Special Report

UN Accused of Caving In to Khartoum Over Darfur

Agencies said to be reluctant to confront Sudanese government about obstructions to humanitarian aid effort.
  • UN peacekeepers distribute water to Darfuris. (Photo: UNAMID - Olivier Chassot)

Amid growing levels of malnutrition, illness and instability in Darfur displacement camps, United Nations aid and peacekeeping agencies are being accused of capitulating to pressure and interference from the Sudanese government and failing in their duty to protect civilians.

Human rights and civil society activists are joining the region’s internally displaced people, IDPs, and Sudanese opposition politicians in calling on UN agencies not to duck their responsibilities in order to keep Khartoum on side.

This comes as conditions in IDP camps deteriorate, with the government delaying food and medical supplies and many children often too hungry to go to school. One Sudanese opposition politician interviewed for this report claimed that some of the weakest camp inhabitants have started to die because of the shortages.

“International humanitarian capacities have been seriously eroded and impaired to a point that leaves Darfuris in a more vulnerable position now than at any other time since the counter-insurgency operations and forced displacements in 2003,” reads a recent paper, Navigating Without a Compass: The Erosion of Humanitarianism in Darfur, published by Tufts University in the United States.

Since 2003 when fighting between the government and rebel groups began in earnest in Darfur, millions of civilians have been forced to leave their villages – which were frequently razed to the ground – and have since lived in displacement camps or fled to eastern Chad.

They have relied heavily on international aid to survive, but according to research by IWPR and Radio Dabanga (an IWPR partner radio station based in Holland), the government – which sees IDP camps as strongholds of rebel support – has consistently worked to thwart the distribution of food, restrict access of relief workers and control the movements of peacekeepers.

In October last year, the head of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, Nils Kastberg, told Fi al Mizan, a radio programme made by IWPR and Radio Dabanga, that Khartoum is preventing his agency from releasing reports about malnutrition in IDP camps.

“Part of the problem has been when we conduct surveys to help us address issues, in collaboration with the ministry of health, very often other parts of the government such as the humanitarian affairs commission interferes and delays in the release of reports, making it difficult for us to respond [in a] timely [manner],” he said.

“We are raising these issues with the government at the moment that the humanitarian affairs commission should not interfere with the release of these reports.”

UNICEF reported early last year that as many as 21 nutritional surveys were conducted since June 2009, but only seven have been released by the humanitarian affairs commission. Six of those showed malnutrition rates of between 15 and 29 per cent, the report stated.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, ICC, say that restricting humanitarian aid is further evidence of a continued genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur by the Khartoum government.

But of the UN agencies engaged in Darfur, only UNICEF and the peacekeeping operation in Darfur, UNAMID, have talked publically about government interference.

Other UN agencies approached by IWPR have declined to speak about the problem, saying this could jeopardise their entire aid operations and lead to them being thrown out of the country. Sudanese opposition politicians say that by failing to speak out, UN agencies are in effect collaborating with the government.

The Sudanese government, meanwhile, insists that it is meeting its obligation to look after IDPs in Darfur.

“I don’t think the government will try in any way not to fulfil its commitments or not to perform its responsibility as regards the humanitarian access,” Mohammed Eltom, from the Sudanese embassy in London, told IWPR.

WALKING A TIGHTROPE

According to UN officials who spoke to IWPR, the Sudanese government is actively preventing UN agencies which operate on the ground from accessing information necessary for compiling much needed reports on the humanitarian situation in the region.

But there are reasons why agencies fail to stand up to Khartoum and confront the interference. Khartoum has proved its willingness to expel international aid organisations which it fears are working
against it. In March last year, in the wake of the arrest warrant issued for President Omar al-Bashir by the ICC, 13 aid agencies were expelled on suspicion of collaborating with the court.

As a consequence, UN agencies feel they must tread very carefully. “We try to produce very credible reports based on impartial information,” one UN source told IWPR. “But this requires us to be careful not to describe all access problems as the government deliberately trying to obstruct humanitarian aid.”

“We don't have the access we'd like into camps in Darfur, or the knowledge we need.”

UN and diplomatic sources who spoke to IWPR say Khartoum is deliberately undermining humanitarian efforts.

“The clear pattern is one of obstruction and making it more difficult for humanitarian organisations to do their work. The ones more concerning to the government are the UN agencies [because] the view that the government has is that it is heavily influenced by UNSC (UN Security Council) members,” Richard Williamson, the former US envoy to Sudan under the George Bush’s administration, told IWPR.

