Human Rights Watch, 27 March 2009
On March 4, 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On March 5 the government of Sudan sought to divert attention from al-Bashir’s alleged responsibility for widespread atrocities by announcing its intention to expel aid agencies from Darfur and blaming the ICC. The intense public controversy generated by these events includes a number of myths, which are not borne out by reality:
1. Myth: The International Criminal Court has put people at risk by issuing an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president because international aid groups have been expelled from Sudan as a result.
Reality: It is the Sudanese government, not the International Criminal Court, that is creating catastrophic consequences for the people of Darfur by ousting humanitarian assistance. Expelling aid groups further victimizes those already made victim by atrocities al-Bashir is accused of committing in Darfur. This step compounds the responsibility of the top Sudanese leadership for the gravest crimes committed in Darfur, and highlights the risks of allowing those allegedly responsible for these crimes to escape accountability.
Sudan has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure that relief aid reaches people in need in conflict situations. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the agencies that have been expelled provided roughly half of the total humanitarian assistance for all of Darfur. The number of people who are affected by lack of water, food, sanitation and medical care is in the millions. For example, OCHA has described the situation for the Kalma camp-one of the largest camps for displaced people in Darfur-as dire. In addition to having provided medical care and other essential assistance, the agencies that were expelled were responsible for Kalma’s water supply.
2. Myth: Sudan’s expulsion of humanitarian assistance organizations is not a big problem since only 13 international organizations were expelled and dozens of other international organizations and hundreds of Sudanese organizations are still in Darfur. The remaining organizations can take over the work, and the government of Sudan also said that it will help.
Reality: The 13 international organizations expelled employed 40 percent of all humanitarian staff working in Darfur. The United Nations estimates that they were supplying food and water to 1.1 million people and medical care to 1.5 million people in a complex, insecure, and physically challenging environment. Non-governmental organizations and UN agencies that have been allowed to remain are doing what they can to fill in the gaps, but they do not have the necessary capacity to take over all of the programs affected by the expulsions. Even if they did, the manner in which the government closed the programs makes effective handover impossible. Organizations were given no advance notice, and government officials removed their property, including computers, communications equipment, and vehicles. Government officials also ordered organizations to dismiss national staff, many of whom have now returned to their homes elsewhere in Sudan. Handing over large-scale and complex programs is a process that in the best of circumstances takes months and cannot be achieved in a matter of hours, particularly without essential information and equipment.
A United Nations-Government of Sudan assessment report of March 21, 2009, two weeks after the 13 organizations were forced to cease operating, highlights that as the situation currently stands:
- The UN World Food Program currently has no partners to carry out its next food distribution, due in May, for over a million people. While the UN agency supplies food, it relies on non-governmental organizations to distribute it.
- 32 health facilities and 28 therapeutic feeding centers for severely malnourished children have either closed or suspended a significant part of their services, with the result that 650,000 people now have very limited or no access to health care.
- Some 700,000 people who would have been served will not receive distributions of urgently needed non-food items and emergency shelter prior to the rainy season.
- In many locations sanitation and hygiene activities have completely stopped, greatly increasing the threat of disease.
- The current stop-gap measures to maintain water supplies in many camps can only last another 2 to 4 weeks, after which water supplies will begin to run dry. This could affect over a million people and greatly heighten the risk of disease outbreaks.
If the Sudanese government were willing and able to provide aid to the affected populations, humanitarian organizations would not have been working so extensively in Darfur. The notion that the government can somehow step in effectively to address a massive void created by the expulsions is not at all realistic. Some of the organizations expelled also ran programs in other parts of Sudan, including East Sudan and Southern Kordofan. In many of these areas, there are few other organizations and very limited government capacity to provide any assistance at all so people there may be at even greater risk than those in Darfur.