Civilians at Risk: Human Security and Humanitarian Aid in Darfur

Amidst the various comments and commentary arguing that war is over in Darfur, that there are only remnants of previous violence in the form of “ very low-intensity” conflict, several recent reports suggest that human security and humanitarian assistance are deeply imperiled. The gradual shift in international attention to the crises in Southern Sudan and Sudan’s national elections, while perhaps inevitable, has worked to obscure the immense dangers that continue to confront civilians throughout Darfur.

Eric Reeves
January 17, 2010

Darfur has in recent months received considerably less attention from news organizations, as well as human rights and policy groups. Sudan’s place in the news is now dominated by the upcoming April elections for national and regional offices; by growing violence and instability in various regions of Southern Sudan, as well as a vast and growing humanitarian crisis; and by the challenges of ensuring that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) survives. There is belated recognition that unless the Southern self-determination referendum—the linchpin of the CPA—is guaranteed, war will almost certainly resume, unleashing catastrophic violence throughout Sudan and destabilizing the entire region. With less than a year until the scheduled referendum, there are already many signs that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum has no intention of allowing the South to secede peacefully.

The regime’s duplicitous behavior in attempting to renege on the recent referendum legislation is only an especially brazen example of bad faith. But we may see another more telling example in the conduct of the April elections, which will certainly be rigged to ensure that current NIF/NCP President Omar al-Bashir is returned to office, perhaps with an electorally packed National Assembly, with a majority great enough to engineer changes to the Interim National Constitution, to abrogate the terms of the CPA, or to declare a “state of emergency.” Certainly the NIF/NCP controls the electoral apparatus, has the advantage of a vast patronage system, and has already abused the integrity of the elections with a deeply compromised census and many violations of laws governing voter registration. And yet to monitor elections that are now only three months off, the international community is presently represented in Sudan—a country of almost a million square miles—by only two dozen observers from the Carter Center (US).

Despite this very small presence, Carter Center officials recently spoke forcefully about the regime’s actions in the face of electoral challenges:

“Election observers in Sudan said on Friday they were gravely concerned about government crackdowns on opposition rallies that undermined ‘political rights and fundamental freedoms’ ahead of polls in April. ‘The [Carter] Centre is gravely concerned by the recent action of the security forces in Khartoum to restrict legitimate activity related to the exercise of freedom of assembly, association and speech,’ a report by the observers said.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], December 18, 2009)

Khartoum has already given abundant evidence of hostility to international election monitors, claiming that a number of them have “ulterior motives” and a “hostile attitude towards Sudan” (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2009)

But the realities that will confront election monitors, however many are eventually deployed, are better captured by Amnesty International, which declared in the wake of the early December attacks on demonstrators that this “was an example of the ‘culture of violence’ adopted by al-Bashir’s government” (Sudan Tribune, December 7, 2009). Human Rights Watch has bluntly asserted that “Sudan lacks the conditions for free and fair elections” (The Guardian [UK], December 7, 2009), an assessment echoed in many reports on Sudan’s electoral prospects.

[ For previous assessments of the election process in Sudan, see my analyses of:

June 28, 2009 at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article246.html
August 25, 2009 at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article248.html
November 9, 2009 at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article251.html ]

The decision by US special envoy Scott Gration to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the elections will be fraudulent is at once willful and disingenuous, and further evidence of an accommodation of Khartoum that has poisoned his relationship with Darfuri civilians and the rebel leadership, as well as with the political leadership in the South. He speaks glibly of working toward “credible elections in April,” ignoring the vast amount of evidence that these elections cannot possibly be credible (“Remarks on the Five Year Anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan,” January 8, 2010, Washington DC). He declares that the elections are important because they will allow “all the parties of Sudan to participate in the process.” But simple “participation” in a rigged process is actually counterproductive: it will work to give legitimacy to a triumphant al-Bashir regime, especially among Arab and African countries that themselves have no inclination to conduct fair or “credible” elections. The NIF/NCP leadership also believes that an electoral victory, however tainted, will lessen the pressure currently deriving from the International Criminal Court indictment of al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

FOCUS ON DARFUR

Elections in Darfur are likely to be the most seriously compromised in all of Sudan. Although the UN/African Union force (UNAMID) claims that two thirds of eligible voters were registered in November and December (PANA [Addis Ababa], January 13, 2010), this is extremely unlikely and reflects an unwarranted willingness to accept Khartoum’s account of registration tabulations as well as the significant distortions of Darfur’s demographics in the 2008 census. Huge areas in Darfur are too insecure for either registration or voting to take place; those in both rebel-held territory and many of the larger camps have made clear their hostility to the idea of registration and elections under current circumstances; and some of the largest camps have seen no registration at all. Numerous anecdotal reports of registration fraud have been highlighted by Radio Dabanga and other Darfuri sources.