UNAMID is regularly blocked from accessing areas or denied entering airspace over Darfur. Sometimes, this is out of concern for UNAMID personnel. More often, say IDPs, this is because the government wants to bomb suspected rebel strongholds without UNAMID interference.

“The government is very sceptical of international humanitarian groups and the UN. They have not provided safe travel lanes to flow through Sudan. This got worse right after ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir, which was not only a reaction but a way to recalibrate their control,” Williamson said.

The Tufts paper says Khartoum has blocked humanitarian agencies from entering what it describes as unsafe areas. But even that curb on their operations - premised on concerns for their safety - does not account for the erosion of humanitarian capacities, according to the research.

“Where humanitarian access has been maintained there have been serious delays and blocking of key information, for example, the failure to release regular nutrition survey reports, which contain the vital humanitarian indicators that enable the severity of the humanitarian crisis to be judged,” the Tufts paper says.

Meanwhile, people in IDP camps say the situation is deteriorating but no alarm bells are being raised. “Children don’t have enough food to eat,” a Sudanese health worker in one of the Darfur camps told IWPR.

Since early 2009, both UNICEF and the UN aid coordination agency OCHA have failed to regularly publish key humanitarian updates, relied upon by various actors to gauge need in Darfur.

“Crucial information about the humanitarian situation is lacking. There are serious issues with the proper validation of the nutrition survey reports and their immediate release - without such data neither the government nor the international community can properly understand the severity of the humanitarian situation or the efficacy of the response,” the Tufts paper says.

Human rights groups say that this is part of the government strategy to keep attention off Darfur, in the run-up to the January 9 referenda on independence for South Sudan and the Abyei region - especially in the wake of the US promising Sudan that if the votes go smoothly, it will take the country off its terror black list.

“This is part of an attempt to stifle information coming out of Darfur at a very critical time when the government is under a lot of pressure to make the world believe that Darfur is no longer a problem and the conflict is over. We know from our own investigations that this is simply not true,” said Jehanne Henry, Human Rights Watch’s Sudan expert.

But humanitarian agencies are faced with a real dilemma: do they stay in the country put up with interference and shut up, or do they speak out and risk millions of civilians being further cut off from essential aid?

A lawyer for an international NGO told IWPR that UN agencies can and should speak out. “UN agencies should have always the authority to make statements and disagree with the government. That is fully in their mandate. If they don’t [speak out], then they don’t do the basics in the best interests of the people they have to protect,” the source said.

Meanwhile, Eltom, of the Sudanese embassy in London, said that the humanitarian affairs commission, widely regarded as the government agency most responsible for interference, does not obstruct any aid organisations on the ground.

“The main purpose of even establishing the humanitarian affairs commission was to facilitate the work of the humanitarian workers as a one-stop-shop for all of the humanitarian work and to try to coordinate with other agencies as regards all the paperwork and the
logistics, whatever,” he told IWPR.

“It is facilitating rather than restricting the humanitarian work. As long as we have this kind of partnership with the UN in particular and the AU (African Union) then I think one of the things we can think of is a kind of capacity building for the personnel in the administrative units working with the humanitarian aid... problems are administrative, not part of the policy of the government at all.”

CONTRADICTORY OBJECTIVES

But it is clear that the government – which as a sovereign state has primary responsibility for the humanitarian and peacekeeping effort – has different objectives to the non-governmental humanitarian groups and peacekeeping agencies on the ground.

Observers say that hampering access to IDPs is part of a planned strategy aimed at controlling the displacement camps - which the government views as breeding grounds for rebel support - and returning their inhabitants to their former villages.

But IDPs who want to return home have told IWPR that they are scared to do so with no guarantee of security. They also say the government has given their land away to Arab militias.

UN sources have confirmed to IWPR that aid operations are restricted by government interference. “We are concerned about the humanitarian situation. There is much we’d like to do which we can’t in terms of access,” one source said.

Humanitarian workers face constant threats of kidnapping. Three Latvian pilots working for the UN’s World Food Programme were recently released, having been abducted at gunpoint from their homes in Nyala, south Darfur, a few weeks earlier.

“The security situation is difficult, and things like kidnapping create a climate of fear. Staff used to be taken from the camps, but now they are taken even from guesthouses in the towns. Many NGOs have pulled out. There are a lot of very nervous staff in Darfur,” the UN source said.

This has left some UN agencies needing to negotiate with the government in order to fulfil basic tasks.

Speaking to IWPR and the Radio Dabanga programme Fi al Mizan, Ibrahim Gambari, head of the UNAMID operation, accepted there were levels of interference but that UNAMID was addressing them.

