Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 21 April 2014

Humanitarian groups in Darfur continue to be targeted for expulsion

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By Eric Reeves

April 20, 2014 - On Friday, April 18 Radio Dabanga reported that Khartoum had expelled yet another critical humanitarian organization working in Darfur, this time Merlin (UK). The reason? Because Merlin had merged with Save the Children, which Khartoum had earlier expelled from Darfur on absurdly contrived grounds (March 2009). For according to Khartoum’s Humanitarian Aid Commission, this merger violated "Sudanese law." Merlin—active in Sudan since 1997—has been providing medical assistance to some 600,000 people, including running 28 permanent health facilities.

At the end of January of this year, Khartoum announced that it was suspending the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the very embodiment of international neutrality and humanitarian assistance. The reason? The ICRC refused to accommodate Khartoum’s extortionate demand that funds and resources be transferred to the Sudan Red Crescent. For a range of principled, as well as practical, reasons the ICRC declined to be a victim of Khartoum’s extortion and its immensely important and wide-ranging work was halted.

On March 19, 2014 Radio Dabanga reported that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime was expelling the French organization Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) from Darfur:

ACTED provides support to the displaced people in Zalingei, including water and sanitation for the camps and the surrounding villages before the rain season starts. “At least 50 members of the national staff are employed in the Central Darfur office,” a local staff member said. According to its website, the programme has 83 national staff and 3 internationals working in Sudan. “The action against ACTED comes at a critical time,” the [ACTED] staff member told Radio Dabanga.

These and other expulsions, as well as the creation of impossible working conditions, follow the massive March 2009 expulsion of thirteen distinguished international relief organizations, including two sections of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam/Great Britain, Save the Children/US, and a number of others. Several Sudanese humanitarian organizations were also shut down.

At the time, according to a highly knowledgeable UN official, this represented roughly half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur, and left many areas and humanitarian sectors without effective management or oversight; a great deal of local knowledge and institutional memory was lost. The international community tried to find its voice in demanding that the decision be revoked. But this soon came to nothing in the face of Khartoum’s obduracy, and the huffing and puffing died down quickly, to be replaced in the case of the U.S. with a policy of expedient accommodation. Then-Senator John Kerry, representing the Obama administration as well as the Senate, mendaciously declared on April 17, 2009 that full restoration of humanitarian capacity would be a matter of weeks: "We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent capacity." This capacity was in fact never recovered, and is now even less than it was at the time of the expulsions. And Kerry went further, holding out the promise of rewards for a regime that had just grossly violated international humanitarian law on innumerable counts:

Kerry, who says a new dialogue has been brought about by Obama’s special Sudan envoy Scott Gration, suggested diplomacy could eventually result in a lifting of sanctions against Sudan and its removal from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism. ’Absolutely. That is entirely on the table. I can’t tell you when, that’s a decision President Obama makes," said Kerry. (Reuters [el-Fasher], April 17, 2009)

Moreover, with the expulsion of relief organizations and the consequent denial of humanitarian assistance to desperately needy civilians, the regime was perpetrating what amounted to "crimes against humanity" (see "On the Obstruction of Humanitarian Aid" in African Studies Review). Such unseemly haste to make a deal with the very men who had orchestrated this massively consequential humanitarian expulsion defines both Kerry and the Obama administration’s Sudan policy.

Subsequently there would be other expulsions: Médecins du Monde, for example, the only medical NGO serving the people of Jebel Marra, was expelled in early 2010. And in May of 2012 the regime expelled, again without meaningful explanation, seven international humanitarian organizations working in eastern Sudan, one of the poorest and most severely marginalized of all the regions in Sudan. Sudan Tribune reported at the time:

Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) [Suleiman Abdel Rahman] has ordered seven foreign aid groups to suspend their humanitarian activities in eastern Sudan following the findings of an assessment study reporting infractions they allegedly committed. [The decision ended] the humanitarian activities of the seven aid groups in the three states of Eastern Sudan region: Kassala; Red Sea and Gadaref states. [The seven organizations are] Accord, Goal, Triangle, Save the Children, Plan Sudan, Malo, a British demining group, and a Japanese aid group. [The charge was that] the groups exceeded their license and roles.

