Home | News    Monday 20 November 2006

Never thought Darfurians fear remains the same after 3 years - UN

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Nov 19, 2006 (GENEVE) — U.N. Humanitarian Chief Jan Egeland on Saturday accused Sudan of continuing atrocities against civilians, following a visit to the region.

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Jan Egeland talks to widows in the Gereida, South Darfur state. (Reuters)

"I returned yesterday from my fourth visit to Darfur. It is two and a half years since I was here. Never would I have thought that in my fourth and final visit the number of people in need of assistance would have gone from 1 to four million; and never would I have thought that the fear, the angst among the civilian population of Darfur would remain the same after 3 long years. Just imagine that this is now 1,000 days and 1,000 nights with defenseless civilians living in fear for their lives, for their future, for the life of their children, for the lives of their beloved."

Below the text of press conference with Jan Egeland, the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator held on 18 November in Geneve.


Hosting Mr. Jan Egeland, USG for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

18th November 2006

Dawn: Good afternoon everyone.

Thanks for joining this press conference with Mr. Jan Egeland, the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. I am sure Mr. Egeland is a very familiar figure to many of you here as this is his third visit to Sudan this year alone and he has dedicated a great deal of his time and energy as Undersecretary-General and ERC to the humanitarian crisis in Sudan.

This is not only Mr. Egeland’s third trip to Sudan this year but it is also his last mission as Undersecretary-General. So we are very honored to have him here today before he steps down after a long and fruitful term.

With that, I turn the table over to Mr. Egeland and, after he briefs you, we will take questions.

USG and ERC Egeland: Thank you very much Dawn; thanks for coming here this Saturday.

I returned yesterday from my fourth visit to Darfur. It is two and a half years since I was here. Never would I have thought that in my fourth and final visit the number of people in need of assistance would have gone from 1 to four million; and never would I have thought that the fear, the angst among the civilian population of Darfur would remain the same after 3 long years. Just imagine that this is now 1,000 days and 1,000 nights with defenseless civilians living in fear for their lives, for their future, for the life of their children, for the lives of their beloved.

In many ways, this is now, I think, a moment of truth here in Darfur, for our responsibility to protect. In the United Nations, a lot of world leaders from all over the world – from northern countries, western, eastern, southern countries, they all swore to protect civilian populations. We have a responsibility to protect. We are not living up to that responsibility in Darfur today. I met in Geneina yesterday women who were pleading for security. Who said, “We are abused; we are raped; we are attacked, and nobody seems to want to protect us”.

There are a number of appeals that I would like to come up with at this moment:

First: to all of the Parties: the rebels, the militias, the government – respect the ceasefire; end the hostilities. I think we are now playing with a powder keg. It could get infinitely worse for everybody unless everybody pulls back.

There is now a historic moment of opportunity. In Addis Ababa over these last two days, we saw an agreement come out for a renewed political effort to settle this man-made disaster and an effort to have for the first time a credible force on the ground that could protect the civilian population and to protect the humanitarian operations.

I would like also to use this moment to say that those who continue to attack defenseless civilians (and it happened this night in Jebel Marra) those people will one day be brought to justice. There will be a time of reckoning for men who abuse and who kill defenseless women and children. This night, civilians were attacked and killed in the Jebel Marra, blankets were looted – blankets we had provided because it is freezing cold in the next weeks and months in the Jebel Marra. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to inject suffering on the civilian population.

I met in Geneina hospital civilians from Sirba Camp and town with children that had been deliberately shot. How can anybody shoot a two-year old girl through the neck? How can any man do that deliberately? This is terror. I do not know any word for it … it is defined as terror.

I have one third appeal and that is: Government of Sudan, help us help your people; a lot is at stake. The international community has come here because there is a calling from defenseless civilians in need to help. We provide a lifeline now to more than 3 million … 4 million of these in need. But we frankly feel that there is not an effort to help us help them.

Let me just use my maps to give you some small indication of how much is at stake. This is Darfur [showing a map of the region]. The yellow areas are areas where it is dangerous … nearly impossible to help people; the orange areas are areas where we have no chance of assisting anyone. These yellow and orange areas have grown relentlessly over recent months.

As humanitarian workers, we have the International Law declaring that we have the right to assist everybody, everywhere in an unimpeded manner. Our right is being violated everyday. Three and a half hours after I left Geneina town yesterday, on the very road that I traveled and just before the African Union soldiers’ compound, a United Nations vehicle was hijacked at gunpoint. It is probably the fortieth vehicle [hijacked] this year in West Darfur alone. It is one of the examples of how humanitarian workers who came here to help are being blocked in their noble mission.