“I’ve continuously engaged the government at the highest levels to increase access to UNAMID and the humanitarian community, to ensure full freedom of movement,” Gambari said. “We are making some progress. The government has assured us now that restrictions, when they occur, will be limited in scope, in area, and in full consultation with UNAMID.

“As far as UNAMID is concerned, when we experience restrictions we immediately protest, and most times they are removed.”

When pushed on whether it is appropriate to negotiate on the provision of peacekeeping services, Gambari said that this is the reality of operating on the ground.

“In most cases of course we get issues resolved at the local level. In any case, our attitude is not confrontation, because we have a mission to fulfil, civilians to protect, and communities to serve, and if we can get this done through negotiations we do it while insisting on our rights,” he said.

Scores of IDPs interviewed by IWPR on the ground have said they are confused by what they see as the inaction of UN agencies in the face of government interference.

“It seems that the UN agencies and the international organisations working in Darfur have been deceived by the government. The government is not honest in giving them the true reality on the ground. Even the UNAMID is not reflecting the true situation of Darfur,” said one IDP interviewed by IWPR and Radio Dabanga.

He claimed that the UN has failed the people of Darfur, “It is the UN which should speak about the situation better – the violence and the genocide. But [the agencies] don’t want to say the truth, whether they are too weak to or don’t want to.

“UNAMID has been appointed by the UN to represent the UN and to provide the world with accurate information about the situation, and to reveal all the facts on the ground, but it hasn’t done that so far.”

Another IDP told IWPR and Radio Dabanga, “UNAMID cannot move one inch without government approval. This is not the kind of mechanism you want to help in bringing about peace. If UNAMID is a neutral UN body, it shouldn’t act by orders from the government. UNAMID is accountable before the UN and not the government of Sudan.”

Responding to the IDPs’ frustrations, Gambari, head of the UNAMID operation, said, “It is confusing, but it is also frustrating for us. But then, all those who have influence on all the parties should exercise it, so that all restrictions by whosoever should not take place. We have a Security Council mandate which we are doing our best to implement but we have some realities on the ground which we have to deal with.”

Gambari was also clear that UN agencies should speak up about government interference and the restrictions they face.

“They should tell them. We cannot be thrown out of the country because we are here with the consent of the government, and jointly authorised by both the African Union and the United Nations. What they are afraid of saying for fear of being thrown out, they can tell us (UNAMID) and we will say it. Both privately and publically,” he said.

PLANNED STRATEGY

Still, the threat of expulsion is very real for UN agencies on the ground. Williamson, the former US envoy to Sudan, said this is part of the government’s agenda, aimed at how best to handle the UN in order to meet its own objectives.

“I think there is long standing tension [between UN agencies and the government] and the support is intentionally sporadic in part to keep UNICEF, WFP and other agencies off balance,” Williamson told IWPR. “It’s a way to assert control, it’s a way to lower expectations, to manipulate the aid agencies and exert control over the camps which are seen as a safe haven for [those who oppose the government].”

Williamson said “that’s why in IDP camps you lose electricity which is needed to bring fresh water - to keep leaders off balance and strengthen the [regime’s] hand against anti-government forces in the camps. It’s creating more trouble in the camps”.

Salih Osman, a Khartoum-based Sudanese lawyer and member of the Communist Party, has called on the UN agencies to speak up and says they have a duty not to allow themselves to be manipulated by the government.

“The most shameful thing is that even until now; [the UN] doesn’t even report or release their reports about this humanitarian disaster. The leaders of these agencies are compromising their positions with the safety and interests of the victims. They do that to be allowed to continue to work there. This is corruption,” Osman said.

Henry of HRW said that the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the UN mission to report accurately on what is happening in Darfur.

“There is a need for the UN mission leadership to actually want to be reporting on what is going on in Darfur and describing it accurately. But apparently it is not making this a priority any more. Instead, it seems the mission has been more focused on other priorities responsive to the government’s new strategy for Darfur, which prioritises accelerating IDP returns back to home villages,” Henry said.

“Until the situation improves from a security and human rights perspective, the idea to accelerate returns does not seem very appropriate. This seems more the UNAMID’s focus, these days, since the government announced its new strategy in Darfur. Not so much the human rights mandate, which was at the heart of the original UN mission in Darfur several years ago.”

Scores of IDPs Radio Dabanga and IWPR have spoken to say that they want to return home only when their safety and security can be guaranteed.