Darfuris as a whole are divided on the question of whether or not to participate in the elections, but a clear majority among non-Arab/African tribal groups is opposed to participation at the present time. Those in the diaspora are particularly emphatic. This is in part because of a fear that registering to vote for the election may actually make permanent the effects of genocidal destruction and displacement. As the ENOUGH Project pointed out in October 2009,

“[T]he electoral process could perversely consolidate ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Many Darfuris—particularly those who have been driven from their homes and their land—feel directly threatened by the voter registration process. Under Sudanese land laws, registering as a resident of a camp for displaced persons could cause the victims of the genocide to lose the legal rights to their abandoned property.” (“A political settlement for Darfur: A practical roadmap,” October 13, 2009)

Writing for the International Crisis Group, Africa Director François Grignon also points out that “more than two million Darfuris [are] trapped in camps and unlikely to have the right to vote in Sudan’s first polls in 24 years” (“Sudan, Preparing for a peaceful southern secession,” 17 December 2009). Indeed, the UN estimates that there are now more than 2.7 million Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur, and more than 250,000 Darfuri refugees in Eastern Chad. Moreover, those eligible to vote face the daunting prospect of doing so under the threatening watch of Khartoum’s various security forces, which will be tasked with intimidating voters likely to vote for candidates not from the NIF/NCP slate. Darfuris also understand the likelihood of large-scale manipulation of ballots and voting results by the Khartoum-dominated regional government.

Again, Khartoum’s willingness to use violence to prevent peaceful expressions of opposing views was fully on display in early December when public demonstrations of opposition to legislative tyranny by the NIF/NCP were met with a sharp crackdown, many arrests, and a claim that such political demonstrations would not permitted. Tellingly, the legislation at issue dealt with the powers and impunity of the regime’s security force, the National Intelligence and Security Service—the very instrument by which electoral freedoms will be most sharply curtailed. The Carter Center, the only international election monitoring presence in Sudan, declared that they were “gravely concerned about government crackdowns on opposition rallies that undermined ‘political rights and fundamental freedoms’ ahead of polls in April.” Amnesty International,

“strongly condemned a violent crackdown by Sudanese security forces on protestors gathered outside parliament in Khartoum and said it received reports that those arrested had been tortured while detained. More than 200 people, including opposition leaders and human rights activists, were arrested at the demonstration…. ‘This is yet another example of the culture of violence that the Sudanese government has adopted,’ said Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of the Africa program at Amnesty International.” (Press Release, December 7, 2009)

Human Rights Watch offered an informed retrospective summary of the past year in an October 2009 statement:

“Although Sudan is scheduled to hold national elections in April 2010, the country currently lacks conditions for free and fair elections. The armed conflict in Darfur is ongoing. In addition, over the last year the National Congress Party-led government has stepped up repressive tactics against civil society throughout the northern states with arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as censorship and harassment of activists and journalists.” (“US: New Sudan Policy Should Measure Progress on Rights”)

There is simply no reason to believe that Darfur can participate meaningfully in elections that are less than three months away.

WHY ARE WE HEARING SO MUCH LESS ABOUT DARFUR?

There are two primary answers: news organizations either can’t gain access to Darfur or don’t make the effort, given the extreme restrictions on movement imposed by Khartoum; and secondly, in the wake of the March 2009 expulsions, aid groups have become exceedingly reticent in speaking out about humanitarian conditions and the threats to vulnerable populations in the camps and rural areas. The fear that they may also be expelled for speaking openly and honestly about Darfur’s grim realities trumps the desire to give the world a compelling picture of those realities. Such self-censorship is one of the most unfortunate consequences of the March expulsions.

But there are other reasons we hear too little about Darfur’s realities, including the decision by the African Union, now of many years, to side with Khartoum in addressing Darfur. This has long been true of the African Union Peace and Security Council, especially under the leadership of Jean Ping. The recent report by the “African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur,” chaired by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, has also contributed. The report was for the most part a pompous and wearingly repetitive rehearsal of what has long been known; but more destructively, it painted a picture of Darfur in which human suffering and destruction, as well as the crimes that produced them, are rhetorically diminished and factually understated (it is simply astonishing that a document of more than 125 pages has no references, no footnotes, no citations—even when treating controversial subjects such as human mortality in Darfur). The document tells us virtually nothing about the current shortcomings in humanitarian aid, or the grave failings of the UN/African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), or the consequences of Khartoum’s continuing flouting of the UN arms embargo on Darfur.

The Panel recommends a cessation of hostilities and a subsequent ceasefire, but does nothing to explain how a ceasefire could be monitored or enforced with present UNAMID resources—or why Khartoum’s agreement would have any more meaning than during previously flouted cease-fires—or the various other agreements with the international community that Khartoum has simply ignored, with an impunity that derives in large measure from African Union silence and acquiescence. The only recommendation of significance from this High-Level Panel on Darfur concerns the formation of “hybrid courts” in Sudan. To facilitate a “justice and reconciliation response to Darfur,” the panel recommends,

“The establishment of a Hybrid Court to deal particularly with the most serious crimes, to be constituted by Sudanese and non-Sudanese judges and senior legal support staff, the latter two groups to be nominated by the African Union.” (Report of the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur, presented to the AU Peace and Security Council Meeting [Abuja], October 29, 2009)

As most Darfuris and many Sudan observers see this recommendation, it simply reflects the originating purpose of the High-Level Panel: to create an alternative to the International Criminal Court, which has indicted President al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity (the ICC has also indicted a senior NIF/NCP official, Ahmed Haroun; a Janjaweed leader, Ali Kushayb; and a rebel commander). Indeed, one member of the Panel infuriated Chairman Mbeki by frankly acknowledging that this was his understanding of why the Panel was created:

“[F]ormer Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher Al-Sayed who was a member of the [AU High-Level] panel said that the [panel’s] goal ‘was to find a way out [to Bashir] from the dilemma of the ICC that sparked a great deal of controversy. Incriminating the president is out of question and fundamentally unacceptable’ the former Egyptian foreign minister said in an interview with the Egypt based Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.” (Sudan Tribune, December 20, 2009)

