By Douglas Gillison
For Aicha Elbasri, the breaking point came in September 2012 with a “media blackout” on the Sudanese government’s slaughter of more than one hundred civilians in Darfur.
But the Sudanese Armed Forces denied involvement. As news media were clamoring for answers, a United Nations-backed peacekeeping operation opted not to contradict the government in Khartoum.
So Elbasri, a UN spokeswoman for a joint international peacekeeping mission, hatched a plan to expose what she describes as an internal policy of whitewashing violence by all sides in a war that is now 12 years old.
“By March 2013, I had enough documents on my hands to prove that there was a major cover-up,” she told 100Reporters in an interview. She announced her resignation the following month, after less than a year in her job.
After years of dithering, the UN and the African Union had finally deployed nearly 20,000 peacekeepers to the region in 2007. Their job was to end a humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands had died and millions more were displaced.
But Elbasri says she found an operation that failed to protect civilians and peacekeepers, and that actively covered up all sides’ responsibility for the rising number of killings.
The silence of the UN prompted Elbasri to break ranks. First, she tried playing by the rules. But Elbasri’s end-of-mission report calling for an internal investigation went nowhere. Frustrated, in August she contacted the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
Elbasri says she told OIOS, an investigatory UN arm responsible for monitoring waste, fraud and abuse, about cases of official disinformation and violations of UN policy on public information.
But she says her complaint was shunted over to the Department for Field Support, a logistical office within UN peacekeeping that did not deal with conflict reporting — “a clear message to me that they were not going to investigate.”
So she went public.
Elbasri turned over a trove of confidential UN records to Foreign Policy, which published an exposé last year under the headline, “They Just Stood Watching.” The three-part series captured global attention. Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, called on the UN investigate the charges.
And at last, the UN appeared set to act. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon empaneled a review team led by Philip Cooper, an American former peacekeeper, which found in October that indeed the joint UN-African Union operation known as UNAMID was suppressing information.
Ban declared that he was “deeply troubled.”
The United States, France and Britain, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, privately called for Karen Tchalian, the UNAMID chief of staff, to be fired for the cover-up, according to Reuters.
But the review denied that there had in fact been a cover-up. Instead it found that there had been merely “a tendency to under-report” and effectively accused UNAMID officials of timidity.
No one was cited for misconduct. Tchalian remains in place.
For Elbasri, the result has been a “cover-up of a cover-up.”
The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, or DPKO, she now believes, never really faced the prospect of accountability, she said.
“The entire objective of this Cooper review was to find DPKO innocent,” Elbasri she said. The report concluded that while peacekeepers in the field covered up the massacre, DPKO headquarters in New York was kept in the dark.
“They were definitely fully informed about the new shifts in Darfur, the fact that the war was widening and worsening.”
She said the review team comprised members of DPKO who could not be independent.
And Tchalian, she said, should have been sacked.
“All the reports that come from the field go to his department,” said Elbasri. “In principle, the person who’s in charge of this function should have been immediately fired for having concealed…information that shows that the government is responsible for the attacks.”
Elbasri said she believed Tchalian was acting at the behest of Russia, an ally and alleged arms merchant for Sudan.
In an email to 100Reporters, Tchalian said he was mystified.
“I have no idea what this is about,” he wrote.
Directed to an article reporting that three Security Council members had called for his dismissal, he persisted in a subsequent message.
“You obviously know more about the thinking and actions of individual members of the P5 than I do,” he wrote, referring to the council’s five permanent members: Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China and the United States.
“Please accept my congratulations.”
The Russian mission to the UN in New York said it too had not been informed of any marks on Tchalian’s record. “We are not aware of any complaints about Karen Tchalian’s work in UNAMID. He has been holding hardship posts in Sudan for 8 years,” said Alexey Zaytsev, a spokesman for the permanent mission. “For this reason, for a long time now we have been supporting his request to the Secretariat to be moved to another job in a different country.”
The Department of UN peacekeeping told 100Reporters that Tchalian was not the issue. “Concerns have indeed been raised regarding UNAMID’s reporting. The issue, however, goes beyond individuals and are being addressed systemically,” the office said in an email. “We have therefore put measures in place to ensure that reporting to HQ and the Security Council is accurate and timely.”
The office also rejected Elbasri’s criticism of the Cooper review.
“The review team was independent and proceeded with its work in complete impartiality. It presented its final report to the Deputy Secretary-General. Its findings were made public, which is the usual practice for these reports.”
Elbasri said she now had little hope for accountability. “I’ve done my part,” she said.
According to Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar at Tufts University, the problems at UNAMID may be less political than institutional. The culprit, he said, is an “institutional culture of cowardice, of not wanting to stand up to anyone who can make a credible threat, be they government or rebels,” he said. De Waal said he was unable to comment on Elbasri’s allegations, but believed peacekeeping missions were frequently ill-conceived and starved of necessary civil and political staff.
De Waal was a member of the African Union mediation team for Darfur between 2005 and 2006 that gave rise to UNAMID. Western nations, including the United States, insisted on a large peacekeeping force as part of any political resolution, he said.
“The problem with having a very big mission is that it becomes exposed, vulnerable and cumbersome,” he said. “That becomes the dominant purpose of the mission: It becomes self-protection.” A much larger force would be needed to protect all Darfuri civilians under threat. “Why send a force that is too small to do that but too big to do anything but just be there?”
Last week, Human Rights Watch accused Sudanese soldiers of raping 221 women and girls in the Darfur town of Tabit late last year. A spokesman for the Sudanese army denied the claim, saying it was part of a pressure campaign to prevent UNAMID from leaving Sudan, as the government has asked.
Jérôme Tubiana, a senior analyst for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group, said Elbasri had documented a cover-up long suspected by observers. “The UN were aware of UNAMID’s shortcomings in terms of reporting and they could have investigated this or addressed this issue before rather than just reacting to a scandal,” he said. Like Elbasri, he discounted the Cooper review as lacking in independence.
“The UN seem to be satisfied with the status quo — contemplating the slow agony of this mission, gradually switching efforts and resources to other easier missions,” he wrote in an email. The UN should decide either to beef up the mission, or scrap it altogether, Tubiana said. The latter decision could force the Security Council to put its efforts into peacemaking in the whole of Sudan “rather than into failed, costly peacekeeping,” he added.
UN peacekeeping efforts have become most famous not for the people they have protected but for those they have betrayed – abandoning Rwandans to genocide in 1994 and Bosnian Muslims in a supposed “safe area” at Srebrenica the year after.
According to Elbasri, UN member states should put more energy into reaching political resolutions, rather than on what she described as the fig leaf of peacekeeping operations. These, she said, often serve only to prolong and complicate wars. “They have become in my view war-keeping operations. We’ve seen it in Darfur, we’ve seen in D.R.C., we’ve seen it in many other places in the Middle East,” she said.
“We’ve spent over $11 billion on UNAMID so that a Russian chief of staff covers up crimes for his country’s ally?” she said. “Peacekeeping in countries where there is no peace to keep is going nowhere.”
Correction: An original version of this story mistakenly cited the UN’s failure to protect Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995. Bosnian Muslims, not Serbs, were victims of the massacre at Srebrenica that year.
Top photo: A young boy in southern Sudan looked over the remains of his house after Janjaweed militia attacked his village in Northwest Darfur in 2004. Photo by Sven Torfinn/Panos.