UNITED NATIONS — It was an awkward reminder of the world's failure to hold to account a president accused of war crimes: A group photo from Egypt's economic summit over the weekend shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry standing just behind Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.
Even as the International Criminal Court scolds the U.N. Security Council to make sure a defiant al-Bashir faces trial on charges of orchestrating genocide in Sudan's western Darfur region, the United Nations appears to be easing away from the conflict. Under pressure from al-Bashir, the U.N. opened talks this month with Sudan on a plan for a large peacekeeping mission to leave Darfur.
The Security Council on Tuesday discussed the troubled mission and how its eventual departure will affect a civil war that once drew the world's outrage. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the council the security situation has "deteriorated significantly" in the past year.
The idea of a withdrawal alarms observers of the chaos in Darfur, where nearly half a million people were displaced last year, the most in a decade. The U.N. has blamed the spike in violence largely on a new rapid action force backed by Sudan's government, which has been fighting rebels across the vast region since 2003. More than 300,000 people have been killed overall.
Some suggest that al-Bashir, who is running for re-election this year, is just posturing and doesn't really want to lose the benefits of a $1.3 billion-a-year peacekeeping mission. But last year he ordered the expulsion of top U.N. officials and the closure of the mission's human rights office in the capital, Khartoum, and called for an "exit strategy" for the joint U.N.-African Union force, which numbers more than 20,000.
Adding to the tension was the mass rape of more than 220 women in a Darfur village last October by Sudanese army troops. The peacekeeping force, called UNAMID, has been blocked from entering the village after a brief and inconclusive visit shortly after reports of the mass rape emerged.
But Human Rights Watch pieced together details of the attack through more than 100 interviews with local residents, calling it "a new low in the catalog of atrocities in Darfur."
No progress was announced Tuesday on getting access to the village. "As you know, this is something that has gone on far too long," a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters.
That a single Human Rights Watch researcher could produce a damning report through telephone calls alone, while one of the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping efforts has appeared powerless to act, shows the deep disconnect between the mission and Sudan, said Ryan D'Souza, advocacy officer for the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
"It's the worst unkept secret: The mission is failing," D'Souza said. At the same time, "a withdrawal would send al-Bashir the message that he'd won."
UNAMID has long been criticized for its ineffectiveness in Darfur. It also has become the third-most deadly mission for peacekeepers in U.N. history. At least 215 members have been killed since it was created in 2007.
A new report by the secretary-general says the mission's downsizing has begun. A total of 770 posts will be gone by April.
And UNAMID now has measures to repatriate underperforming members, "in light of several incidents in which military units failed to respond effectively to armed attacks." Ladsous gave no details.
Sudan's deputy representative to the U.N. would not say Tuesday how soon Sudan wants the peacekeeping mission out of the country. A fuller exit strategy, based on the new talks among Sudan, the U.N. and the AU, is expected by the end of May.
One Sudanese activist with projects in Darfur, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns, said al-Bashir associates the peacekeeping mission with the Security Council's referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC in 2005. That led to al-Bashir being charged with genocide.
Since then, Sudan's president has traveled to several countries without being arrested. And the Security Council now faces its sharpest divide since the Cold War. Permanent member Russia can block action on Sudan with a veto, backed by China. Both countries have business interests there.
The activist is upset with al-Bashir's actions, but also impatient with UNAMID: "The mandate of the mission is just observing. What is the use of observing violations if they don't interfere?"
If that doesn't change, the activist said, "I think they should leave."