We get a chilling sense of Khartoum’s attitude toward foreign humanitarian assistance from words of Nafie Ali Nafie earlier that month, also from Sudan Tribune:

Earlier in May, addressing a rally organised in Port Sudan to provide support to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) Sudanese presidential assistant Nafie Ali Nafie denounced calls for the return of NGOs to South Kordofan and described them [as] "trumpeters of conspiracy." "Those who covet that foreign aid groups [secure] a foothold in the East (Sudan) … should know there is no place for them," he further said.

This absurd propaganda—part of a long-term campaign to demonize international aid organizations as fronts for spies, Zionist infiltrators, and self-enriching opportunists—was designed to cover the regime’s real motives, which include a primary desire that there be as few foreign eyes on the ground in Sudan as possible bearing witness to gross negligence and the most egregious violations of international law. There was also a desire to punish and weaken the people of eastern Sudan for their support of the South during the long civil war. This is what lies behind a more recent suspension of humanitarian activities in eastern Sudan, in this case a UN jobs and assistance project ("UN aid programmes suspended in east Sudan," Agence France-Presse [Khartoum], March 26, 2014):

The programme’s beneficiaries are among 6.1 million people – 18% of the population – needing humanitarian assistance in Sudan.

Yet again, no reasonable explanation was offered. There is a supreme viciousness in using lies and propaganda in an effort to justify starving civilians to death; for eastern Sudan has long had some of the worst malnutrition indicators anywhere in Sudan.

Even before the mass expulsions of March 2009, organizations had been compelled to depart Darfur, forced by the threat of armed violence, or by working conditions that Khartoum deliberately made intolerable. And the threats of expulsion hang constantly in the air, along with more brutally physical threats. An earlier and shocking event tells all too much about the attitude of the regime—and the license it has given police and security forces of all kinds:

Aid workers have described how they watched helplessly as Sudanese police officers dragged a female United Nations worker from an aid agency compound in Darfur and subjected her to a vicious sexual attack. Staff say they feared for their lives when armed police raided their compound in Nyala, dragging one European woman out into the street by her hair and savagely beating several other international staff before arresting a total of 20 UN, aid agency, and African Union staff. [ ]

A UN official in Darfur said: "If the people responsible for beating and molesting the aid workers and UN staff are not punished, others will think they can get away with such crimes and it will happen again. Should the security situation for international aid workers not improve and the overall safety of our staff be assured, we will be forced to withdraw from Darfur.” (The Telegraph [UK] [Nyala, Darfur], January 28, 2007)

The "people responsible" were of course not punished; and while most organizations did not withdraw, their numbers of expatriate workers have plummeted in subsequent years. Normally about ten percent of a major international humanitarian operation, expatriate aid workers in Darfur now make up only about three percent of the personnel. Khartoum has created a set of conditions in Darfur—including engineering a lack of relief capacity—that keeps foreign eyes and observation out even as it punishes a large majority of Darfuris. And by design, this is felt with particular force by the non-Arab/African populations in displaced persons camps as well as in rural and urban areas throughout Darfur. We know, we may be certain from the previous ten years of grim experience in Darfur, that Khartoum has decided upon a strategy of disrupting and compromising humanitarian work as part of its broader counter-insurgency campaign, taking the form of supply delays, visa and travel permit issues (including denial), confiscations, extortion, physical violence—and expulsion whenever it is thought to be "needed."

Past inaction—along with the duplicity of actors such as current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the fecklessness of most European countries—has only encouraged more of the same on Khartoum’s part. The fact that violence in Darfur is more complex, and that there is more often very serious inter-Arab tribal fighting, doesn’t obscure the regime’s clear strategy of denying adequate humanitarian capacity as an indirect means of weakening rebel forces. And this will continue until it is stopped.