The government, they say, has so far made no effort to ensure their safe return to their villages, or ensure their safety once they have gone back. Little effort has been made to rebuild destroyed villages, nor to provide clean water supplies or education or medical services, they say.

As such, Osman, the lawyer and opposition politician, said the UN’s cooperation with the government amounted to collusion and was part of the international failure of the people in Darfur.

The Sudanese government, meanwhile, sees the cooperation of the UN as an endorsement of its strategy for Darfur – namely the return of IDPs to their villages.

“All these players, the UN, the African Union, the government of Sudan and even the IDPs themselves, now are the main endorsers of the new strategy of the government, that has been [in place] for one year. A new way of trying to solve the issue of Darfur,” Eltom said.

“The UN, the AU and other [parties] have all endorsed the new strategy laid out and adopted by the government and they were part of adopting it.

“I don’t think at this time anyone can come up and say that the government is trying to restrict or to hinder [the aid operation].”

KEEPING SILENT

The dilemma facing UN agencies is whether to risk a further government clampdown by publicly denouncing its interference or try their best to work within the constraints to deliver at least a certain level of aid.

“It’s always a challenge for the UN how public to go with their protest,” Williamson said.

Osman, however, was unequivocal about the responsibility of the UN. “This is a huge failure of UN agencies and UN organisations responsible for the protection of the people,” he said. “Why are they there? Why are they accepting the situation, where violations are occurring in the way that no one on the outside can imagine.”

In a written statement to IWPR, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Georg Charpentier, said, “UN humanitarian agencies are not confronted by pressure or interference from the Government of Sudan. WFP, for example, is presently distributing food to 90 per cent of the target population in Darfur. The government has recently extended fast track procedures for NGOs in Darfur until January 2012.

“Humanitarian partners have committed to resolving outstanding issues through constructive engagement with government to build confidence and trust through such mechanisms as the High Level Committee on Darfur.”

Charpentier added that humanitarian agencies “have positively received the government’s strategy for Darfur which draws clear links between the need for security, reconciliation, development and partnership. Humanitarian partners remain committed to meeting the population's needs in the context of an evolving situation, and have supported IDP return where assessed as voluntary and appropriate.”

But HRW has called for agencies to be more open about the challenges they face in Darfur.

“We wish the human rights section would be a lot more vocal and that they would be reporting properly what is going on. They’ve got a dual reporting line so they can use their connection with the [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] in Geneva to publicly report on the human right situation but they don’t, they’re being very silent,” Henry said.

Meanwhile, the UN continues to try to negotiate its way - normally behind closed doors - to improving the situation.

“We want to create an environment in which we can do our work. We want to bring the various actors around the table. I would not be comfortable in negotiating away our humanitarian principles,” a UN source said. “We bring together all the actors, but don't make decisions in a vacuum. When we find obstacles, we have to address them.”

As guests of the Sudanese government, it is questionable how much sway even the UN has over the way it can operate in Darfur.

“The international humanitarian community now exerts ever-decreasing control over its activities as demonstrated by the expulsion and withdrawal of some international staff from the region, and also by the inability of international agencies to access the affected population and undertake proper humanitarian assessments,” the Tufts paper says.

LACK OF REPORTING

The situation in Darfur is compounded by the upcoming referenda in South Sudan which has seen international attention taken off Darfur, observers say.

The Tufts paper says this is even reflected in the work that the UN is doing on the ground.

“Even for UN agencies the focus appears to have shifted to the south and the issues arising from the forthcoming [referenda],” the research says. “Less is known and reported about the Darfur situation. The UN reporting on the humanitarian situation in Darfur has dried up.”

Displacement camp leaders say that the levels of malnutrition, and consequent child mortality, is on the increase – although, in a written statement to Fi al Mizan last year, the World Food Programme said that it is managing to get adequate quantities food to people in camps.
 

Nonetheless, Children interviewed by IWPR and Radio Dabanga in the camps say that they are often too hungry to go to school, or have to go out to work to get money to feed their families.

One camp leader told IWPR and Radio Dabanga, “There is a big shortage in the food supply, and this is affecting children. Babies who depend on their mothers breastfeeding are suffering mostly because their mothers don’t have enough food, and in turn they are not getting enough milk.”

Medical workers in the camps say that clinics for children have been shut down since the expulsion of NGOs, and that medical supplies, as well as food, are subject to delays at the hands of the government.

“There were special centres to treat malnourished children in camps, but they’ve been shut down and there are now hundreds of children who are malnourished and need urgent help,” another camp leader said.

