steadily during the first three months of 2004, as ever-more detailed information became available on the atrocities there. Senior UN officials became increasingly vocal, and NGOs’ advocacy efforts intensified. Some commentators also started referring to the events in Darfur as genocide. Throughout this period, the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide on 7 April loomed large in the minds of many, including Council members.

The Security Council finally agreed to discuss Darfur on 2 April, although it did so under ‘other matters’, without formally adding Sudan to its agenda. Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, described to the Council how a combination of atrocities against civilians, the forced depopulation of entire areas, and severe access restrictions imposed by the Sudanese government were resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis. A week later, on 8 April, the Sudanese government and the two main rebel movements in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), signed a humanitarian ceasefire agreement in N’Djamena, Chad.

Over the next four months, the Council discussed Darfur every few weeks and received a large number of briefings from senior humanitarian and human rights officials, as well as NGOs. Several of these briefings followed missions to Darfur; the picture presented in each of them was as devastating as it was consistent. On 25 May, the Security Council adopted its first presidential statement, which noted that ‘hundreds of thousands of people’ were at risk of dying. The statement also condemned ‘indiscriminate attacks on civilians, sexual violence, forced displacement and acts of violence, especially those with an ethnic dimension’.

International attention reached a peak in late June and early July, when both the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, visited Khartoum and Darfur. The Secretary-General’s trip resulted in a number of important commitments from the Sudanese government, including an undertaking to disarm the Janjaweed, and a moratorium on all access restrictions.

Around the same time, the US circulated a draft resolution on Darfur. After several weeks of negotiations, on 30 July, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1556, calling on the Sudanese government to abide by its commitment to disarm the Janjaweed, and bring to justice those responsible for atrocities. The Council also requested that the Secretary-General report in 30 days, and monthly thereafter, on progress in meeting these demands, and declared its intention to consider further actions, ‘including measures as provided for in Article 41 of the Charter’. This threat of sanctions, without using the term itself, was the most controversial provision of the resolution and a primary reason for the abstention of two Council members, Pakistan and China, a permanent member. Another key provision was the imposition of an arms embargo on ‘all non-governmental entities and individuals, including the Janjaweed’, operating in Darfur. This excluded the Sudanese government itself.

Following the Secretary-General’s first report, which stated that attacks against civilians were continuing and the vast majority of armed militias had not been disarmed, the Council adopted Resolution 1564 on 18 September. The most important new provision was a request to the Secretary-General to establish an international commission of inquiry on Darfur. Similar to Resolution 1556, this second resolution contained a threat of ‘measures under Article 41 of the Charter’, but this time with an explicit reference to ‘actions to affect Sudan’s petroleum sector and the Government of Sudan or individual members of the Government’. Four Council members abstained, including two permanent members, China and Russia. Many NGOs were deeply disappointed by the absence of the more forceful measures that they had demanded in light of the Sudanese government’s failure to meet core Council demands, including an immediate oil embargo and targeted sanctions against government officials.

The Security Council, however, started moving in the opposite direction in October and early November 2004, refocusing its attention on the resolution of the North–South conflict. At a historic meeting of the Council in Nairobi, a unanimous resolution was adopted on 19 November endorsing a commitment by the warring parties to reach a final settlement by the end of the year. To attract all 15 Security Council votes, the resolution’s language on Darfur was significantly weaker than in the two previous resolutions.

Following the signature of the comprehensive peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Southern rebel group the SPLM on 9 January 2005, attention again started shifting to Darfur. The report of the commission of inquiry reached the Security Council on 31 January. It described atrocities in Darfur in devastating detail, and strongly recommended a referral to the ICC.

After two months of difficult negotiations, the Council accepted this recommendation, and on 31 March referred the situation to the ICC prosecutor. Three days earlier, it had also adopted targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and an asset freeze, against individuals accused of violating human rights and humanitarian law, and extended the arms embargo on Darfur to all parties to the ceasefire agreement, thus including the Sudanese government.

A preliminary assessment

A full analysis of the Council’s response, including political and other factors, is well beyond the scope of this article. This preliminary assessment of the impact of Council therefore looks at three key areas: access, protection and impunity.


Lifting the Sudanese government’s restrictions on access to Darfur was the most important humanitarian objective in the spring of 2004. Here, the Council’s involvement, starting in early April, combined with bilateral interventions and advocacy by senior UN officials, undoubtedly increased the pressure on the government. These efforts bore fruit on 21 May, when the government announced a number of measures to facilitate access, including the issuing of visas within 48 hours and the waiving of permit requirements for travel to Darfur. A steady but ultimately dramatic increase in humanitarian capacity on the ground followed. By March 2005, some 10,000 national and international relief workers were in Darfur. The ability of UN officials to bring access issues to the Council’s attention, including through the monthly reports of the Secretary-General on Darfur, has also served as an important source of leverage in negotiations in Khartoum and Darfur, where UN officials are engaged in almost daily exchanges with Sudanese officials on access and related issues.