Ahmed Maher Al-Sayed’s participation in the work of the AU panel was evidently minimal; but perhaps knowing the designed outcome, he thought in-country work gratuitous. In any event, Khartoum—after offering some respectful noises about considering this central recommendation—has made clear that it will not accept “hybrid courts.” In mid-December al-Bashir made NIF/NCP rejection explicit (Sudan Tribune, December 20, 2009). Mbeki for his part has decided that the better part of valor in the present situation is to abandon the proposal, presumably the linch-pin of justice in what the High-Level Panel declares to be a “roadmap” for peace in Darfur: “this week Mbeki in Khartoum denied that he is pressing Khartoum to accept the idea of creating hybrid courts for Darfur, suggesting that the matter is up for negotiators to decide on…” (Sudan Tribune, December 20, 2009).

Mbeki is also reportedly seeking to take over the role of peacemaker from the current joint UN/African Union mediator for Darfur, Djibril Bassolé of Burkina Faso. The man who claimed there was no crisis in Zimbabwe now wishes to turn his good offices to Darfur, perhaps seeking redemption, perhaps out of sheer hubris:

“An African diplomat speaking to Sudan Tribune last month said that the AU is seeking to have Mbeki take over from the joint United Nations (UN)-African Union (AU) Darfur mediator Djibril Bassolé. The AU, particularly Chairperson of African Union Commission Jean Ping as well as Mbeki, view Bassolé as being ‘closer’ to the UN Security Council, the diplomat said while the joint mediator ‘is trying to be impartial in his role without favoring the Sudanese government.’” (Sudan Tribune, December 20, 2009)

[The diplomatic source for the Sudan Tribune attribution here is extremely well-placed.]

Darfur’s visibility has diminished for other reasons as well: the UN Security Council has in recent months made no meaningful demand of either the Khartoum regime or the rebels. Previous Security Council “demands” of Khartoum are contemptuously ignored. Nor has the Security Council supported chief mediator Bassolé effectively, or provided him with the resources and authority that would allow for greater progress in uniting the rebel groups and Darfuri civil society. As a consequence instead of a single, well-supported mediation process we have a mélange of diplomatic initiatives, venues, and actors. These include, in addition to the UN’s Bassolé (who speaks neither Arabic nor English, and has a very modest diplomatic background), Libya, Egypt (jostling with Qatar over providing auspices for negotiations), the African Union Peace and Security Council, the US special envoy Scott Gration (who promised a peace agreement by the end of 2009), the Mbeki panel and its “roadmap” to peace, and various other regional and international actors (even Russia, one of Khartoum’s primary weapons suppliers, tried to get into the act by hosting a Darfur conference this past October). The regime, of course, welcomes this proliferation of diplomacy, offering as it has in the past the opportunity for playing one plan off another, engaging in one process with the option of switching, making promises to one actor and yet other promises to other actors.

At the same time North American and European civil society efforts on behalf of Darfur have found it increasingly difficult to draw attention to the ongoing crisis—now about to enter its eighth year. Energies have flagged, activists have become discouraged in some quarters, and consensus about what to ask for and what pressures to apply in seeking greater Western commitment has become more elusive. Many who have worked so hard to learn about and help Darfur have little familiarity with the history of the north/south conflict and find the current focus on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) a challenge to understand, in particular the threat to Darfur posed by a collapse of the CPA.

Amidst all this Darfur’s terrible realities persist, and will continue to do so whatever the limitations and gaps in news reporting, despite the fearfulness of aid groups in speaking out, and whatever disingenuous efforts might be made to obscure, diminish, or ignore the extent of human suffering and ongoing destruction. Human security as well as protection for humanitarian operations will continue to be extremely limited; conditions in many of the camps for displaced persons will remain appalling; renewed large-scale fighting remains distinctly in prospect, in part because Khartoum continues a campaign of aerial bombardment that kills civilians and defies the explicit “demand” of UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (March 2005) that all such bombings be halted.

Security and an end to the prevailing sense of impunity that animates the actions of Khartoum and its militia and paramilitary allies are the essential requirements for any real improvement in Darfur. Suggestions by African Union officials such as Martin Agwai (former UNAMID force commander) and Rodolphe Adada (former joint Special Representative to UNAMID) that the war in Darfur is over, that there is only “very low-level conflict,” fail to represent the current situation fully or accurately. The claim by US special envoy Gration that there are only “remnants of genocide” similarly fails to convey the scale of past destruction and the immensity of the present consequences of that destruction.

FINDINGS OF THE UN PANEL OF EXPERTS REPORT, OCTOBER 2009

The primary mandate of the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur (established in March 2005, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1591) is to monitor the arms embargo on Darfur imposed by the UN. But over the past five years the Panel has accumulated considerable evidence about a range of security issues in Darfur. The Panel’s most recent report to the Security Council (October 6, 2009) offers a detailed and important picture of what is occurring in Darfur, especially on the part of the Khartoum regime and its militia and paramilitary proxies. Among its findings:

“The Government of the Sudan remains intransparent and unwilling to account for its efforts to disarm and control its various auxiliary and formerly affiliated forces, in particular combatants commonly referred to as members of Arab tribes or as Janjaweed. Many individuals identified by internally displaced persons as Janjaweed continue to carry arms and engage in frequent violent behaviour against and harassment of internally displaced persons and, according to the Panel’s findings, enjoy impunity for their offences. This remains one of the major reasons cited by internally displaced persons in describing their lack of physical security.” (page 4) [ ]