Osman said that inside the camps millions are in severe need. “I’ve been there, and I can assure you that children and women and elderly people have started to die due to the absence of basic needs like medicine,” he said.

VARYING INTERFERENCE

The levels of interference appear to vary at different times and according to which government official is engaged on any given element of the humanitarian response.

“It would be easy if the [commission for humanitarian affairs] was working openly against IDPs, but often they are working with us, but then the military intelligence or police get in the way,” a UN source explained. “Often one part of the government says yes, and another says no.

“We'd like to work around [the commission], but we can only work in the country with government approval.”

According to Kastberg of UNICEF, “Sometimes it is security services that hinder access or delay access, sometimes it is the humanitarian affairs office that delays the release of nutritional surveys. Sometimes it is delays in granting permissions. It is different sections of different institutions which interfere in our work."

Within the government itself there is also confusion about the extent to which interference is a problem and varying levels of acknowledgement over the inability to meet IDPs’ needs. Despite assurances from Eltom on the humanitarian situation, Sudan’s health minister, Abdullah Tia, told Fi al Mizan that the government has not been able to cope since NGOs were expelled.

“Unfortunately, despite all the talk about the ‘Sudanisation’ of the relief work, it has not been a success,” Tia said. “The only thing [the ministry of humanitarian affairs] did was review the work of some [international] organisations and try to coordinate with them, but the ministry of humanitarian affairs ultimately was not able to meet expectations.”

Gambari of UNAMID also acknowledged instances where various government agencies do not seem to be reading from the same page. “I must say that unfortunately, many times instructions are given by Khartoum which are do not translate fully into the behaviour of some officials on the ground,” he said.

He said he was working to address government interference at the local level, “I am in communication with the three walis (state governors) constantly; I am in touch with the presidential adviser in charge of Darfur, and the ministry of foreign affairs. They are sending messages as appropriate to the local authorities, and will continue to do so.”

INTERNATIONAL FAILURE

As well as pressing agencies on the ground to stand up to government interference, commentators have acknowledged that the international community has done little to embolden aid workers in Darfur to challenge Khartoum.

“I’m disappointed US policy has been less robust than it was under President Bush. I think it has had consequences on the ground… and failed to support the UN and other interventions trying to help those victimised in Darfur,” Williamson said.

“I can’t promise you would get a solution if you did this [more robust approach] but that you allow the situation to get worse if you are less vigorous about pushing for accepted norms.”

However, Williamson also acknowledged the realities of the situation.

“I think they [the UN] should be [more robust] but I’m not unsympathetic to the considerations they have,” Williamson said. “The [Sudanese government] has slowly allowed itself to be isolated. The priority of staying in power exceeds the wish to be embraced by the international community. I think we should be doing more. Obama has not robustly condemned attacks and I thought we should [have been] more robust on the expulsion of the 13 aid agencies.”

Gambari called on the international community to get behind the agencies on the ground in Darfur, “We cannot be on our own. They have a responsibility to also support us fully. That includes talking to the government.”

Some put the situation down to the Security Council’s apparent unwillingness to take a firmer stance on Darfur. Having referred the atrocities to the ICC in 2005, the council has been silent since.

“The politics of the Security Council were obviously very important in understanding why the UN was not more robust in its monitoring and human rights reporting,” Henry of HRW said. “I think it is pretty obvious that the UN Security Council is hampered by the politics of [its] various [members].”

However, others insist that instead of relying on the UN in New York, UN agencies on the ground should speak out if there is evidence to suggest the government is not fulfilling its obligations.

If they fear expulsion, David Donat-Cattin of Parliamentarians for Global Action, a network of over 1300 legislators from more than 100 elected parliaments around the world, says the agencies could present a united front.

“If they would act in a harmonised way, then the question for the government would be whether it could expel everyone. The Sudanese are very smart diplomatically and politically speaking, they know how to alternate the carrot and the stick. The government is not willing to completely isolate itself. It didn’t withdraw from the UN charter after the Bashir arrest warrant,” Donat Cattin said.

Osman says the international community has a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to protect lives of millions of survivors in Darfur.

“They need to lobby the government of Sudan. Otherwise, they are facilitating the government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur,” he said.

Simon Jennings and Katy Glassborow are IWPR reporters, and producers of a radio show called Fi al Mizan about justice issues in Darfur. It is broadcast on Radio Dabanga. They work together with Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam and Assadig Mustafa Zakaria Musa Radio Dabanga journalists, to produce Fi al Mizan. With additional reporting from IWPR editor Daniella Peled.


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