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March 22, 2010

Chad Seeks Withdrawal of UN Peacekeepers Protecting Food Distribution

by Scott Stearns

Chad is asking the United Nations to withdraw a peacekeeping force it says is failing to protect civilians.  The United Nations wants to extend the mandate of the force that is protecting the distribution of humanitarian supplies along Chad's borders with Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Chadian President Idriss Deby wants the force known as MINURCAT to leave his country.  He says it has not fully deployed and is failing to protect civilians in the east.

After asking the Security Council not to renew MINURCAT, President Deby eventually agreed to a 2-month extension that will keep the military and police force in Chad through May 15.

U.N. officials are using that time to try to convince the president to agree to a longer extension.

Alain Leroy is the U.N. under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations.

"We consider it still very important for MINURCAT to stay after 15 of May to protect, to continue the mandate given by the council," said Leroy.  "That has to be discussed with the Chadian authorities because we cannot stay without the consent of the host country, that is very clear."

Relief officials say withdrawing MINURCAT would leave Sudanese refugees and internally-displaced Chadians vulnerable to banditry, undermining humanitarian operations.

"The security provided by MINURCAT is absolutely essential," notes Susannah Sirkin, deputy director for the group Physicians for Human Rights.  "There is almost no judicial system there, very weak police force.  There are not female officers to deal with the really rampant sexual-and-gender-based violence on the border and in the camps.  It is not at all clear that if MINURCAT's military and police component were to withdraw in May that there would be any kind of adequate replacement for this protection."

Sirkin says MINURCAT is crucial to the provision of food, water, sanitation, and health for one-quarter-million Sudanese refugees and more than 150,000 Chadian's displaced by the country's rebellion.

Phillipe Conraud, humanitarian coordinator for West Africa for the aid group Oxfam, says the absence of MINURCAT could affect the distribution of food to people in more dangerous areas along the border with Sudan.  But in some of the regions most at risk for food shortages, he says there are no MINURCAT forces to begin with.

President Deby says Chad can do without MINURCAT because Chad and Sudan are setting up their own force to secure the 500-kilometer border.  It is part of improving relations between the two countries after years of accusing each other of supporting rival rebel groups.

Sirkin says the rapprochement between Ndjamena and Khartoum may help check rebel attacks but does not address internal lawlessness.

"Even though there may be ongoing negotiations now and some abatement of the conflict between Sudan and Chad, there is banditry," added Sirkin.  "There are crimes, including violent crimes committed even by Chadian camp personnel."

U.N. peacekeeping chief Leroy says improving relations is a big step forward after Chad cut diplomatic relations with Sudan last year.

"I think nobody one year ago could imagine a visit by President Deby to Khartoum, and President Deby mentioned very clearly that the relations between the two countries and the two presidents is so much better than it was one year ago," said Leroy.  "That is an extremely important step for the stability of the region."

Even if the United Nations fails to convince President Deby to allow MINURCAT to stay longer, officials are hoping for a gradual withdrawal in order to not jeopardize relief operations in eastern Chad and northeastern Central African Republic.  That withdrawal is expected to be slow, given the size of the force and the approaching rainy season.