Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Funding False Hopes in Darfur

Governments that pay for humanitarian effort must act to curb interference by Khartoum.
By Simon Jennings, Katy Glassborow
  • Representatives of the African Union, United Nations, and the Government of the Sudan meet in Addis Ababa to discuss the UNAMID mission in Darfur. (Photo: UN Photo/Olivier Chassot)
    Representatives of the African Union, United Nations, and the Government of the Sudan meet in Addis Ababa to discuss the UNAMID mission in Darfur. (Photo: UN Photo/Olivier Chassot)

Countries that fund the humanitarian aid effort in Darfur should pressure the Sudanese government to stop hampering the delivery of assistance to people displaced by conflict in the region, experts on international intervention in conflict areas say.

The United Nations agencies on the ground handling the delivery of food and humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons, IDPs, and carrying out peacekeeping missions in Darfur have been accused of allowing their work to be compromised by Khartoum’s interference.

However, Jan Pronk, who served as the UN special representative in Sudan from 2004 to 2006, told IWPR that there was only so much the UN agencies on the ground could do in negotiations with Khartoum, and that it was up to the countries that fund them to back them up properly.

“It is the duty of donor countries to take on the fight themselves… As [funders of] the humanitarian agencies it is their money, it is their taxpayers’ money,” Pronk said. “Not doing so amounts to hiding behind the Security Council; hiding behind the fact that the Security Council is being paralysed.”

The UN Security Council can only increase the pressure on Khartoum with the agreement of its member states, which to date has not been forthcoming.

The war in Darfur has caused the displacement of 2.5 million people since 2003. Government aircraft have razed villages to the ground, and militias allied with Khartoum are accused of major human rights abuses targeting local civilians.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to face charges of genocide and charged two of his associates with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

ICC prosecutors say the government’s efforts to block aid from reaching civilians and the dire conditions still facing IDPs amounts to further evidence of genocide.

As peace talks stall between rebel groups and the government, fighting has recently escalated again in Jebel Marra and other parts of Darfur. The UN says that between December 2010 and mid-March 2011, fighting has caused the displacement of a further 70,000 Darfuris, though camp leaders put this figure much higher.

ACCESS TO CRISIS AREAS BLOCKED

Darfur has prompted one of the largest international donor efforts of recent years. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2003, the United States has provided more than three billion US dollars’ worth of food and humanitarian assistance to Darfur and eastern Chad, where many refugees have gone.

The UK has been a consistent donor, including annual contributions of 12 million pounds (almost 20 million dollars) in 2010 and 2011 to the UN’s Common Humanitarian Fund. Last year, the fund received over one billion dollars in funding for Sudan.

The international aid effort is being hampered by the Sudanese government, and aid sector insiders say this has reached unprecedented levels in recent months, making life impossible for IDPs who rely on aid to survive.

Government agencies regularly prevent peacekeepers from UNAMID, the African Union/UN Hybrid operation in Darfur, and various UN agencies from travelling to locations where they do not want an international presence. Local officials, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services, NISS and the Humanitarian Aid Commission, HAC, run by Khartoum, are also accused of threatening aid workers and creating a climate of fear that is paralysing the aid effort.

The HAC is working to the Sudanese government’s agenda, so its objectives differ from those of the UN agencies and of the donor countries which fund their work.

“Very often, national security or military intelligence or even – when you get to the roadblock – just the regular armed forces, will deny you access,” a Khartoum-based diplomat who asked to remain anonymous said. “This happens not only to the international NGOs; it also happens to UNAMID.”

He added that Jebel Marra was one of the areas to which international organisations were denied access, usually for reasons of “security”.

Where aid is able to get through, agencies find themselves at the beck and call of the Sudanese government. The diplomat said this was “a very dangerous road to go down, because you will buy into the government’s strategy, which is not really needs-based as it should be.”

The consequences of this kind of interference are dire. UN staff, including the head of the UNICEF agency for children, Nils Kastberg, have reported being unable to carry out assessments of humanitarian needs in Darfur.

If individuals working for international agencies on the ground raise the alarm, or even challenge the government over cases of interference, they risk being thrown out of the country.