How many people are we assisting? Well, the 4 million people are scattered all over the map. Red [on the map]; Internal Displaced People; yellow: local communities that have lost their livestock, lost their crops, lost everything and are in need of our assistance. Each of these ones are in towns … there are cities of a hundred thousand people in need. The smaller ones could be 50,000, 20,000, 30,000; they are scattered all over this desert region. I have never, ever seen such a large humanitarian operation and have never ever seen such an effective humanitarian operation. I think that the humanitarian workers, most of them Sudanese, have done a fantastic job. Against all odds, they have kept people alive – now 3 years in a row – and we have averted this massive loss of life.

All of this is now in danger. Everything is in danger because each of these circles, the bigger ones and the smaller ones, represent massive violence; massive attacks involving civilians, humanitarian workers or both.

So, the jury is really out now: is this, the largest humanitarian operation on earth going to continue to succeed or is it going to collapse? I hope we can now have all good forces in Sudan and internationally succeed in joining forces to have it succeed.

The restrictions that are on our work have however grown steadily of late. We have a moratorium on the restrictions of humanitarian work. That moratorium only lasts until the end of the year. I was informed, thankfully, by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and his people that the moratorium will be extended until next year. But it has not been made public yet and the people who exercise work permits, travel permits, visa permits, are now saying that nobody will be extended beyond the next few weeks – that is until the end of the year.

The dramatic realities are that the NGOs and even United Nations agencies are having lots of staff not being able to enter Sudan for lack of work permit or unable to stay in Sudan because of lack of a visa or unable to enter Darfur because of lack of a travel permit. A number of humanitarian organizations taking upon themselves the responsibility to help hundreds of thousands of people to survive are now feeling, little by little, that their ability to do such work is crumbling. Some organizations are even seeing their activities suspended. And I think it is a test case the one that the Norwegian Refugee Council represents.

One of the best organizations that we in the United Nations have been working with since the start in 2004 has now had, first, their operations suspended so that they had to leave South Darfur. And now they have been told that they have to turn over all assets – as they are expelled – within 72 hours. In my view, this is an illegal act. These are assets that have been given by donors. And my appeal has been today to the representatives of European, Asian, Arab, North American countries: we need to make this a test case on whether we have the right to provide impartial humanitarian assistance in this country or not.

Another particular restriction that I would like to mention is the following: the biggest donor to this extremely generous operation that actually this year will cost 1 billion dollars. Everything combined in Darfur, the biggest donor is the USA. This country now sees its citizens being blocked from traveling as aid workers in NGOs in Darfur and to aid projects in southern Sudan even. Politics have nothing to do with humanitarian assistance. All nationalities should have an equal right to help people in need.

As I traveled to Darfur, I saw one of these many examples of unpredictability of action here. I was warmly welcome in writing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sudan and asked to come on the 15th of November because it was a particularly convenient period to visit. I therefore scheduled, re-scheduled everything to come here. The program that I had submitted included six sites in Darfur. The day before I left for Darfur, National Security tells me and my delegation we can not go to four of the six areas. I therefore decided to cut short my visit after the two days in Geneina and come straight back to Khartoum instead of going to el-Fasher which was the one other area that I was allowed to visit.

In Geneina, I could not go to the camps for the first time in all my visits to Darfur because armed men are now operating around the camps and, often, within the camps. I neither can nor will I visit camps where armed elements are allowed to operate in and around the camps while authorities do nothing to stop it.

Two of the journalists who were supposed to follow me had American passports and were not allowed to join, in my United Nations delegation, to visit Darfur. I would also say that this is an intolerable intrusion into a United Nations official visiting a large aid operation. We need to give feedback to the American people of the hundreds and millions of dollars that they are investing in Darfur and American journalists is the obvious way to do so.

My final point is the following: a lot is at stake now. We can use the Addis Ababa agreement to turn the corner to something better. The world has now finally again agreed to assemble all parties – signatories and non-signatories to the Abuja Agreement – to the table to re-affirm the ceasefire and to discuss, on the basis of the Abuja Agreement, outstanding questions. I welcome that. I feel frankly that the world has delivered for us humanitarians in Darfur; the world has not had an energetic enough effort to settle this manmade disaster.

Secondly; there is agreement that the United Nations can assist the African Union force to become more active, more robust, and more pro-active in assisting and protecting the civilian population. A heavy support package is agreed and an African force supported, also driven with the United Nations, is agreed for next year. So I am quite glad to see that on the political and security side things may happen.

