As reports of new clashes shatter hopes for yet another ceasefire effort in Sudan, the heads of United Nations Peacekeeping and its three largest missions tell Newsweek a worsening conflict will have grave implications not just across Africa, but potentially around the world as well.
“It does affect all of us,” U.N. Under Secretary General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix told Newsweek .
The conflict between the official Sudanese Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has dragged on for a month and a half, already prompting a major humanitarian crisis and causing the deaths of at least 1,000 people.
As U.N. Peacekeeping marked its 75th anniversary on Monday, Lacroix warned that the situation had the potential to further deteriorate considerably and spread beyond the African nation’s borders, bringing guns, drugs and militants across continents.
“All of this trafficking, it is regional and global in nature,” Lacroix said. “They feed violent groups, some of them can be terrorists, some of them can be criminals, some of them both, and all over the world, really.”
After six years at the helm of U.N. Peacekeeping, the French diplomat is proud of what the multilateral institution has accomplished. Comprised of some 87,000 personnel, including more than 63,000 troops hailing from 73 nations, it currently maintains 12 active missions, most of them in Africa. But he warns that serious challenges remain as peacekeepers mobilize to prevent total state collapses.
“So, I think one can think of these situations where basically a region or territory massively destabilizes, there is no state capacity anymore, it’s basically a breeding ground for these criminal groups,” he added, “all kinds of illegal activities, which, again, affect all of us.”
In fact, the spillover has already begun.
The fighting in Sudan, home to one of Africa’s largest refugee populations, has prompted a mass exodus to neighboring countries in which U.N. Peacekeeping missions operate in support of efforts to stabilize internal conflicts and address massive humanitarian needs.
The risk of compounding crises is severe in Africa, where the Islamic State militant group ( ISIS ) is more active than anywhere else in the world, and other transnational militant groups continue to exploit insecurity and weak governance.
The situation in South Sudan is particularly sensitive, as displaced persons have already begun to enter Abyei, an oil-rich territory claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The feud over this borderland has outlasted the 2006 peace agreement that ended a civil war and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
“It is clear that as long as the conflict in Sudan continues,” Lacroix said, “it is unlikely that we will witness any meaningful sort of advances in the political discussion between these two countries on Abyei.”
“I also believe that this is a region where you have a variety of armed groups,” he added, “and a conflict like the one in Sudan also has the potential to attract combatants and armed groups, therefore, of course, adding to the tensions and instability.”
Nicholas Haysom, head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and special representative to the U.N. Secretary-General, told Newsweek that so far tens of thousands of people have fled to South Sudan to escape unrest north of the world’s newest internationally recognized border.
And while South Sudan has opened its borders to undocumented individuals, many of whom are South Sudanese, Haysom warned that the strain has already begun to be felt in the form of critical supply chain disruptions, soaring commodity prices and “occasional incidents of almost ethnic conflict” erupting as waves of refugees compete for scarce resources in already crowded displaced persons camps.
He said U.N. Peacekeeping’s largest mission is already spread thin as personnel contend not only with a contentious political and security environment, for which a growing number of temporary bases have been assembled, but also climate catastrophes in the form of devastating floods.
A deepening crisis in Sudan could ultimately exacerbate the challenges faced in South Sudan, and such mass migrations can also have ripple effects far beyond the Horn of Africa.
“A flood of refugees from South Sudan, from Ethiopia or any of the Horn countries will immediately have an impact on at least Western countries,” Haysom said, “and maybe some beyond.”
As head of UNMISS, Haysom’s first priority is ensuring stability within South Sudan. He warns that the country is increasingly “vulnerable” to two major potential effects of the northern conflict: damage to vital oil pipelines on which South Sudan’s economy depends, and reversal of hard-won political gains that reduced the activity of armed groups such as the Nuer White Army, which has become increasingly active in recent months.
Haysom says the entire region “is interlinked.”
“We’ve got a war in Sudan, we’re coming out of a war in Ethiopia, there’s Somalia, the Central African Republic, there’s Libya,” he said. “So, it’s a hugely precarious and fragile setting, and South Sudan sits in the middle.”
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