“They often just get told by the NISS, ‘you have to leave because we can’t guarantee your safety any more’,” the diplomat said. “If the NISS says you leave Darfur, you don’t hang around and see if maybe they’re bluffing. You leave. It is a veiled threat. It does happen.”

Without access to large areas of Darfur and with civilian populations stranded, agencies are struggling even to calculate the extent of the need on the ground, let alone ensure that supplies reach the right places.

“I think [the knowledge of humanitarian needs on the ground] is accurate in places but in certain areas we don’t have that visibility,” Nancy Lindborg, of the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, said.

As a consequence, IDP camp leaders report a shortage of food and medical supplies across the region, leading to a rise in child malnutrition and mortality. Children say they are too hungry to go to school and often have to take on work to help pay for food, which is purchased on the camp’s black market.

“The assessments are a huge issue,” the Khartoum-based diplomat told IWPR. “You are reliant on the HAC. In a sense they will tell you, ‘yes there are needs over there’ and they will guide you to government-held territory where they feel there are needs.”

The Khartoum-based diplomat expressed concern that such behaviour equated to the HAC misdirecting the aid effort to areas that suit the government, rather than where the need is greatest.

“You go down a very slippery slope, because you see some NGOs already starting to work in different areas they have been pointed to by HAC, just to make sure they can keep working in other areas,” the diplomat said.

GOVERNMENT DENIES HAMPERING AID EFFORT

The Sudanese government says its various arms and agencies present no threat to international personnel, and do not obstruct international aid efforts.

“With the exception of some areas where there are security problems, we don’t impose any restrictions on UN agencies,” Sudanese minister for humanitarian affairs, Mutrif Siddig, said.

Where there are security issues, Siddig says that the government leaves it up to the UN how to proceed.

“We provide the advice, we provide the information but we leave it for… the UN agencies,” he said.

The government argues that aid should be used to help people return to their homes rather than sustain them in IDP camps.

“We encourage the return of IDPs to their original villages on a purely voluntary basis and [given] conducive conditions,” Siddig said. “We do this process collectively with different UN agencies and international NGOs. It is not something that is imposed by the government on IDPs.”

At the same time, the government regards the IDP camps as strongholds for rebel activity, so reducing the numbers of people there can be seen as its way of weakening armed resistance.

The lack of security and infrastructure across Darfur means that in reality, many IDPs are unable to return. In addition, as Khartoum is party to the ongoing conflict, it is difficult to see IDP returns as viable in the near future.

“The government says it is going to provide those kind of conditions for the IDPs to return, and is pushing the NGOs [to accept this]. At the same time it is shooting, killing, bombing. It is still using militias of one tribe or another with impunity,” said Fouad Hikmat, an advisor with the International Crisis Group.

UN agencies on the ground in Sudan are constantly negotiating with the government to win access to areas of humanitarian need. The UN’s “high-level committee” meetings with the government have yet to yield substantive results.

“We are not just holding meetings to have more meetings,” the diplomat added. “We have meetings because we need to resolve certain issues. And they never get resolved.

“You get the most glowing promises and ‘everything is fine’ sort of talk at the Khartoum level, and then when you actually go down to Darfur, it’s business as usual – access is denied, flights can’t take off. People get visits from NISS in the middle of the night.”

The official previously in charge of delivering aid to Darfur’s displaced people – former humanitarian affairs minister Ahmad Harun – has been indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity in the region.

WHO SHOULD LEAD ON PRESSURING KHARTOUM?

While UN member states do not openly complain about Sudanese government interference, diplomats and aid workers have stressed the need to pressure Khartoum to cooperate with international agencies.

“We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance and press all parties to ensure that there is the access and security that enables us to deliver aid in the most accountable way possible,” Lindborg said. “You need to have the UN having direct conversation with Khartoum and you also need to have direct contact through the donors, both pressing the importance, with the common message, of the need for security and access,” she said. “It is not pointing fingers, [saying] ‘you take the lead’. It is that both need to be doing that.”

Behind closed doors, UN agencies are appealing to international donors to give them more support in dealing with Khartoum.

“We are constantly asking donors to be more vocal in outlining the challenges that we face, and in helping us to overcome these,” a UN source said, speaking to IWPR on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats interviewed by IWPR said they were right behind the aid effort, but some insisted it was for the UN rather than individual donor countries to take the lead on negotiations with Khartoum.