“In the aftermath of the issuance by the International Criminal Court of an arrest warrant against the Head of State of the Sudan, the Panel has received reports of severe violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, involving the harassment, persecution and torture of collaborators and individuals opposed to Government policies.” (page 4)

“The crackdown by the security apparatus of the Government of the Sudan on the rights of Darfurians and their sympathizers to political affiliation, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly has manifested itself in violations of a catalogue of human rights and fundamental freedoms. These abuses, some of which have been documented by the Panel, were further exacerbated in the aftermath of both the Omdurman attacks [May 2008] and the issuance of the arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court [March 2009], and have resulted in the departure from the Sudan of scores of activists and human rights defenders.” (page 5)

The panel also reports that Khartoum’s indiscriminate aerial attacks against suspected rebel positions have continued to “cause civilian causalities,” and that the regime continues to impede the work of the UN Panel of Experts.

REPORT OF THE UN SECRETARY-GENERAL ON DARFUR

The November 16, 2009 report of the UN Secretary General to the Security Council highlights the threats to UNAMID peacekeepers. After cataloging an extensive series of consequential military confrontations and attacks, the report notes:

“In the context of this ongoing violence, freedom of movement continues to be a serious concern for UNAMID and many of the agencies in Darfur. Since January 2009, there have been at least 42 incidents in which a UNAMID patrol was denied passage by a Government official, including incidents in which Government officials specifically threatened the safety of UNAMID staff and equipment.” (page 3)

In assessing the significance and accuracy of UNAMID reports, whether on civilian mortality or security conditions, it is important to remember how fully Khartoum controls UNAMID movements, despite the freedom of movement guaranteed in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the regime.

Beyond this, the Secretary General’s report details many examples of Khartoum denying UNAMID access to IDP camps (“Access to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps has also been frequently denied to UNAMID by officials of the Government of Sudan”):

“In Southern Darfur, where restrictions of movement of UNAMID patrols are even more common, Government officials have frequently claimed the need to be informed of UNAMID movements, have denied access even when information has been passed to the appropriate Government officials, and have often claimed ignorance of the mandate of UNAMID to conduct patrols through the area, despite the clear right to patrol provided for in the Status of Forces Agreement. UNAMID patrols have been confronted with warning shots, guns pointed at convoys and low overflight by [Sudan Armed Forces] military helicopters in a threatening manner. On 29 September 2009, an SAF representative in Shaeria locality informed UNAMID that the failure to provide authorities with prior notification of a patrol would result in the patrol being attacked.” (page 4)

The deliberate threat of military action against UNAMID peacekeepers and monitors should be a shocking development, and yet is simply ignored by those such as Adada, Agwai, Gration, Mbeki and others in their characterization of the security situation in Darfur. Instead of highlighting these egregious violations of the arduously negotiated Status of Forces Agreement for UNAMID, instead of pressuring Khartoum to comply with the terms of this agreement, the international community in the main has chosen to ignore or discount the significance of Khartoum’s actions. There has been no action by the Security Council, to whom the Secretary General’s report is directed, nor any meaningful public condemnation by the African Union, the US, or the European Community. This will only encourage Khartoum to persist in obstructing and threatening UNAMID, and these actions can be deadly.

For the threats against UNAMID are not mere words, and at least one of the deadly attacks against UNAMID (July 8, 2008) was clearly orchestrated by Khartoum. Seven UNAMID troops and police were killed and twenty-three were injured in an attack that then head of UN Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno made clear was the responsibility of the regime. Guéhenno told the Security Council that the attack “took place in an area under Sudanese government control and that some of the assailants were dressed in clothing similar to Sudanese army uniforms. He also said the ambush was ‘pre-meditated and well-organized’ and was intended to inflict casualties rather than to steal equipment or vehicles” (Voice of America [dateline: UN/New York], July 11, 2008). Agence France Presse reported: “Guéhenno was quoted as saying that the ambush was designed ‘to inflict casualties and was carried out with ‘equipment usually not used by (rebel) militias” ([dateline: UN/New York], July 11, 2008). Separately and confidentially, a UN official went further in confirming to this writer that some of the arms used, including large-caliber recoilless rifles, have never been seen in the arsenals of the rebel groups. This official said that Guéhenno, who was then on the verge of retiring, had rarely been so explicit in assigning responsibility for attacks in Darfur.

[For a full analysis of Khartoum’s role in this attack on UN peacekeepers, see my analysis of July 12, 2008 at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article219.html; see also the assertion by the Rwandan Defense Forces that an attack in early December 2009, in which three Rwandan members of UNAMID were killed, was mounted by Sudanese “government forces” (UN Mission in Sudan Media Monitoring Report, December 6, 2009 at http://unmis.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=589&ctl=Details&mid=2681&... ]

UNAMID as presently constituted cannot address the massive security crisis in Darfur, cannot reliably gain access to huge areas in the region, and cannot adequately protect civilians in camps, or even its own personnel. The force itself—badly under-equipped and operating at only about half its mandated capacity—continues to be at acute risk of obstruction, intimidation, and attack. By focusing narrowly on the diminishment of large-scale violence in Darfur, those characterizing Darfur as the site of “very low-intensity” conflict, mere “remnants of genocide,” a “stabilized” humanitarian situation, are not only contributing to Darfur’s growing invisibility but encouraging Khartoum to believe that it can move forward with its larger ambitions for Darfur.

