Relief Agencies Jolted by Deaths in Sudan

UNITED NATIONS – The deaths of two humanitarian workers in a landmine explosion in northern Darfur early this week and the painfully slow response of the world community to the ongoing violence and atrocities have worsened the spreading crisis in Sudan, according to senior UN officials and humanitarian organizations.

For months, human rights groups and other bodies have called loudly for the United Nations and powerful countries to intervene to end attacks against ethnic groups in the region, with little effect.

"It’s a tragedy when civilians, including aid workers, lose their lives while trying to provide assistance to people living in deplorable conditions," says Coco McCabe, media-information officer at OxfamAmerica.

The recent deaths of two staff members from Save the Children, have been felt deeply by everyone at Oxfam, she said.

"The incident will not affect our programs in North Darfur, and we will continue with them. Oxfam is not actively working in the area where the explosion occurred," McCabe told IPS. "However, the tragedy does highlight the very real dangers to all agencies working in the region."

The two who died were British and Sudanese nationals, while a third staff member was injured when a landmine struck their vehicle.

Church World Service (CWS) and Action by Churches Together (ACT)/Caritas International – a coalition of humanitarian groups operating in Darfur in western Sudan – says some recent incidents have affected their work in the war-ravaged country.

Recent attacks include one on Bashum Camp, "where we are engaged in health services and supplementary feeding," Rick Augsburger, CWS emergency response program director, told IPS.

"The investigation into the deaths of Save the Children UK aid workers from the landmine incident has also meant increased security measures for all NGO staff and some areas which are for the moment considered ‘no travel’ areas. However ACT/CWS work in many camps continues," he added.

The incident has also prompted the United Nations to declare northern Darfur a "no-go" zone. UN Spokeswomen Radhia Achouri was quoted as saying that security has worsened, with ceasefire violations and a growing number of rapes and abductions.

In a statement released Thursday, the Rome-based World Food Program (WFP) said security in the region is so "volatile" it is hampering the delivery and distribution of food aid to all internally displaced persons (IDPs).

WFP said the "no-go" zone also means that about 50,000 people, mostly IDPs, will not get food assistance – jeopardizing the agency’s target of feeding 2 million people in Darfur every month by the end of this year.

The atrocities in Darfur, where the UN says an estimated 70,000 black Africans have been killed and over 1.5 million displaced, have been committed by marauding Arab militias called Janjaweed ("men on horseback"). The Sudanese government has not only been accused of creating the militias but also of turning a blind eye to their continued killings.

The African Union (AU) said Friday it would start deploying 4,000 more troops to Darfur this weekend, boosting its current 350-member force in the area, according to media reports.

But despite an appeal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for increased funds, equipment and logistical support for the AU force, the response from the international community has been poor.

Some donor governments, including France, Spain, Italy and Japan have given woefully inadequate support, says McCabe. "These governments must pledge additional funds now, above and beyond their regular contributions to humanitarian aid. They must make these funds available immediately," she added.

UN Special Representative for Sudan Jan Pronk told the Security Council in September that "resources have to be redoubled or more."

He said an additional $250 million in humanitarian aid, at least, is needed for Darfur until the end of this year.

McCabe said the international community must provide additional funding and logistical and human resources to strengthen the ability of the AU mission to stop the violence against civilians that continues throughout the region. The AU needs to clearly articulate its requests, she added.

Speaking to reporters in Ireland on Thursday, Annan said western nations have not only been slow in responding to AU demands but also to requests for more peacekeepers for UN missions.

"The European Union [EU] is in a position to provide specialized skills that our largest troop contributors [mostly from developing nations] may not be able to give us, and to deploy more rapidly than we can," Annan said.

He pointed out that less than one-tenth of all UN peacekeepers come from EU countries, while in Africa that proportion drops to one in 20.

"In the last nine months, with five new operations either deployed or on the drawing board, the demand on our peacekeeping has jumped by about 50 percent," Anna said. "We have around 56,000 troops and military observers deployed today, but we desperately need another 30,000 of them – not to mention many more civilian personnel, both police and others."

The secretary-general underscored the gravity of the situation in Darfur, where current fighting between government and rebel forces has uprooted more than 1.5 million people from their homes and forced another 200,000 to flee to neighboring Chad.

"The humanitarian effort needs more money, and the African Union needs concrete support – including logistics, equipment and financing, as well as political pressure on the parties," he said. "Every country and organization that can help must do so, now."

Asked whether humanitarian organizations expect increased violence despite AU intervention, Donna J. Derr, associate director of CWS’s international emergency response program, told IPS: "Until a much larger contingent from the African Union is actually in place in Darfur and fully supported by international governments, the possibility of violence remains high."

According to published reports, Washington has awarded contracts worth over $20 million to two U.S. companies to provide logistical support, including military transports and helicopters, to the AU.

But the U.S. military is shying away from peacekeeping operations in sub-Saharan Africa in general, and in Sudan in particular. The U.S. Defense Department says it prefers to use military resources from the private sector than from its Armed Forces.

Under threat of UN sanctions, the Sudanese government has agreed to permit the AU to expand its existing force but has refused to concede any change in the mandate that will facilitate its "intervention" in the current fighting.

The 15-member Security Council, which adopted a resolution in September calling for an international commission of inquiry to investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, continues to monitor the situation.

But last week a coalition of 10 human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights First, International League for Human Rights, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, urged the council to take further steps to address the crisis in Darfur.

"It is essential that the Security Council quickly establish an effective force to protect civilian populations by passing a resolution extending and strengthening the mandate of the existing African Union monitoring force," said the letter.

Otherwise, the groups warned, AU forces will remain "powerless to protect civilians."

The Security Council is now awaiting a report from the five-member commission of inquiry, appointed by Annan last week. It is headed by Antonio Cassese, a prominent Italian judge who was elected the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia.

Oxfam, like all other humanitarian organizations on the ground, is monitoring development on a day-to-day basis. The agency has made the safety of its staff its top priority, "and we continue to maintain strict security management procedures," McCabe says.

"Oxfam staff have not been affected in any security incidents, although we have postponed trips due to reports of violence on roads we were planning to take," she added.

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.