“This is a concern as much as to the UN as it is to us. We believe very strongly that the UN has responsibility [to take it up with Khartoum],” the Norwegian ambassador to Khartoum, Jens-Petter Kjemprud, said.

“When specific events come up we might raise it with the government but mainly we make our feelings heard through the UN. I think the UN should speak for its member states, and can best do so when they have such a big mission on the ground.”

IWPR contacted the UN missions of three of the Security Council’s permanent members – the US, Britain and France – but none would speak on the record about Sudanese interference in UN aid efforts in Darfur or what they were doing to counter the problem.

One diplomatic source said embassies regarded it as suicidal to speak out against Khartoum on the issue.

“If you stick your head out, there is a huge chance of it getting chopped off so that’s why we try and push the UN to do it. With diplomatic missions it is a lot more difficult [to get expelled], but they can make your life really hard,” the diplomat explained.

UN AS “WHIPPING-BOY”

Observers have questioned the approach taken by the UN on the ground, and demanded a more robust response to government interference – particularly from UNAMID, which has recently pledged to take a tougher stand.

The UN, however, is itself caught between standing up to the government at the risk of expulsion and allowing its activities to be controlled by Khartoum. UN workers on the ground say it is not just up to them to ensure aid gets through.

The UN source IWPR spoke to said, “I’ve been in many meetings where donors have been sometimes challenging us as agencies, and say. ‘Why are you allowing the government to push you around, and why aren’t you… being tougher?’ And we say to them, ‘Why don’t you speak up for a change, why don’t you take this up with the government?’.”

Without coherent backing from the Security Council, the individual UN agencies lack any comprehensive structure and the ability to speak with one voice.

“There is no such thing as the UN as such,” Mukesh Kapila, who served as UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan between 2003 and 2004, told IWPR. “The UN is a cluster of agencies each of which have their own culture [and] personality… so you can’t expect the UN to behave in a coherent manner, or even those within the same agency to do that.”

Kurt Mills, who lectures in international rights at Glasgow University, drew parallels with other recent areas of conflict, saying, “You very rarely see situations where the UN actually does what it needs to do and supports the humanitarians in the way they need to be supported. Bosnia, Rwanda – exactly the same thing.”

This lack of structure, Mills says, makes it all the more important for UN member states to give aid agencies their support on the ground.

“It is very easy to say, ‘we’ll give this over to the UN’,” he said. “The UN is always a sort of convenient whipping boy, a convenient excuse for not doing those things that you say you want to do but you don’t actually want to do.”

LOSING SIGHT OF THE BIG PICTURE

Some analysts say that as well as a lack of coordination among donors and individual agencies, the international community’s overall strategy is confused. The pressing need to get humanitarian aid to IDPs in Darfur has led to a tendency to focus on that as the core issue, and forget about the larger context of conflict.

The Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in March 2005, but subsequently, as Sudan failed either to cooperate with the court or cease the bombing campaign in Darfur, the international community’s resolve appeared to falter.

The dilemma was whether to pressure Khartoum on the ICC indictment or continue to be able to deliver humanitarian aid.

A leaked British diplomatic cable from March 2009, published by the Wikileaks website, acknowledges that pressing for a Security Council resolution on Sudan would probably strengthen calls for the ICC indictment to be deferred for “humanitarian reasons”. This, it said, would put the UK “in a difficult position between support for the ICC and humanitarian relief in Darfur”.

When IWPR asked the Foreign Office to speak about on its position, the response was that the policy was not to comment on leaked cables.

However the cable appears to reflect a conundrum facing donor countries. With myriad issues to address, focusing on aid provision may offer the most convenient form of action.

Kapila is concerned that focusing mainly on the humanitarian agenda has overshadowed the broader need to address underlying issues in Darfur and hold to account those responsible for committing atrocities there.

Kapila says this separation of the issues has played into Khartoum’s hands. Even before the ICC indictments, he said, “I remember being told that the whole thing in Darfur was a humanitarian issue and that, as humanitarian coordinator, my job was to get humanitarian aid in, and I wasn’t doing my job properly if I didn’t get enough aid in.

