The U.S. State Department yesterday issued a statement praising Khartoum’s promise to improve humanitarian access in Sudan. But as the actual language of the statement makes clear, nothing has actually changed on the ground. The Obama administration State Department spokesman speaks of “the Government of Sudan’s recent efforts to improve humanitarian access
But what are these efforts, other than promises of the sort we have heard countless times before? The same National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime that last week “amended the Directives and Procedures for Humanitarian Action” can change them at the drop of a hat, as it has done on innumerable occasions. It is simply disingenuous to declare that that “these revised directives represent a significant step toward improving humanitarian access in Sudan”: again, nothing has changed on the ground.
The highly conditional, not to say speculative characterization of what Khartoum has done is revealing: “We believe when implemented, these revised regulations will facilitate humanitarian actors’ efforts to get aid to those in need.” The possibility of future implementation is all that is being celebrated. Let’s remember that the UN, African Union, and Arab League put together a proposal for humanitarian access to South Kordofan in early 2012. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North immediately accepted the joint proposal; for its part, Khartoum declared its acceptance but promptly reneged on that commitment. And for the past five years the regime has dithered, dodged, reneged on various commitments, and shown continuing bad faith. During this time great numbers of people have suffered terribly and died for lack of humanitarian access. The regime has continued to give encouraging diplomatic signs but in the end simply outwaited an international community that tired of its efforts.
Again disingenuously, the Obama administration spokesman declares:
We also welcome the recent access given to a U.N. interagency team to travel and conduct a multi-sector assessment in Golo, Central Darfur, which included the first civilian aircraft to land in Golo in five years.
First, we need to ask about the implications of a five-year humanitarian embargo and what it reveals of the character of a regime that would impose such an embargo. Secondly, we need to remember that this year’s massive military offensive in Jebel Marra (where Golo is located) was largely successful: access is being permitted only because of a military triumph that included the indisputable use of chemical weapons in egregious violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (see Amnesty International, “Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air: Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Jebel Marra, Darfur,” 109 pages; released September 29, 2016). This blatant violation of international law is nowhere mentioned in celebrating access to Golo, or how Golo came to be firmly in regime hands.
Finally, the statement declares:
Access to this conflict-affected area has allowed the U.N. to conduct a full assessment; and—if sustained—regular air access would enable the international humanitarian community to support relief efforts to Golo and surrounding areas.
Of course the critical phrase is “if sustained.” And judging by the failure of resolve on the part of the international community over the past 14 years in Darfur—including watching UN Security Council resolutions flouted regularly and contemptuously—we have every right to be deeply skeptical about whether Khartoum will feel obliged to “sustain” these efforts longer than international pressure remains.
The regime is deeply hostile to international humanitarian organizations in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. Some thirty organizations have been expelled by the regime or forced to leave because of threats directed at them and intolerable security conditions—insecurity that the regime has deliberately cultivated (“Chaos by Design,” in the words of Human Rights Watch). President Omar al-Bashir and his cronies have declared some of the world’s finest relief organizations to be spies for Israel and the CIA, to be “covers” for various international powers, to be engaged in espionage, to countenance corruption…the list of absurd accusations is long and frequently repeated. International workers have been beaten, raped, and intimidated by violence on innumerable occasions. One notorious incident from 2007 speaks volumes about Khartoum’s attitude and the freedom of intimidation if accords its security officials:
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 [South Darfur], 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. (“Aid workers tell of brutal attack by Darfur police on female colleague”)
We heard nothing from the Obama administration at the time.
The regime has long ago declared that it would be vigorously pursuing a policy of “Sudanizing” humanitarian work in Darfur and elsewhere; this is little more that a cover for ensuring the final removal of all remaining international organizations, and thus international eyes on the ground.
Given this shameful history of abuse, slanderous accusations, and expulsions of these humanitarian organizations, it is highly irresponsible of the Obama administration to celebrate the merely nominal commitments of Khartoum, whether in Jebel Marra, other regions of Darfur, or the large SPLM/A-N-controlled territories in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Denial of humanitarian access on such a scale amounts to crimes against humanity under the terms of the Rome Treaty that is the statutory basis for the International Criminal Court (see my article "On the Obstruction of Humanitarian Aid," African Studies Review, Volume 54, Number 3 | December 2011), pages 165 – 74 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-I6 ).
Praising those guilty of such terrible crimes for mere promises is expediency of the worst sort.
Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights