The Truth About Humanitarian Access in Sudan, contra the “UN Country Team” for Sudan

Eric Reeves | July 11, 2017 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-257

In a move that is finally obscenely political in motivation, the “UN Country Team” in Sudan (UNCT/S) is reported by Radio Dabanga to have weighed in with its view about the decision on a permanent lifting of U.S. economic sanctions imposed on the genocidal regime in Khartoum (1997). In hopes of affecting a political decision by the Trump administration in the U.S., UNCT/S has provided a highly misleading set of statements concerning humanitarian access in Sudan, thereby continuing a past history of making statements—or not making statements—that might offend the Khartoum regime. This time the focus is squarely on a U.S. political decision that is supposed to be based on various criteria (not simply humanitarian access, important as it is):

UN team in Sudan “hopes for positive decision on US sanctions” | Radio Dabanga | July 10, 2017 | KHARTOUM | https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/all-news/article/un-team-in-sudan-hopes-for-positive-decision-on-us-sanctions

According to the UN Country Team (UNCT) in Sudan, there has been a marked improvement in humanitarian access over the past six months. This has prompted the team to cite its hopes that Washington will finally cancel the economic sanctions on Sudan.

Besides being wildly inappropriate, given the multiple conditions supposedly governing a decision about lifting U.S. sanctions permanently—again, the sole focus of UN statement is on humanitarian access—the assessment of humanitarian access is patently disingenuous and misleading. Most notably, there is no mention of the humanitarian embargo that remains in place for huge areas in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, specifically the areas where civilians are concentrated under control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N). (The embargo has recently been lifted on a small area in Blue Nile under full regime military control; for an explanation of this action, see below.)

The people in the areas under embargo have in a great number of cases fled to them to escape Khartoum’s relentless assault on civilian populations in these two southern Sudanese states. Malnutrition in some areas is catastrophically high; and until recently, and with the likely resumption following the U.S. decision on sanctions, Antonov “bombers” have terrified civilians throughout South Kordofan and Blue Nile for six years, displacing many hundreds of thousands (many as refugees to South Sudan and Ethiopia). Dropping crude, completely indiscriminate, shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs—dropped from high altitudes by these retrofitted Russian-made cargo planes without bomb-sighting mechanisms, merely rolled out the back cargo bay—Khartoum has deliberately destroyed the agricultural economy of the areas under assault. This is what has produced the growing and extremely dangerous malnutrition—malnutrition that is unalleviated in any way by the “improved humanitarian access” the UN celebrates.

In fact, for over five years now—since the UN/African Union/Arab League “tripartite proposal” for humanitarian access in February 2012—Khartoum has refused to negotiate humanitarian access to these two areas in good faith. Rejecting the original “tripartite proposal”—even as the SPLM-N promptly accepted it—some fifteen rounds of negotiations have failed to produce humanitarian access. And the answer as to why is clear: not only did senior Khartoum regime officials signal early on that they had no intention of allowing South Kordofan and Blue Nile to become “another Darfur,” a humanitarian embargo is the cheapest way of waging war against a powerfully aggrieved and determined rebel adversary: kill the civilian base of support. We saw this in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s; we saw it during the long north/south civil war (1983 – 2005), and in Darfur we have seen in for fourteen years.

[A recent piece by U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis, attempted—incredibly—to lay the blame for the continuation of the South Kordofan/Blue Nile embargo on the SPLM/A-N (March 3, 2017 | Sudan Tribune | http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article61783/). Notably, it was Koutsis who also erroneously declared that the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 1997 had “nothing to do” with human rights (it explicitly does), and that thus human rights should have nothing to do with the lifting of sanctions.

In talking about the humanitarian embargo on South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Koutsis failed to ask the most obvious question: cui bono? who benefits from a continuation of the embargo, Khartoum or the SPLM/A-N? The answer is obvious—and yet Koutsis is so historically myopic in his analysis that he can look back only to November 2016 and fails even to mention the “tripartite proposal” first rejected by Khartoum in February 2012.]