The most ominous of these is the plan to force IDPs from the camps and back to their lands—without security guarantees, without reparations or compensation, and without long-term solutions to problems arising from competition for land, water, and pasturage. Many villages of the Fur, Massaleit, Zaghawa, and other non-Arab/African civilians have been settled or turned into grazing land by Arab pastoralist and nomadic populations, some from outside the region (various reports point to Chad, Niger, and Mali as among these non-Sudanese claimants).

Forced returns amid present insecurity is a formula for renewed violence, and on a large scale. It would certainly mark the end of whatever is represented by the current chaotic peace process, and there would be nothing to restrain either the rebels or Khartoum and its Janjaweed allies. Insecurity would increase beyond its already intolerable levels, further compromising the work of UNAMID and any remaining humanitarian organizations.

THE THREAT OF FORCED RETURNS

Khartoum has long made clear its plans to shut down the IDP camps, both because they are an embarrassment as the regime faces the world community and because they are the basis on which a continued large-scale international humanitarian presence is justified, observing at first hand what is occurring on the ground, even if presently silenced by fear of the regime. In turn, security threats to displaced civilians and aid groups require the presence of a large peacekeeping force under UN auspices. Khartoum wishes all of this to disappear.

As far back as the summer of 2004 plans were being considered and public announcements by senior NIF/NCP officials spoke of returns as in full swing—a crude effort at making something so by declaring it so. Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, then Minister of the Interior and the regime’s special representative on Darfur, announced on Sudanese government-controlled radio on July 9, 2004 “that 86 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons had already returned to their villages” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, July 12, 2004). Hussein further declared that “it was ‘most important’ to get people to return to their villages. Each state—the Darfur region has three—had its own plan of return” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, July 12, 2004).

This preposterous mendacity is of course belied by the fact that the displaced population in Darfur, and the population of the IDP camps, has more than doubled since summer 2004, when the UN estimated that approximately 1.2 million people had been displaced (along with 200,000 refugees in Eastern Chad). In the past two years alone (during UNAMID’s tenure) almost half a million more civilians have been violently displaced. UN and humanitarian officials have been able to verify only a trickle of civilians who have felt secure enough to leave the camps and resume permanent residence in their former homes and villages. Nor are larger scale returns possible: neither the UN High Commission for Refugees nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) begins to have the capacity to monitor returns in ways that comport with international humanitarian law. Khartoum’s plan of returns, however it is described or packaged for international consumption, is no less threatening than it was in 2004, when humanitarians were explicit about the consequences of Khartoum’s ambitions:

"‘[Khartoum] wants the internally displaced to go home, the UN wants them to stay,’ said an aid worker. ‘There is no food in their villages: they will go back to die.’” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, July 12, 2004)

“Humanitarian workers fear that a forcible mass return of some 1.2 million Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur could result in enormous fatalities.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, July 13, 2004)

None of this matters to a regime that is genocidal in character, and clearly saw forced returns as a means of furthering the destruction of non-Arab/African populations—destruction that was still proceeding on a massive scale by direct military means. We should not be surprised that the issue of forced returns has arisen yet again, and should see this as a key challenge in confronting Khartoum over it continued violations of international humanitarian law.

In a recent dispatch from the state-controlled Sudanese News Agency (SUNA), we can see clearly that outrageous lies are still a part of how Khartoum deals with the Darfur crisis:

“The number of the returnees in Darfur States, according to the Voluntary Repatriation Programme for Refugees and Displaced Persons has amounted to more than one million persons who were settled in 762 villages in Darfur.” (SUNA [dateline: Khartoum], December 29, 2009)

This vicious fantasy has nothing to do with the realities of Darfur. It in no way comport with reports from the UN High Commission for Refugees and humanitarian organizations active on the ground. It is pure propaganda, astonishing in its brazenness; its crude purpose is to reduce the need for an international humanitarian presence in Darfur, even if by means of gross distortion. Hence the further claims in the SUNA dispatch:

“The Commissioner of the Humanitarian Aid, Hassabu Mohamed Abdul-Rahman, attributed the improvement of the humanitarian aid situation to the national and international efforts and the implementation of the presidential decisions, which included setting up of joint central and state working mechanisms. The reports of the Humanitarian Aid Commission indicated that the efforts being exerted by the international community have contributed to the improvement of the situation by increasing the missions of Arab countries and organizations operating in Darfur. The report also referred to the scarcity of the security incidents that target relief convoys and the premises of aid workers, besides the concentration of the international community on work in the voluntary repatriation areas.”

In fact, as the reports of both the UN Secretary General and the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur make abundantly clear, security incidents involving humanitarian workers and peacekeepers are a huge and growing problem. In his November report to the Security Council, Ban Ki-Moon declared that during the most recent 90-day reporting period, “there have been serious negative developments affecting the security and safety of UNAMID staff and the staff of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations in Darfur.” Ban goes on to note emphatically in his report:

“These incidents of hostage taking of international workers are a new and deeply troubling development in Darfur, with the potential to undermine the efforts of the international community. The security implications of these events have already led to the suspension of some activities and programmes by the humanitarian community and are a clear testimony to the risks that United Nations and NGO workers face in Darfur.” (page 1-2)

On the question of civilians returning from the camps and verification of their numbers and status, the report notes:

“small numbers of displaced persons have reportedly returned. Assessment teams that succeeded in reaching areas of reported returns were unable to conduct their activities freely, for example, by not being able to speak with returnees. The principal agencies mandated to monitor returns, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), were prevented from maintaining a regular presence in Darfur for much of the reporting period.” (page 7)