But it is not enough to have something good coming in nine months - when all of this may be in place. We have to survive the next nine days. In Jebel Marra people are dying as we speak; in Sirba they were dying last Sunday and in Jebel Moon they were dying just before that. It can not continue; it has to stop and now is the time to stop that and that is why my appeal is – to rebels; to militias and the others who are being armed to their teeth as we speak – stop it; it could become much, much worse. Stop it now while it is time.

Any questions?

Q: In your last remarks, Mr. Egeland, you said that agreement has been reached for a United Nations-supported and a United Nations-led force. I am just back from a press conference with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He does not say such a thing. He says that agreement has been reached on a joint operation and not a joint force while you say that an agreement has been reached for a robust force led by the United Nations. What is the correct position?

USG and ERC Egeland: What I saw coming out of Addis Ababa was an agreement that the United Nations can fund, provide logistics, resources, command, control structures for an African force and it would have an African character but both the African Union and the United Nations will be involved in leading this effort forward. I am confident that there will be an agreement between the Government of Sudan, the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League on this.

Time is running out. I hope we will not have further weeks now on the intricacies of what does ‘leading’ mean; what does ‘command and control’ mean; what does this or that mean. I hope those men involved understand that everyday women and children are dying … every single day; and every hour lost in wrangling over what does this word mean or what does that word mean will lead to more people dying. So let’s agree now that the United Nations can help provide the force that is needed to protect. The force which is there today, as I could see for myself in West Darfur, does not provide that security.

Q: There is a perception that the United Nations is not particularly welcome here at the moment and even seen by the government as an enemy. Would you think it could be helpful to have a stronger Chinese involvement here which is perceived as a lot more positive?

USG and ERC Egeland: I think, frankly, that we have come perhaps out on the wrong foot here. Some western governments were very closely associated with the effort to help Darfur and some Asian, Arab and other governments were seen as being passive on the effort. I think that was wrong. I have therefore made it a point, even today, to come with the same appeal to the western, to the Asian, to the Arab and other governments and diplomats: help us provide this lifeline; we are desperate at the moment. We need the help, including of those that President Bashir, in Havana, Cuba, find as the most important economic partners – and I quote from a Reuters story, he said, “China, India, Pakistan and Malaysia are my main economic partners,” and I therefore appeal to these countries to help us in Darfur because we are desperate and we need to be able to more effectively help and to protect the civilian population.

Q: What will be the guarantee that the agreement will be respected? … I mean on the side of the government. Do you have any elements of such a guarantee?

The second question is on your visit to the IDP camps around Khartoum. How do you see the situation and how do you comment on it?

USG and ERC Egeland: I have no reason to disbelieve the sincerity of the Sudanese negotiators in Addis. I hope and believe that they will provide implementation of both the inclusive political process and increased security.

I had excellent meetings with Vice-President Taha in May when I was last here on my last visit and I am now seeking, on this visit, another audience with the Vice-President. It was not possible to meet President Bashir as I had hoped since they asked me to come after his visit to China.

When I see Vice-President Taha, I will thank him for the 20,000 tons of food that the Sudan government provided back after my appeal in May.

I will also say that we want to work with the Government of Sudan to turn the corner to something better.

The camps around Khartoum have been in a pitiful shape now after too many years. The good news is that we are planning a return of 300,000 people to the south in an assisted and orderly manner and that is good news for Sudan; it is good news for the south; peace is indeed being implemented in the south as we speak.

Q: Mr. Egeland, you said that what is taking place in Darfur – shooting a 12-year old girl – is terror. Do you attribute that to the government or to the rebel groups?

What positive feedback did you receive on some of your demands to the government of Sudan in your last meeting in May?

USG and ERC Egeland: There is enough guilt for this on all parties in Darfur and I would not single out anybody. But it is very clear that militias, rebels, government security forces, all have been implicated in attacks against civilians and attacks against humanitarian workers and our operations. And all equally have to stop.

I was sorry I was prevented from going to the Jebel Marra because I wanted to pass a very strong message to the non-signatory rebels: Stop carjacking; stop paralyzing our lifeline to your people – it is a crime to do so.

After the meeting in May, we got food from the government, we got a lifting of several of the restrictions temporarily, we got better cooperation in many areas – but it didn’t take long before the restrictions came back again. And I think here in Khartoum the minister, the commissioner and others are not aware of what kind of a life it is to be the head of an NGO in this country. Some of these managers thought they came to spend all of their time to save lives and now they find that 70% of their time is spent on restrictions – bureaucratic and other restrictions.

Q: You mentioned that this is a time of truth and you made a humanitarian remark of 1,000 days and 1,000 nights. Why did this moment of truth delay until this moment?