Protection of civilians and the role of the African Union

The Security Council’s efforts to enhance the protection of civilians included a number of elements: appeals to the parties to the conflict to respect the ceasefire and end all violence; demands to disarm the Janjaweed, combined with the threat of sanctions; the imposition of the arms embargo at the end of July 2004; support for the AU mission in Darfur; and – in late March 2005 – the imposition of targeted sanctions.

The impact of these measures has, however, been limited. The overall level of violence against civilians remained high throughout 2004, with some variations. Taking the total number of internally displaced people (IDPs) as a barometer, neither of the Council’s resolutions in July and September stopped the relentless increase, from one million in June to 1.6 million in October, and more than 1.8 million by December. The same seems to be true for the flow of arms into Darfur, despite the imposition of the arms embargo in late July 2004, for which no specific monitoring or enforcement mechanisms were established. Other measures and demands have also seen little if any compliance: since September 2004, there has been no evidence of disarmament, and the Council’s demand that the Sudanese government cease military flights over Darfur, first stated in Resolution 1556, has been repeatedly violated.

There were also several periods of escalating violence that did not elicit any particular Council response; indeed, an upsurge in violence in late November 2004 may have been directly linked to the 19 November Security Council meeting, which apparently motivated both sides to adopt a more aggressive posture on the ground. Government and militia forces also undertook large-scale operations in early December and mid-January, displacing tens of thousands of people.

Whenever the need for protection by international forces on the ground has been discussed, Security Council members have turned to the AU. In late May 2004, the AU had been asked by the parties to monitor the 8 April ceasefire agreement, initially with 60 observers and some 300 protection elements. In late July, the AU’s Peace and Security Council requested a comprehensive plan on how best to enhance the mission which, almost three months later, on 20 October, resulted in a decision to expand the mission to 3,320 personnel. By late April 2005, six months on, about 2,400 of them had been deployed, and the Peace and Security Council decided to expand the mission further, to 7,730 by September 2005. There has been a general consensus that the AU mission, AMIS, has been remarkably effective wherever it has actually been deployed, while its actual size on the ground, level of mobility and pace of deployment have been regarded as insufficient. By relying exclusively on the AU to establish an international security presence in Darfur, the Security Council has effectively limited the response in this area to what has been within the AU’s capacity, a constraint well known to Council members.

Apart from repeated calls for support to the AU and welcoming its ‘leadership role’ and plans for expansion, the UN Security Council’s posture towards the AU’s role in Darfur has been one of respectful distance. It has not given the AU mission a direct mandate, nor has it asked for regular briefings, as it could do under Article 54 of the UN Charter. Both the demand for ‘African solutions for African problems’ and the general desire to strengthen the AU have no doubt played an important role in influencing the Council’s stance. Even some of the most vocal NGOs have been reluctant to argue against a lead role for the AU, despite frustrations about its lack of capacity and the slow pace of deployment. At the same time, the Secretary-General has repeatedly reminded the Security Council of its ultimate responsibility for international peace and security under the UN Charter.


With the request for a commission of inquiry on 18 September, the Council set in motion a process that resulted in the ICC referral in Resolution 1593 on 31 March 2005. In retrospect, this may well be viewed as the most significant step taken by the Council in response to the Darfur crisis. Of all the Council’s resolutions on Darfur, this is also the only one that has been rejected by the Sudanese government, at least so far. It is too early to tell what precise impact the referral, together with the targeted sanctions, will have on the situation on the ground, and at what stage of the process. But there was a significant increase in tensions in Khartoum and Darfur following the resolution, and there is great concern that action by the ICC prosecutor (or the sanctions committee) could contribute to a deterioration in the security situation for humanitarian staff. There have also been specific threats by militias to retaliate against IDPs in case of ICC action.

Competing objectives

There is a problematic interrelationship in the case of Darfur between the different objectives of access, protection and ending impunity. The security risks associated with international prosecutions and targeted sanctions in an ongoing conflict may well result in decreased access, as they already have in some cases in reaction to specific threats. Increased access also seems to have reduced the political pressure for action on protection: during the summer of 2004, when international attention on Darfur was at its peak, the opening up of access and the massive build-up of humanitarian capacity that followed meant that humanitarian conditions gradually improved, at least in those areas accessible to the media. This ‘humanitarian plaster’ significantly reduced the pressure emanating from the domestic media and constituencies that ultimately drive the international response. The relatively successful delivery of relief, in other words, has become a mixed blessing, both for those advocating for more effective protection, and for those exposed to the continuing violence. No doubt the large international humanitarian presence has had some positive impact on the level of protection, but it remains concentrated in too few locations, and can never be a substitute for an effective security presence that is mandated and equipped to protect civilians. Such a presence may finally become a reality when the expanded AU mission is deployed by September 2005, 18 months after the Security Council first discussed Darfur.

Oliver Ulichis Humanitarian Affairs Officer in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). His email address is:


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