Despite claims by the UNCT/S, which ignores the more than fourteen years of humanitarian obstruction of access to many areas of Darfur, there are many areas of Darfur that remain inaccessible. To be sure, parts of Jebel Marra—the scene of Khartoum’s massive military offensive in 2016 (including chemical weapons attacks on civilians that extended to August 2016)—are finally gaining humanitarian access, but only those areas under full military control. But many parts are not gaining such access, or have done so only very recently. And much of the evidence is provided by the UN itself—here, for example, in a recent dispatch (less than a month ago):

“UNICEF Reports High Levels of Malnutrition in Jebel Marra” | Radio Dabanga | June 23, 2017 | Jebel Marra | https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/relief-news/article/unicef-reports-high-malnutrition-rates-in-jebel-marra

A recent survey conducted in the Jebel Marra area of Central Darfur found critical levels of acute malnutrition, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported. A UNICEF mission found cases that relate to a Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate of 15.7 per cent, and Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) of 5 per cent. 'WHO defines GAM rates above 15 per cent and SAM rates above 3 per cent as emergency situations,' the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports in its news bulletin. April this year, after lobbying and repeated requests, UUNICEF was granted access to areas and residents or displaced people in Darfur and Blue Nile that were previously sealed-off by the Sudanese authorities for international aid organisations. Golo area in Central Darfur was one of the newly accessible areas for UNICEF.

Since the “look back” period specified by the Obama administration in its January 13, 2017 provisional lifting extends back in time to mid-July 2016—with humanitarian access as one of two key criteria for the permanent lifting of sanctions—we must wonder why it is that only eleven months later UNICEF is making an assessment of a population that had also previously been under Khartoum’s humanitarian embargo: why did they not arrive in this part of Jebel Marra much sooner to make their assessment? All, including even the UNCT/S, knew perfectly well that assessment has been urgently necessary last July; even more urgent was the provision of food and therapeutic feeding supplies for children. Why is UNICEF reported as having begun only the assessment process in June 2017?

The answer is all too clear: Khartoum, in the run-up to a decision by the Trump administration on the permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions, is creating the appearance of humanitarian access. And we may be sure that whatever decision is made—with the possible exception of a decision to extend the “probationary” period before making a final decision—humanitarian access will be reduced shortly thereafter:

[i] If sanctions are lifted permanently, Khartoum—confident that there will be no “snap-back” imposition of these sanctions—will resume its old ways of controlling access to Darfur and will have no incentive to lift the embargo on South Kordofan and Blue Nile, its most effective weapon of war;

[ii] If the decision is not to lift sanctions permanently, then an enraged Khartoum will also resume its old habits of denying humanitarian access.

In short, what we are seeing now is a last-minute show for the benefit of the UN, which obediently takes Khartoum’s words (and reversible actions) at face value in assessing humanitarian access. It is revealing the very tendencies that have done so much to eviscerate UN and INGO humanitarian operations in Darfur, and that have also taken the spotlight off the humanitarian embargo on South Kordofan and Blue Nile, an embargo that under international humanitarian and human rights law constitutes a crime against humanity (see | "On the Obstruction of Humanitarian Aid," African Studies ReviewVolume 54, Number 3 (December 2011), pages 165 – 74 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-I6/).

Realities of Humanitarian Access

The lack of humanitarian resources is conspicuous in many parts of Darfur, if one talks with humanitarian actors outside the corrupt UN system. Such conversations make unsurprising the fact that we see so many dispatches such as the following, making clear that access is still being denied:

Darfur’s East Jebel Marra devoid of health services, 30 die of cholera | Radio Dabanga | July 10, 2017 | DARFUR / NORTH KORDOFAN / EASTERN SUDAN | https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/all-news/article/darfur-s-east-jebel-marra-devoid-of-health-services-30-die-of-cholera

Medical sources in South Darfur reported that more than 30 people died of cholera and at least 50 others have been infected in East Jebel Marra locality during the first week of July. The disease has spread to Liba, Jasu, Fugouli, Rakona, Dolda, Sawani, Duwo, and Fina, they said. The sources confirmed that health services are “entirely absent” large parts of East Jebel Marra, while the government of South Darfur continues to deny medics access to the area. They called on the federal health authorities, the international community, especially the World Health Organisation, to act to allow health actors access to the locality to save the lives of people.

Here we should note that the UN Country Team/Sudan—including UNICEF, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Health Organization—all refuse to use the word cholera to identify the disease that is in fact clearly cholera (and identified as such in Sudanese laboratories). The only reason is political pressure and threats from the Khartoum regime, which itself insists that cholera be called “Acute Watery Diarrhea.” But the two terms—cholera and “Acute Watery Diarrhea”—are not the same and the distinction is critical in mounting an appropriate, country-wide humanitarian health response. Khartoum refuses to acknowledge that cholera has broken out in Sudan and spread wildly since last August—mainly for reasons having to do with how the country is perceived internationally—and disgracefully, the UN acquiesces.