The World Accommodates Khartoum’s Savagery, Political Repression, and Economic Mismanagement: Why?

Why, then, can’t the international community muster the courage to halt these expulsions? Why haven’t there been threats of clear and punishing economic sanctions, directed against all that supports the regime in this ghastly genocide by attrition? Such a strengthened sanctions regime would take the primary form of European countries declaring that they will suspend all commercial, business, and construction projects in Sudan until the war on humanitarian relief has clearly and decisively ended. The Europeans should also follow the U.S. in making use of the European banking system, and the Euro in particular—this in order to make Khartoum’s monetary and economic transactions as difficult in Euros as they now are in dollars. At the very least, all talk of debt relief for this most profligate of regimes must end, an issue on which several European countries have spoken with an obscene callousness. By far the largest portion of external debt, now some US$45 billion, has been accrued over the past 25 years while the regime indulged in hugely expensive wars against its own people, in profligate weapons acquisitions (including some two dozen advanced Russian MiG-29s), heavy investment in a domestic arms industry, and in self-enrichment schemes and pay-offs to political supporters.

Every care should be taken that those most economically weak in Sudan be protected from the effect of sanctions, were they to be imposed. Members of the regime and their political supporters should be the targets, and hit as precisely as possible. But it should be clear to all that the regime is presiding over an imploding economy, and that it has contributed pitifully little to the welfare of the marginalized populations of Sudan over so many years of brutal, self-enriching, and tyrannical rule—especially in Darfur and eastern Sudan (as well as the humanitarian embargo imposed on large areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile that remain under control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North). The regime has crippled the agricultural sector during its years in power, and instead of having vast tracts of land that might serve as Africa’s breadbasket, Sudan now must import food, in particular wheat for baking bread (a food staple in the lives of many poorer Sudanese). Recent bread lines and bread shortages were caused by a lack of foreign exchange currency (Forex) with which to purchase wheat abroad. And this shortage of Forex is only one symptom of the catastrophic state of the economy that is the inevitable outcome of regime corruption and misrule:

• Real inflation is running at well over 50 percent, and likely closer to 70 percent in the view of many economists who have actually looked seriously at the Sudanese economy. Coupled with the plunging value of the Sudanese Pound, imports of goods and services will only become more expensive—when they are obtainable. Hyperinflation continues to be a distinct possibility.

• Unemployment and under-employment is very high, especially among the educated young. Sudan’s demographics are those of Arab Spring countries; and given the desperate economic plight of the country, this is a formula for the kind of dissatisfaction the led to the September/October 2013 popular uprisings. These uprisings, in a number of cities and towns, were crushed only because the regime gave the military, security, and police forces "shoot to kill" orders from the very first (Amnesty International, September 26, 2013). Making protests so dangerous may have halted them for now; but anger only grows on the part of Sudanese waiting for the opportunity to bring down the regime, their explicitly stated goal.

• The regime is engaged in costly military conflicts in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Blue Nile—and may soon feel itself obliged to take sides in deciding militarily who will control the Melut/Paloich oil fields of Upper Nile (South Sudan). If production is halted in this, the only currently producing region in South, then Khartoum will lose the hefty transit fees (in hard currency) from oil transported to Port Sudan. Production is now officially at 165,000 bpd, though Luke Patey, author of The New Kings of Crude, believes the real figure to be closer to 135,000 bpd. But even at this reduced production rate, on an annual basis Khartoum stands to lose huge amounts in hard currency if the revenue stream dries up.

• Various international banks, airlines, and other commercial operations have ceased doing business with Sudanese banks and the Central Bank of Sudan (including the central bank of Egypt, banks in Saudi Arabia, and some European banks) and will extend the regime no credit for purchases. This is not done out of moral conviction but the simple fact that Sudan can’t pay its bills in hard currency; and as all are aware, the Sudanese Pound may soon be of exceedingly little value, indeed utterly without value if hyper-inflation begins.