You also said that some states face restrictions and could therefore not carry out their humanitarian tasks. If I am not mistaken, among the functions of the United Nations is to coordinate humanitarian activities – please correct me if I am wrong.

USG and ERC Egeland: On your latter issue, in my good meetings with the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, the commissioner and as well as with the governor in Geneina, I got agreement that we can now work together to lift restrictions and to make it easier for us to help in Darfur. This is a positive development and we welcome that and are setting down commissions where the United Nations, with humanitarian partners, will sit down with the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and his people to try to enable a new lifting of all of these restrictions.

Secondly; in Geneina we agreed with the governor to see how we can now be free to access all of the camps and how all of these blockages can be lifted and how the security situation can be improved.

Indeed we are, as the United Nations, with a role to coordinate humanitarian action. We are there for the government to work with us. We want to turn the corner, together with the government, to something better.

Why did it take a thousand days and a thousand nights? I wonder that myself because this have been stopped in 2003; it could have been stopped in the spring of 2004 when there was a ceasefire and I think there is ample guilt to go around on all sides on why the ceasefires were broken time and again.

I say that this is, in many ways, a particular moment of truth. There have been several such forks in the road before. Now, too much is at stake. I mean a million lives were hanging in the balance in this operation in the spring of 2004. Now four million people need assistance. Never has more been at stake and never could we lose more if it goes wrong; never could we win more if it goes right. I am optimistic for the future in the sense that I now believe that we can now use the Addis Agreement to make progress. I am worried by what I have heard now that one is starting to interpret words that could delay action.

Q: What message do you want to give the United Nations, the Security Council and the international community on the situation that you have seen by yourself?

USG and ERC Egeland: I will indeed report to the Security Council Wednesday morning in New York and I will, as I have always faithfully done, tell the truth as I saw it, as I heard it and as it was conveyed to me by eyewitnesses on the ground. I will tell exactly how I saw actions to the parties to the conflict and I will tell what needs to be done including a political process to stop this carnage. It is not Tsunami; it is not an earthquake; it is not a natural disaster. It is manmade. It was planned and executed by grown men.

I will also propose some ways in which a re-energized African force on the ground can help protect and provide for the civilian population and enable security for humanitarians and others.

Q: You said that you had to cut short your visit from Geneina and did not proceed to el-Fasher or the other areas. Could it be said that this was in protest over the refusal of the authorities to allow you to those camps?

You said that you will report to the Security Council on your visit. You did not visit the other camps. How then will you report in light of the fact that you have not visited all the camps and the other areas in Darfur?

USG and ERC Egeland: The areas I wanted to visit were Jebel Marra to send a strong message to the non-signatory rebels that they have to respect the ceasefire, that they have to stop attacks, that they have to stop harassing humanitarians; I wanted to go to Tawilla to see a very positive example of the African Union force providing security for the internally displaced there and working with the international community – I was prevented from going there as well; and I wanted to go to Kebkabiya where I wanted to see Mr. Musa Hilal and send a strong message related to protection of the civilian population. I was told that I could only go to el-Fasher town and then I said that I can not go on a mission where [indiscernible] where to go and not to go, so I just cut short from Geneina to Khartoum.

I had spoken to hundreds of people, still on this visit, in Khartoum; in Geneina people have come from far away to brief me. I have a very good basis to report to the Security Council of what is at stake here, how difficult it has now become for humanitarians and how desperate it is for civilians that are being attacked on a daily basis now as we have seen this night in the Jebel Marra, and I will build my briefing to the Security Council on that and, of course, I will also come with recommendations to the Security Council on what to do now.

Q: I am back from el-Fasher as of the day before yesterday. I was briefed by the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid of a report presented in conjunction with the United Nations on access to affected areas in the region. He said that the report states that access to these areas stand at 96%. In general, you talk of obstacles to access to the needy. Could you please clarify more on this issue?

USG and ERC Egeland: Precisely, out of el-Fasher, a report came to me from the Governor who said I can not go to any of these places that I mentioned within North Darfur except el-Fasher. So, in a way, it is a small example. I was not allowed to go anywhere outside of el-Fasher as was agreed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, only to el-Fasher town.

In North Darfur [referring to the map], this is the exact x-ray of access where we have limited access and where we have no access. As you can see, there are large areas of North Darfur that are either no-go or we can only go a few days per month. It is very difficult to run an operation in that way. Who is to blame for that? Rebels have to blame for that; government has to blame for that; militias have to blame for that. There are many involved in this. Everybody seems to be to blame for that.

Thank you very much.

Dawn: Thank you everyone. The transcript will be out by the end of the day.

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