UNITED NATIONS — Under intense pressure from the government of Sudan, the United Nations is planning to shrink its floundering peacekeeping force inDarfur, even though renewed fighting there has chased more people from their homes this year than during any other in the past decade.
The withdrawal plans come right after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced that she had decided tosuspend the genocide case against Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, because world powers have done nothing to secure his arrest.
The twin retrenchments are emblematic of the limits of international attention at a time when Darfur has been overshadowed by newer crises and conflicts around the world, from the civil wars in Syria and South Sudan to theEbola epidemic.
Once the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, with 20,000 blue-helmeted soldiers on the ground, the United Nations force in Sudan’s Darfur region has already been trimmed by 4,000 troops, and plans are underway to cut more in the coming months despite the surge in violence.
Even at full strength, the mission has been criticized for failing to protect civilians in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Since 2003, when an armed rebellion in Darfur was met with a brutal government crackdown, the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, if not hundreds of thousands, and displaced more than two million people.
Now, as rebel groups splinter and the notorious pro-government janjaweed militias re-emerge, renewed fighting has chased 457,000 people from their homes this year alone, according to the United Nations.
But United Nations officials say that their forces are routinely attacked by Sudanese forces and their proxies; that it is virtually impossible for their peacekeepers to remain in the country without Sudan’s blessing; and that some of their units have performed poorly and could be eliminated.
“The heart of the matter for us remains the protection of civilians affected by the conflict and ensuring that any drawdown does not have a negative impact on this critical task,” said the United Nations’ under secretary general for peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous. “My sense is that while we have by no means been perfect in this regard, without us many, many more would have been killed, displaced, put in harm’s way.”
One plan being considered is to limit peacekeeping activities to guarding the camps that shelter displaced civilians. A final decision will be made by the Security Council and the African Union, which jointly run the mission, sometime next year.
United Nations officials say Sudanese obstructionism is mostly to blame for the setbacks, while critics accuse the United Nations of ineptitude and cover-ups. The mission remains one of the world’s most expensive, with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.
“Darfur was always a gamble,” said a United Nations diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “The political coalition that was putting pressure on Sudan evaporated, and once that happened, and the Sudanese continued to demonstrate extreme ruthlessness, we found ourselves unable to do our job.”
The growing sense of international resignation toward Darfur stands in jarring contrast to the passionate activism that it stirred only recently, when “Save Darfur” was a household term, with thousands of people around the world chanting “Not on my watch!” and Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney using their fame and fortune to draw attention to Darfur’s misery.
Activists say they are stunned that Darfur has become a largely forgotten crisis given that some of their old allies have risen to positions of power.
Eight years ago, in a sunlit hut on the border of Chad and Darfur, a freshman American senator stood surrounded by refugees, thoughtfully absorbing their stories of massacres.
“I’m going to be working hard when I get back to the United States,” he reassured the survivors. “The people of Darfur who are here in Chad are not going to be forgotten.”
That freshman senator was Barack Obama, and activists complain that he has done little with his presidency to help Darfur. They say that his ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, an outspoken advocate for the need to prevent mass atrocities, has likewise let Darfur down.
“I’m afraid the time has come for her to put up or shut up,” said Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and one of the leading American voices on Darfur. If Mr. Obama does not toughen his policies toward Sudan, Mr. Reeves argued that Ms. Power should resign in protest.
An American official countered that Ms. Power had used her position on the Security Council to improve the weak peacekeeping mission, pushing for greater accountability and a clearer focus on the protection of civilians — all despite Russian resistance on the Council; the Kremlin staunchly backs the Bashir government. Ms. Power’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Another senior American official said that despite “many competing conflicts,” the Obama administration continued to work behind the scenes on diplomatic efforts for Darfur, adding that the American government had provided $1 billion in humanitarian assistance over the past six years to the region.
Critics, including inside the United Nations, point out that the peacekeeping mission has capitulated too often to government pressure. In the most recent example, after Sudanese soldiers were accused of raping more than 200 women and girls in a remote village in North Darfur in October, United Nations peacekeepers botched the investigation, human rights groups say.
A recent internal United Nations review found that in a sample of 16 instances of violence against civilians and peacekeepers, the mission had failed to properly investigate about a third of them. Mostly, the mission omitted details of “possible wrongdoing by government or pro-government forces,” the review said.
“Keeping silent or underreporting on incidents involving human rights violations and threats or attacks on U.N. peacekeepers cannot be condoned under any circumstances,” said a statement from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, describing him as “deeply troubled” by the findings.
In a measure of how divided the Council remains, one American diplomat said Russia sought to block a briefing by the chief of the review committee.
Mr. Bashir, Sudan’s president, who is running for re-election in 2015, has publicly called for all blue helmets to leave Sudan. In November, he put that demand in writing, urging the United Nations to “prepare and implement an exit strategy.”
Some analysts said that Mr. Bashir may just be posturing and that his government benefits enormously from the money and veneer of peace that the mission generates. Still, a spokesman for the secretary general said in a statement on Thursday that the Sudanese authorities had asked two top United Nations officials to leave the country.
It seems unlikely that the Security Council will take new punitive measures against Sudan, with relations between Russia and the West at their lowest point since the Cold War. A case in point: The International Criminal Courtwrote to the Council eight times in recent years, urging the world body to help secure Mr. Bashir’s arrest. The Council did not even write back. A former Council diplomat said that Russia and China said no response was necessary.
Years ago, when its relations with the West were less antagonistic, Russia did go along with an effort to refer Mr. Bashir to the international court. But things are different now, said Al Tayeb Zain El Abdin, a political scientist at the University of Khartoum. The Sudanese government used to ask Russia to use its veto on the Council, he said, “especially when referring Darfur to the I.C.C., but Russia refused.” Now, he said, “Russia is in a new mood.”
This month, Ms. Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, said without concrete help from the world’s most powerful body, there was nothing more she could do to advance the case.
“If there was full political will of all the members on the Security Council, then something would have happened,” she said in an interview in New York.
She took pains to say that she had no intention of dropping the charges against Mr. Bashir. A warrant for his arrest remains in effect, she warned, and countries that belong to the court have a legal obligation to arrest the Sudanese president when he visits their territory.
But Mr. Bashir has traveled freely to countries like Kenya, Djibouti and Chad, all members of the treaty that created the court. At no point did the Council even scold those countries, let alone sanction them.
The United States has refused to join the court, undercutting its ability to agitate on the Bashir case. But activists argue there is a long list of other things the Obama administration could do to put pressure on Sudan, including tightening economic sanctions, pushing for more humanitarian access in areas under siege, pressing allies to arrest Mr. Bashir and trying to label Sudanese gold — a crucial revenue source for the government — as a conflict mineral.
John Prendergast, a longtime Darfur activist, said key administration officials, including Ms. Power, who is a close friend, remained concerned about Darfur, though “right now the foreign policy is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of crises.”
“Popular mobilization can’t be sustained for that long for something so far away,” he said. “Once that happens, the political will weakens.”
In Darfur, fear is growing. Even though few are satisfied with the United Nations peacekeepers, they are terrified about what will happen if they leave.
“It would get worse,” said El Tahir Ismail, an elder in a displaced persons camp in North Darfur. “We are in a big prison; we can’t leave the camps, there is no police, no security — there is no law.”