“This was of course absolutely what the Sudanese wanted to hear, because what it meant was you could avoid tougher questions on the violence and the political issues involved.”

Instead of allowing this to happen, Kapila argues that “it is important that humanitarian aid is not used as a distraction for the other issues… One needs to take a system-wide approach, like for example bringing justice.”

Donor states understandably do not want to withhold or jeopardise aid flows, which would harm the people of Darfur.

“There are many reasons for pouring in money. One reason is to genuinely want to help. The other reason is, knowing that one can’t help very effectively, to salve one’s conscience,” Kapila said. “So as long as one is pouring in money, even if it is ineffective, it is a way of saying we are doing something. And money is at least the easiest thing to do. And governments can be quite cynical in that regard.”

Asked about the money USAID puts into aid for Darfur, Lindborg acknowledged it was not all getting through, but said, “We continue to press UNAMID and we continue to press the government to ensure that there is greater access and greater security, specifically so we are able to ensure that the assistance is being effective, that it is reaching the people who most need it.”

COLLECTIVE OR UNILATERAL SANCTIONS?

Major western states provide voluntary assistance direct to UN agencies on the ground, over and above their contributions as member states. Some observers say this gives them an added responsibility to take a stand on the UN’s behalf.

The US and UK make regular statements about what they expect of Khartoum. Asked what steps the US was taking to prevent interference with the aid process, Lindborg said it was a matter of “continual conversation, continual bringing to [Khartoum’s] attention specific incidents where there have been either delays or lack of permission to move forward”.

Pronk argues that individual statements have very little effect on the Sudanese authorities.

“European and US statements do not mean anything,” he said. “They are not reading those statements in Khartoum, they don’t care. They only care if there is a very concrete consequence to non-implementation. That comes down to the joint force of the donor countries with regards to violations of humanitarian law.”

Broader international sanctions have not had much effect, either. A UN arms embargo has been in place since 2005, and the European Union has not signed off on the Cotonou agreement promoting trade and development because of Sudan’s refusal to recognise the ICC.

Rather than political statements, both Pronk and Kapila would like to see concrete action that hurts Khartoum economically and politically, including steps outlined in previous Security Council resolutions.

“I would say the balance is not right, and clearly more pressure could be put,” Kapila said. “But this depends on the tools of that pressure. This is where sanctions and other means to hurt those who are being obstructive are probably relevant.”

Article 41 of the UN Charter allows for “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” While previous resolutions on Sudan have threatened such action, none has been implemented by the Security Council.

Pronk says individual donor countries could implement such threats on their own without waiting for the Security Council to act. He raised the prospect of such a series of measures against Khartoum by individual states – withdrawing from investments in Sudan, and imposing “smart sanctions” that would harm the regime rather than the people.

“You have to be active,” he said. “Countries are very slow and lazy. If countries say, ‘we cannot do much more without taking a common position’, it is another example of not taking the whole issue very seriously”.

MULTIPLE NATIONAL AGENDAS

The lack of a common position and the will to stick to it is a recurring theme in the international approach to Darfur.

“Governments have their self-interest and they have their genuine differences. Some want to go at it hard, some want to go at it soft. [This] reflects national traditions on how they conduct their foreign affairs,” Kapila explained.

Pronk is critical of mixed messages that some western governments send to Khartoum. For example, government ministers visiting the Sudanese capital and the IDP camps in Darfur often sent signals that differed from the position taken by their ambassador.

“Mixed messages are paralysing the operation because they are always being abused by the Sudanese politicians and diplomats. They are so skilled at being able to play parties against each other,” said Pronk.

Furthermore, individual member states of the European Union behaved differently from the EU’s agreed common position, Pronk said. Although the EU denied Khartoum the Cotonou agreement, individual states such as the UK continue to pursue bilateral trading relationships with Sudan.

Washington, too, has more than one set of priorities in dealing with Sudan – on the one hand taking a tough line on Darfur, while on the other engaging Khartoum in the “war on terror”, Pronk said.

“There are governments who think that they have an interest in keeping good relations with the Khartoum regime. That is the major issue and that is true particularly for the US,” he said. “The US has spoken out harshly, but Khartoum thought that they didn’t mean it because the US needed the regime in Khartoum – both were fighting the same enemy.”