What is not made sufficiently clear in the Secretary General’s report is the degree to which fear pervades the camps and defines the thinking of displaced persons. Those returning from Darfur having spoken with these people report again and again the palpable fear, even terror felt in the face of threats posed by the Janjaweed and other paramilitary elements, threats that define life in the camps and immediate environs. The UN Panel of Experts on Darfur captures some of this fear in their October report:

“During the Panel’s monitoring of internally displaced communities in North and West Darfur, an overwhelming concern expressed by internally displaced persons was the unchecked aggression by armed elements from Arab tribes, Janjaweed, Government of the Sudan forces and other belligerent tribes, and the high rate of harassment and of sexual and gender-based violence. These fears are exacerbated by the apparent impunity these forces seem to enjoy, the ever-present memories of most internally displaced persons of grave human rights violations committed against them only a few years ago, and the fact that many individuals commonly referred to as Janjaweed have not been disarmed and continue to brandish their weapons.” (page 19)

When questioned about these concerns and reports of Janjaweed harassment, Khartoum has simply ignored the Panel:

“The Panel has attempted to verify those claims [Khartoum’s assertions that “there are no remaining Janjaweed”] by obtaining updates concerning the integration process and the extent to which disarmament has been completed. The representatives of the Government of the Sudan have been unwilling to discuss this matter beyond a general statement that no Janjaweed exist at the current time. No detailed information regarding their disarmament has been offered to the Panel and no public records are available.” (page 19)

All this provides context for the ominous announcement made last November by Khartoum’s brutal humanitarian aid commissioner Hasabu Abdel-Rahman:

“The Sudanese government will begin closing down the camps for the displaced population in war torn region of Darfur next year, a senior official said today. Speaking to the UN sponsored Miraya FM radio the humanitarian aid commissioner Hasabu Abdel-Rahman said that the Sudanese government has plans to close down displaced camps in the greater Darfur region by early 2010.” (Sudan Tribune [dateline: Khartoum], November 10, 2009)

Closing the camps would obviously compel displaced persons to move, with or without a safe destination or means of conveyance. Nor is there any meaningful account of how these people would resume agriculturally or commercially productive lives. Abdel-Rahman offers only a vague suggestion that international humanitarian aid be converted to a program—yet to be named, organized, or funded—that would “rehabilitate villages”:

“The independent Al-Sahafa newspaper quoted Abdel-Rahman as saying that his ministry is implementing a policy of ‘converting the aid money to a service program to rehabilitate villages through gradual transformation to construction stages.’ The Sudanese official disclosed that the government is building 20,000 housing units for the IDP’s in the capital towns of El-Fasher, El-Geneina and Nyala. He added that the IDP’s will be given two choices: either move to their villages or to the new housing complexes.” (Sudan Tribune [dateline: Khartoum], November 10, 2009)

But 20,000 housing units doesn’t begin to address the needs of even a very small fraction of the displaced population. Including the refugees in Eastern Chad, the displaced population reaches to almost 3 million. Resettlement will be an enormous undertaking and require resources that are nowhere in sight; certainly the Khartoum regime has invested virtually nothing in the vast project of providing for safe returns and the resumption of meaningful livelihoods. In fact, in order to secure the brutal services of the Arab militia forces, Khartoum promised many of them land that belonged to non-Arab/African populations. A number of these land grabs have now been officially registered, and any effort by the original owners to reclaim their land will spark fierce and likely violent confrontations.

For their part, if the rebel groups perceive the beginning of a program of forced returns they are much more likely to resort to large-scale military attacks on Khartoum’s forces as a means of halting what would constitute a resumption of large-scale genocide by the regime. As the international community seeks to create an atmosphere in which the rebels and Khartoum can negotiate a peace agreement, it must be vigilant in opposing any forced returns of displaced persons. US special envoy Scott Gration has already stumbled badly on this issue (see http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article250.html), and it is incumbent upon the Obama administration as well as the EU and AU to make clear to Khartoum that such a consequential violation of international humanitarian law will not be tolerated.

HUMANITARIAN SECURITY AND CAPACITY

Intolerable insecurity in Darfur has left a tremendous number of locations beyond humanitarian reach. Indeed, the most recent UN humanitarian access map shows virtually all of Darfur as significantly or totally insecure (search “darfur humanitarian access map"+july+2009 at http://www.unsudanig.org/). Even the most intrepid aid workers have been forced to curtail their movements in unprecedented ways. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced in early December 2009 that is was severely reducing its operations in Darfur:

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday [December 3] said it was scaling down relief work across Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region to protect its staff from a spate of kidnappings. The ICRC said it was cutting staff levels, keeping international workers in Darfur's main cities and avoiding field trips to underdeveloped rural areas. ‘We used to concentrate on remote areas where hardly anyone else worked. We worked with farmers and agro-pastoralist groups. We inoculated their animals ... But we really can't do that any more,’ ICRC spokeswoman Tamara al-Rifai told Reuters.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], December 3, 2009)

In expressing concerns about the sustainability of often ad hoc and provisional humanitarian actions taken in the wake of Khartoum’s expulsion of thirteen international aid groups from Darfur, the Secretary General’s report asserts that,