• Although Khartoum claims that Qatar has deposited $1 billion into Sudan’s Central Bank some weeks ago, there are reasons for skepticism, especially given Khartoum’s disposition to lie and past Qatari reneging on such commitments. The announcement itself, of course, cost nothing (although no doubt rankled Egypt) and yet had the potential to ease pressure on the Sudanese Pound. But clearly the black market in currency isn’t convinced: the Pound sank last week to an all-time low of 8.85 to the dollar in Khartoum trading.

• Sudan is widely perceived to be an extremely corrupt country, most conspicuously within the ranks of regime officials. Transparency International/The Global Coalition Against Corruption ranked Sudan at the bottom of its 2013 list: 174th on a list where last place was 175. This is immensely discouraging to economic development, especially in the total absence of Forex.

• Sudan is also widely known for its extreme repression of media freedoms and freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders ranked press freedom in Sudan extremely low: 170th of 179 countries (2013 World Press Freedom Index). This is hardly a surprise, since the Khartoum regime’s survival strategy entails shutting down all meaningful political opposition and the expression of opposition views.

The people of Sudan have received—and can expect—very, very little help from Khartoum, whether or not economic sanctions are imposed. Those who have benefited from the boom years of oil exports—in the regime itself, within the various security services and bureaucracies, and among those who have been politically loyal cronies—long ago made clear that they would pass on none of these benefits to the vast majority of Sudanese who typically live impoverished and very often malnourished lives. Figures and statistics that should be the shame of any government, and of a world that continues to allow the terrible human suffering reflected in these numbers, include:

• Malnutrition: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports in its most recent issue of Humanitarian Bulletin/Sudan (April 13, 2014):

On 10 April 2014, the United Nations Food and Agriculture (FAO) said that some 3.3 million Sudanese are currently suffering from food insecurity, with numbers likely to rise to 4 million in the coming months. This is due to a combination of increased conflict and displacement in Darfur, refugee movement from neighbouring South Sudan, poor harvests and spiraling food prices. This means one out of every nine Sudanese will be food insecure. In some areas of Sudan, existing crisis levels of food insecurity are expected to deteriorate to emergency levels in the coming few weeks, bringing an even higher degree of acute malnutrition with devastating consequences for vulnerable groups, FAO said.

• Rapid inflation in food and fuel prices falls, as always, disproportionately on the poor. Bread shortages are a sign of what is to come, and occurs among those who will suffer most.

• A recent study by UNICEF found that:

…survey results show a mix of very different realities across the country with high levels of stunting (chronic malnutrition) and low levels of coverage for safe water and sanitation in some areas. Poor child feeding practices are a problem across the country, with localities in Kassala and Gedaref states among the most critical. The Eastern region and the three Kordofan states have the lowest coverage of safe drinking water and improved latrine facilities, while the Red Sea, Blue Nile and the Darfur region show the highest prevalence of diarrhoea.

UNICEF also reports in the study that it expects more than 200,000 cases of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) in Sudan for the present year. SAM among children under five is typically fatal if not treated with emergency nutritional measures (UNICEF, April 3, 2014).

A recent UN World Health Organization ("Sudan Health Sector Fact Sheet"/2014) found that: "5.75 million people in Sudan are in need of basic health services. The number of health personnel in Darfur is five times lower than the WHO benchmark." These people live overwhelmingly in the marginalized regions of Sudan.

Last year Sudan Tribune reported that "Sudan languished at the lower end of the latest Human Development Index (HDI) published recently by the United Nations, ranking 171 out of 187 countries included world-wide" (March 18, 2013).

And most fundamentally: the number of displaced persons (including Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile) is now well over 3 million human beings.