IWPR asked the US State Department to comment on this point, but it declined to do so.

Khartoum sees differing western approaches as a weakness to be exploited. Pronk gives the example of expulsions of foreign NGOs, where country concerned protested, but others remained silent for fearing that “their” NGOs would be thrown out as well.

Another reason why the international community may be taking a softer line than it might on Darfur issues is the situation around South Sudan, where a recent referendum resulted in a decision to secede. The future of South Sudan will require delicate diplomatic work with Khartoum, with many issues yet to be worked out, not least Abyei, a border district whose future status as part of northern or southern Sudan has yet to be determined by referendum.

According to Hikmat, the Sudanese government realises it has a strong hand because its continuing cooperation over southern secession is seen as essential. As he put it, “the government now has a sort of international immunity”.

“They are not afraid of international decisions or war sanctions or whatever, knowing that they are needed on the other side,” he added.

Some analysts argue that even if additional sanctions were put in place, it would still not give western donor countries the necessary leverage to pressure Khartoum into cooperating.

Much of the investment in Sudan now comes from the Middle East and China, so that some see western economic leverage as insignificant.

As a result, Sudan is able to build infrastructure and extract oil leaving Khartoum in a strong position to be obstinate on Darfur aid issues.

“Sudan still functions as a country. They were fighting a war. They were digging the oil. They are doing all these things,” Hikmat said.

TIME FOR ACTION

As efforts to prevent Khartoum from obstructing the flow of aid continue to stall, observers say individual donor countries need to do more to track where their money is going, if only to provide accountability.

“Victims are losing trust. They feel the international community has let them down,” Salih Osman, a lawyer and member of the Sudanese parliament, said. “People abroad don't know about the situation. In Europe, you pay money to the operations, but you are not concerned how the money is being used.”

He continued, “There are a lot of mechanisms to tell Khartoum that it is time to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the people who need it, who are already perishing.”

According to the UN source who spoke to IWPR, donors are increasingly trying to keep track of where their money goes.

“Donors are increasingly coming to us and saying they want to ensure tighter monitoring and more accountability for the projects they are funding,” the source said. “We are seeing them become even more strict on this in the Darfur context at the moment.”

The State Department would not give IWPR an interview on the issues raised in this report, but sent a statement saying it was committed to ensuring the aid effort could proceed without hindrance.

“The people of Darfur have suffered for too long, and the international community must be more resolute in moving the parties toward full resolution of the conflict,” it said. “We continue to press the Sudanese government to ensure the security of civilians, and have urged the government of Sudan to provide unfettered access to UNAMID, international aid workers and NGOs.”

Britain’s Foreign Office turned down a request for an interview on its actions to counter Sudanese interference in the humanitarian aid effort.

However, the minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, wrote a letter to IWPR saying the Foreign Office continues “to call on the GoS [government of Sudan] and all armed groups to allow UNAMID and humanitarian agencies full and unhindered access across Darfur. [The] ambassador in Khartoum regularly raises this issue with the GoS and we will continue to do so.

The letter said that Britain would continue to “work closely and engage with the North”, but that “this must not come at the expense of our concerns over serious ongoing violations of human rights in Sudan and the lack of access for vital humanitarian work in Darfur”. It added that there was no question of Britain prioritising commercial links over “Sudan’s very real and pressing human rights problems”.

Analysts monitoring the aid situation see little room for optimism unless the broader international approach to Darfur changes. Without wider international support, humanitarian agencies will remain at the mercy of the Sudanese government, to the detriment of the civilians they are trying to help, they say.

“Humanitarian actors are faced with situations where they’re in there without any proper back up,” Mills said. “It comes back to all these interests that are at stake that have little to do with actually protecting people.”

IWPR’s UN source said that if aid agencies are to be able to operate effectively in Darfur, the donor countries must set aside their individual priorities and establish a common position.

“In cases where we do have strong alignment amongst all the main donors, it is much more effective than in cases where we don’t. Coordination amongst donors is also very important. And they know that themselves,” he said.

“They know that sometimes they pull in different directions and, tactically, look at things differently. But it is not just for us to tell donors how they should be effective; it is for them to resolve some of these issues amongst themselves.”

Simon Jennings and Katy Glassborow are IWPR reporters in The Hague.