“the sustainability of these initial actions remains a critical issue. In remote locations, international presence has been reduced by 50 per cent, as compared to pre-March 2009 levels. The kidnapping of international aid workers has also contributed to this situation, which has led to a serious shortage of residual implementing capacity and a dramatic reduction in monitoring and evaluation capabilities in Darfur.” (page 6)

Again and again, aid workers emphasize that it is not merely the raw tonnage of food or the number of NFI (non-food items) that reach Darfur, but rather the quality of distribution, monitoring, and evaluation. These have clearly suffered heavy attrition, as has the overall provision of humanitarian aid. The Secretary General also notes in connection with the shortage of implementing capacity:

“These shortages have contributed to an increase in malnutrition levels, particularly in rural areas, where relief assistance is stretched beyond capacity. In addition, of an estimated 800,000 households that have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector, more than 40 per cent have not received vital seeds and tools. Livestock vaccination in Darfur remained below 20 per cent of the planned target, while environmental resource protection coverage was insignificant owing to limited funding, despite continued natural resource degradation. In the education sector, expulsions of NGOs left a significant gap, with 27 of 70 administrative localities either partially or not at all covered, potentially eroding gains achieved during the past years.” (page 6)

“800,000 households that have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector”—this is a deeply alarming number and suggests just how perilous life remains in Darfur for civilians.

Conditions vary tremendously from camp to camp, but the Secretary General’s report rightly highlights the situation in Zam Zam camp and some of the ways in which it is representative of the humanitarian situation in Darfur:

“The rainy season brought a number of challenges, including the prevalence of waterborne diseases. Cases of ‘watery diarrhoea,’ or cholera, were reported and contained in Zam Zam IDP camp in Northern Darfur, while morbidity remained high in most IDP camps. This situation has momentarily increased the needs for health services in the camps and, in spite of the efforts made jointly by the Ministry of Health, United Nations agencies and newly reinforced NGOs in the health sector, all required needs could not be covered. In addition to the general deterioration in health and sanitation conditions, Zam Zam IDP camp is still grappling with the challenges of inadequate schooling facilities, especially for newly arrived children at the new extension site.” (page 7)

We should know more about humanitarian conditions in Darfur but the simple fact is that aid organizations, even the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), are simply not promulgating data that give us a clear indication of, for example, malnutrition rates, food availability (there are reports of sharp increases in food prices in West Darfur), morbidity levels, and a statistical overview of the conflict-affected population. OCHA until a year ago provided important quarterly reports; but Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 34 (representing conditions as of January 1, 2009) was the last such publication, and no comparable reporting is being done by either the UN or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Any number of anecdotal reports suggest that for given locations, there are acute shortages of food, clean water, sanitation, primary medical care, and educational opportunities. But it is impossible to generalize about a conflict-affected population of 4.7 million on the basis of such reports. Vast human suffering and deprivation will remain invisible so long as Khartoum’s implicit and explicit threats against humanitarian efforts in Darfur compel self-censorship by aid groups and UN agencies.

LARGE-SCALE RENEWED VIOLENCE IN DARFUR

Despite the views of UNAMID Special Representative Adada and UNAMID force commander Agwai, the war in Darfur is far from over, and could burst into large-scale violence at any moment. Indeed, the level of fighting between the rebels and Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) has been significant at various points since late summer 2009. Further, Khartoum has regularly deployed its Antonov bombers against both rebel and civilian targets; indeed, the Antonovs— retrofitted cargo planes with no real bombing targeting mechanism—are by nature indiscriminate and have killed a number of civilians in recent months. Bombing attacks in which civilians were killed or wounded, or in which livestock were lost, are simply too numerous to catalog, and are too often not investigated by UNAMID.

On the ground, as recently as January 13, 2010 the rebel faction of Abdel Wahid al-Nur claims to have captured the town of Gulu (30 kilometers northwest of Nertiti in West Darfur) in Jebel Marra amidst serious fighting—fighting that prompted more humanitarian withdrawals. Fighting is also occurring in North Darfur. On January 16, 2010 Agence France-Presse reported:

“Sudanese warplanes and artillery pounded insurgents in the troubled western region of Darfur on Saturday, said a rebel spokesman whose group has refused to attend upcoming peace talks in Qatar. ‘The army attacked our positions,’ said Ibrahim al-Hillu, a commander and spokesman of a Sudan Liberation Army faction headed by exiled rebel leader Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur [SLA/AW]. ‘They have 200 vehicles, Antonov planes and heavy artillery,’ Hillu told AFP, adding that the confrontations lasted until sunset. The reported attacks were in the northwest of Kutum, a sector of North Darfur that is 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the border with Chad and controlled by Hillu's rebel faction.”

Hillu’s (January 16, 2010—Saturday) account to AFP notes that Khartoum’s forces were “concentrating fire on the village of Frog [north of Kutum town] which hosts a popular open-air market on Saturdays” (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Khartoum], January 16, 2009).

The same day, the Sudan Tribune also reports Hillu’s claim that Khartoum’s “troops and militiamen attacked today Souk Fruk, Northwest Kutum in North Darfur state” (an area controlled by the SLA faction of SLA Abdel Wahid), noting that “the attack occurred at midday while the market was crowded with shoppers.” Hillu also claimed that “when army troops arrived [they] started shooting on the crowd, killing 18 civilians” (Sudan Tribune, January 16, 2010).

If there are inaccuracies in Hillu’s detailing of the attacks, it is highly unlikely that his general accounts are not substantially true. Large-scale fighting, with civilian casualties, has almost certainly occurred.