How can we take humanitarian access assessments from the UNCT/S seriously? Particularly since we know that senior officials for the UNCT/S have in the past deliberately distorted key data, particularly the number of Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur. Former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator George Charpentier (2009 – 2011) deliberately promulgated a grossly mislead figure that was lower, by hundreds of thousands of human beings in Darfur, than previous UN displacement figures. Since humanitarian resources for Darfur were and are in many ways tied to the numbers of IDPs, this acquiescence before Khartoum’s demand that the figure be lowered in order to show a non-existent “progress” was despicably destructive and caused tremendous suffering. It took years for the UN to acknowledge, and only implicitly, the deliberate misrepresentation by Charpentier (for details, see my contemporaneous analysis in Dissent Magazine, April 28, 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Bq/).

According to several journalists working on Darfur from Khartoum and with first-hand knowledge of Charpentier’s behavior with the regime and his private comments, the chief UN humanitarian in Sudan allowed his public statements to be vetted by officials of the Khartoum regime—an act entirely consistent with his cruel acquiescence before the regime’s demand that he lower the UN-promulgated figure for IDPs. Currently, the UN figure is where it was before Charpentier lowered it by some 800,000 human beings from the figure that had been used by the UN before Charpentier’s tenure and before the March 2009 expulsion of 13 international humanitarian organizations from Darfur: UN OCHA in an obscure location in a January 1, 2017 “info-graph” again uses the figure 2.7 million IDPs.

We should also remember that it was Charpentier who declared, defying all available evidence and many assertions by the broader humanitarian community, that:

"UN humanitarian agencies are not confronted by pressure or interference from the Government of Sudan,” [Charpentier said in a written statement to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting]. (January 7, 2011)

Such patent falsehood finds its current UN embodiment in yesterday’s dispatch from Radio Dabanga; it is also an uncanny anticipation of the bizarrely false claim by Samantha Power, Obama administration Ambassador to the UN, on the occasion of Obama’s announcement of a provisional lifting of sanctions: “We have seen a ‘sea change” [of improvement in humanitarian access in Sudan],” citing no evidence and belied by all that we know from those who are not part of the feckless UN agencies that can’t bring themselves to declare “cholera”—this in the midst of a raging epidemic for fear of offending Khartoum, even as the failure to designate the disease accurately forestalls critical humanitarian responses.

As we might expect, the view of humanitarian access from outside the UN is quite different. The distinguished Norwegian Refugee Council recently (June 1, 2017) ranked Darfur as “number three” among the world’s neglected crises:

The aid group listed Sudan as number three in its latest report, “The World's Most Neglected Displacement Crises,” saying almost five million Sudanese were now dependent on humanitarian aid, with three million of those living in the war-scarred region of Darfur. [The UN figure was most recently 3.1 million—ER]

"Hundreds of thousands of people do not receive the lifesaving help they need because of challenges in accessing communities," the council said before blaming "a 40 percent shortage in funding and a lack of international media attention to the crisis."

And while lack of funding certainly accounts for lack of humanitarian response in some areas, reports from international nongovernmental humanitarian actors on the ground in Darfur make clear that hundreds of thousands of people are still beyond humanitarian reach because of actions by the Khartoum regime: outright denial of access; real and artificial creation of insecurity in areas desperately in need; harassment of humanitarian workers and officials; denial and delay of visas and travel permits. The “challenges in accessing communities” in Darfur are Khartoum’s creation.

Crucially, in considering humanitarian capacity, we should recall that since the expulsion of thirteen INGOs in March 2009, more than a dozen other organizations have been expelled or have withdrawn because of intolerable insecurity (March 2009 also saw the closing of three Sudanese national humanitarian organizations, including the Sudan Social Development Organization—founded and directed by Mudawi Ibrahim, now facing charges of capital crimes in Khartoum’s grim Kober prison).

Moreover, nominal humanitarian access will mean little in the wake of the decision by the UN Security Council (June 30, 2017) to gut the UN/African Union “hybrid” Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), reducing the military component of the force by 44 percent. One immediate effect of this reduction will be to reduce drastically the locations to which humanitarians and humanitarian supplies can be moved: the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) will not fly to areas that are not protected militarily, even as much of Darfur—the size of Spain—is accessible only by air transport. Needless to say, none of this had figured in any statements from the UN, the U.S., or the rest of the international community.

Khartoum, in short, is “improving access” at the very moment when the drastic reduction of the military component of UNAMID makes “access” meaningless. The UNCT/S of all actors in Darfur should understand this, and yet predictably makes no mention of this drastic change in humanitarian operating conditions in Darfur.

The political instincts of the UN in Sudan have long been cowardly and expedient; that cowardice and expediency, so deeply destructive of any chance to hold the Khartoum regime accountable for its barbarous denial of humanitarian access over decades, is on full display in its comments about the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on a regime that remains genocidal in its ambitions and actions.

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Eric ReevesSenior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights

 

ereeves@smith.edu

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