Khartoum has simply made no effort to improve the lives of those living in marginalized regions. Instead, it continues to deplete agricultural resources by selling or renting land to Arab and Asian countries looking to establish their own food security. Radio Dabanga reports (March 30, 2014) that the regime recently sold 100,000 acres of farmland to Bahrain, only the most recent of a great many sales and "agreements," over many years, transactions that mortgage Sudan’s agricultural future even further.

And this is the regime that the world community allows to harass, attack, obstruct, and expel those working courageously in international humanitarian aid operations, attempting to do for the people of Sudan what the regime simply refuses to do itself.

Darfur in extremis

But it is the looming humanitarian crisis in Darfur that must command our most immediate attention: if UNAMID continues to perform as poorly as it has to date, and if the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations does decide to begin down-sizing this protection force (as has again been recently suggested), this may well be the final signal to humanitarian organizations that it is time to withdraw. Although 97 percent of the staff of these organizations are Sudanese nationals, and these people will struggle to sustain what they can, withdrawal of international organizations means withdrawal of their resources and oversight. It will be a catastrophe. Indeed, the consequences of more than a decade of ethnically-targeted destruction are already catastrophic. This is why we saw more than 400,000 people newly displaced in 2013, and an additional 250,000 people as of April 2014, according to OCHA. Altogether, far more than 2 million people have been newly displaced, many for the second or third time, in the six years since the deployment of a tragically incompetent UNAMID. Displacement and violence have always correlated extremely highly in Darfur, and we must accept that these displacement figures are our best indication of levels of violence, despite the self-serving lies by various officials of UNAMID.

UNICEF Representative in Sudan Geert Cappelaere declared in a press conference (February 3, 2014):

Half of the children in Darfur are out of school, and 40 percent of them suffer from chronic malnutrition, the Representative of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sudan revealed on Monday [February 3]. UNICEF Representative Geert Cappelaere on Monday briefed the press about the conclusions of a study carried by UN agencies in Sudan. He stated that minors constitute 65 percent of the population in Darfur. Most of them are living in camps for the displaced. A total of 1.2 million children in Sudan’s western region do not have access to basic services. Only six women out of 100 give birth in health centres. 300 out of 100,000 women die in childbirth.

Forty percent of children in Darfur are suffering from chronic malnutrition. And yet the UN refuses to release data about the more serious Global Acute Malnutrition rates, a sign that Khartoum has made very clear that it does not wish the world to know the extent of extreme food insecurity in Darfur. This is a catastrophe, and the world needs to take seriously the possibility that hundreds of thousands of additional deaths in Darfur will begin to occur during the coming rainy season and the latter part of the "hunger gap," which will end only with a successful autumn harvest, something that appears increasingly unlikely. The world must take this possibility seriously, as well as the desperate plight of many hundreds of thousands in Blue Nile and South Kordofan who continue—now for almost three years—to be denied all humanitarian access by Khartoum’s génocidaires.

How can such barbarism be tolerated? Why are there so few voices speaking specifically to Khartoum’s devastating war of attrition against humanitarian relief in Darfur? Why do international actors of consequence—including the U.S., the EU, and most dismayingly the UN and the AU—refuse to acknowledge how deep the current crisis is? and how devastating a continuation of Khartoum’s assault on relief assistance will be?

I hear no answers, nor do the people of Darfur—merely the unctuous reiterations of past platitudes about a "deep concern" that takes no meaningful form. Again and again and again, in most of their dispatches, Radio Dabanga publishes desperate pleas from Darfuris on the ground—desperate for protection, food, medical care, and clean water. They are anguished pleas, and they are rightly uncomprehending of why their voices are not heard. Why are they not?

The world will not outlive this shame. Far too much has been recorded not to shock those who in the future look back on this time and wonder how we could possibly have allowed such terrible human destruction and suffering to continue before our very eyes for more than a decade.

Eric Reeves is a Professor at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan and South Sudan.



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