Fighting in this region continues a pattern that goes back to last September, when Khartoum engaged in a coordinated offensive directed at various areas in the proximity of eastern Jebel Marra. An especially well informed member of the Darfuri diaspora, with numerous contacts inside Darfur, reported at the time that there were both air and ground attacks.

“There are air and ground attacks to various areas in Darfur, mostly all around Jebel Marra—my own area. This started on last Thursday [September 17, 2009]. There is an ongoing attack through the axis of eastern Jebel Marra in the area of Kidineir [southeast of Nyertiti]. The second axis is around the southern Jebel Marra: Nyertiti, Kass, Juldo. The third [axis] is eastern Jebel Marra: Korma, Tawila, extending to Ain Siro.”

“The orchestrated attack is composed from government soldiers [and] janjaweed using different types of weapons. These were calm areas since 2004. The expected result: more civilian killing and displacing, putting into consideration the failure of this rainy season’s harvest; more devastating famine, malnutrition, and increase in the death toll.” (email to this writer, received September 21, 2009)

Such clearly calculated and large-scale fighting can easily escalate into fully resumed war; and yet the Darfur peace process—all that can truly end the conflict—is disorganized, internally contentious, and now competes with the increasingly urgent efforts to salvage the north/south Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005). The peace process also remains subject to cynical diplomatic machinations. For example, Jean Ping, Chair of the African Union Peace and Security Council, is attempting to play kingmaker by supporting efforts to replace the present Darfur mediator Djibril Bassolé with Mbeki, Bassolé being perceived by Ping and others as too close to the UN and Western assessments of what is required to negotiate peace for Darfur. Bassolé, for all his limitations, is committed to a balanced approach to dealing with the rebels and Khartoum. It is hardly surprising that he reportedly does not get on well with Scott Gration, who has initiated an imbalanced approach to the Darfur crisis, favoring Khartoum even as the regime continues the behavior detailed in this analysis.

Hopes for peace are pinned on the “Qatar process,” the small Gulf state that is ambitiously attempting to provide auspices for talks between Khartoum and the rebel leaders. But it is not clear when or if talks will actually begin, what Doha provides besides a well-funded venue, or whether Qatar’s leadership role will be tolerated by Egypt, which views itself as the decisive voice within the Arab world when it comes to Sudan. Much of the blame for disarray must be borne by the fractious rebel leadership, which in failing to reunite has increasingly lost the confidence of Darfuri civil society, IDPs, and camp leaders. But accounts of recent meetings between special envoy Gration and the leadership of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) suggest that he is simply unwilling to hear rebel concerns and is intent on bludgeoning them into a process that demands far too little of Khartoum and fails to address the issue of near-term security for the people of Darfur, a critical demand of all the rebel groups. Without a willingness to engage in a sober and clear-eyed analysis of Khartoum’s actions and history, no movement toward real peace is possible.

One sign of this failure of will was highlighted in December by Enrico Carisch of Switzerland, until recently head of the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur. In testimony before the US Congress, Carisch—speaking to the issue of holding Khartoum and the rebels to account under the UN arms embargo and attendant sanctions measures—was unsparing:

“‘Increasingly it looks like poorly understood and under-enforced UN sanctions are being sold out in favor of mediation whose success is far from ensured,’ [Carisch] said.” (Washington Post, December 4, 2009)

Carisch was explicit about the current US policy of accommodating Khartoum and its massive violations of the arms embargo:

“[T]he United States appears to have now joined the group of influential states who sit by quietly and do nothing to ensure that sanctions work to protect Darfurians,’ Carisch said.” (Reuters [dateline: UN/New York], December 4, 2009)

“Sitting by quietly” is a harsh judgment but one that US policy as led by Scott Gration increasingly deserves. For all the frenetic activity on Gration’s part, he cannot find his voice in speaking forcefully to the leadership in Khartoum, whether about the movement of arms, security issues, forced civilian returns, the requirements of UNAMID, or humanitarian access. Failing to press effectively on these concerns, Gration seems increasingly unlikely to persuade Khartoum to negotiate a peace agreement in which all these issues must be addressed.

A WAY FORWARD?

If war resumes in southern Sudan, a resumption of war in Darfur becomes exceedingly likely. The present merely notional “Government of National Unity” will collapse, and political chaos will ensure. Military chaos will likely soon follow. The rebels will certainly calculate that Khartoum, if militarily engaged with Southern Sudan, is incapable of fighting effectively on two widely separated fronts against two formidable and determined armed forces; the rebels will very likely use the opportunity to push back on the positions of the reduced SAF forces remaining in Darfur. Indeed, resumed war in the south will seem to all the marginalized populations of Sudan the historical moment in which to throw off the tyranny of the NIF/NCP regime.

Khartoum is well aware of the stakes in the strategy it is pursuing, and aware also of the dangers that have emerged at this particular moment in Sudanese history. It is critical that international diplomacy make clear there will be enormous costs if the regime fails to respect international humanitarian law in Darfur, or if it abrogates the terms of the north/south Comprehensive Peace Agreement or seeks militarily to preempt the self-determination referendum. Such costs should long ago have been incurred by Khartoum, and past failure to impose them tells us too much about what is likely in the future. Indeed, the regime seems poised to reap the benefits from an electoral “victory” in the hopelessly compromised national elections that will take place in April. This is a truth evidently too unpalatable for many of those claiming to support Sudan’s aspirations. Instead, unbounded cowardice and expediency continue to define the world’s response to Sudan’s agony.