Dissemination session to Justice and Equality Movement combatants in Durum, Darfur Dissemination session to Justice and Equality Movement combatants in Durum, Darfur Photo credit: CICR/HEGER, Boris
The disappearance of cross-line aid in Darfur, Sudan
by Jonathan Loeb August 2013

Ten years of conflict in Darfur between the Sudanese government and an array of rebel groups and militias have caused a humanitarian emergency. In the early stages of the conflict, between 2004 and 2009, some two dozen agencies provided ‘cross-line’ humanitarian assistance in territory controlled by rebel movements. Although urgent humanitarian needs persist in these areas, by 2011 all cross-line aid had stopped. This article explores the issues around humanitarian access to rebel and contested areas in Darfur, and analyses the reasons why such assistance has come to an end, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need.

The ‘golden age’ of access, 2004-–2006

Major violence erupted in Darfur in April 2003, causing large-scale displacement and loss of life. For the first few months of the fighting virtually no humanitarian assistance was delivered to conflict-affected populations, and the humanitarian community’s presence in Darfur was limited to the few organisations that had been there prior to the conflict. The Sudanese government restricted the movements of aid agencies in Darfur and prohibited other agencies from entering. For their part, the rebel movements in Sudan had no humanitarian policy and no contact with humanitarian organisations.

Government restrictions on humanitarian access were lifted in May 2004, two months after the signing of a humanitarian ceasefire agreement by the major parties to the conflict. Although there had been significant international pressure on the Sudanese government to allow access, the change of heart in Khartoum was arguably prompted by a belief that the military campaign against the rebels had met its objectives, and that resisting international pressure was no longer in the government’s interests. Whatever the reasoning, humanitarian organisations began arriving in Darfur en masse in June 2004.

The rebels benefited materially from medical assistance and food aid; they also benefited politically as the provision of assistance increased support for the rebels among the local population. The presence of aid agencies also arguably made the government less likely to mount attacks against the rebels. Aid personnel spent significant time in the deep field to develop relationships with rebel commanders and negotiate mutually acceptable mechanisms for the delivery of assistance into rebel territory. A few organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), negotiated their own access directly with rebels. For the majority of agencies, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) negotiated ‘ground rules’ setting out the procedures governing humanitarian access. The main point of contention during the negotiation of the ‘ground rules’ was the rebels’ demand to vet all national staff entering their territory because the rebels believed that many national staff were government spies. A compromise was reached whereby aid agencies would supply the name, age and gender of their staff. Although the nationality and ethnicity of staff were not explicitly required, these could easily be determined by the rebels based on the names of staff members. The majority of the humanitarian community believed that the compromise was justified and were sympathetic to the rebels’ vetting request, in part because the government’s Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC) made similar attempts to control which Sudanese nationals were hired by UN agencies and international NGOs. The HAC reportedly vetted most, if not all, national staff hired by international agencies, and many aid agency staff had personally been pressured by national and local HAC officials to hire particular individuals.

Growing insecurity and deteriorating access, 2006-–2009

In May 2006, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed by the Sudanese government and one of the three main rebel groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army/Minni Minnawi (SLA/MM). In the aftermath of the DPA the security situation for humanitarian organisations in Darfur deteriorated dramatically. Harassment of humanitarian staff and attacks on humanitarian property were widespread, prompting nearly all humanitarian organisations to revise their security protocols; many were forced to shut down operations, and some considered withdrawing from Darfur altogether.

Increasing insecurity was largely attributable to the proliferation of armed groups following the DPA, and their growing belligerence towards humanitarian actors. Splinter factions from signatory and non-signatory rebel movements began to behave like bandits, as did some members of the original rebel movements. Arab militia groups theoretically allied to the government (the janjaweed), which had initially not interfered with aid operations, also began attacking aid agency personnel and property.

The actions of the janjaweed can largely be explained by their relationship to the peace process. A premise underlying the peace process was that the interests of the janjaweed-affiliated tribes were being represented by the Sudanese government; in reality, this was never the case. The outcome of the DPA demonstrated to these groups that the government was not protecting their interests. As a result, they began to act more like autonomous entities than proxy militias; they also became increasingly intolerant of aid operations from which they had never benefited and which they perceived to be exclusively serving their enemies.

The new-found hostility towards aid agencies among the rebels stemmed in part from a perception, both among nonsignatory movements and the wider civilian population, that the humanitarian community was biased in favour of signatory factions. It was also a result of the changing structure and interests of the rebel movements in the wake of the DPA. Most groups had lost their chain of command and low-ranking members were no longer accountable to their superiors, they often controlled little territory and were no longer accountable to their communities, and their supply chains had often been cut and they were often in desperate need of supplies. They could also more easily get away with acts of banditry as aid agencies were often unable to determine who had attacked them.

Despite the growing insecurity, cross-line operations continued, and aid agencies were able to maintain access to vulnerable populations outside of governmentcontrolled territory by revising their security protocols, establishing contacts with janjaweed groups and newly formed rebel factions and renegotiating access. Maintaining access came at a cost: renegotiation often involved compromising humanitarian principles, such as providing ‘aid for peace’ to certain groups, and more stringent security protocols, such as travelling only by air, distanced aid agencies from the communities they were assisting, and the armed groups with which they needed to work.

The NGO expulsions in 2009 and the collapse of cross-line aid

In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted the sitting president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government responded to the indictment by expelling 16 aid agencies, including the majority of NGOs working in rebel-controlled territory. UN agencies and the remaining international NGOs prioritised IDP camps in government areas, and the lost capacity in rebel areas was never replaced, in part because international organisations were reluctant to attempt new programmes in rebel areas for fear that this would jeopardise their programmes in government territory.

Following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the government in Khartoum became openly opposed to the presence of international aid workers anywhere in Sudan, and especially in areas controlled by rebels. The government’s logic is simple: the presence of aid agencies contributed to the secession of South Sudan and the indictment of Bashir, and contributes to the strengthening of rebel movements and the proliferation of permanent IDP camps in Darfur. In contrast, where aid agencies are absent – as was the case when violence erupted in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in 2012 – the response has been limited to increased statements of disapproval by Western countries.

By the end of 2012 the consequences of this cruel logic were on display for everyone to see. Virtually no aid agencies were working in rebel-held or contested areas, and there was almost no communication between aid agencies and rebel movements. The rebel movements bear some responsibility for this lack of communication as the major groups have abandoned all semblance of a humanitarian policy. However, the humanitarian community must share some of the blame, as nearly all aid agencies have stopped trying to access rebel and contested areas. The few INGOs that are still attempting to secure access have no support from donors or the senior UN political leadership, and the UN Assistance Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) provides them with no security. The African Union, the UN and donor countries no longer prioritise humanitarian access in Darfur; even the United States, historically the most forceful advocate for assistance to rebel areas, has ceased all serious advocacy efforts. MSF-Spain, the only international NGO with facilities and (national) staff inside rebel-controlled territory, runs a hospital in Jebel Si, North Darfur, but has been unable to supply it for over a year. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is the only international NGO that has been able to expand its operations into rebel areas during 2011 and 2012.

“we deal directly with community leaders and not with the rebels. And we always ask the community leaders to inform HAC of their requests – That might be why the GoS has let us in – We also work with the Arab population, doing agricultural and education support. We work with both sides. We distribute to both sides.” A DRC worker explains the organisation’s approach.

A way forward

The policies and behaviour of the parties to the conflict are principally responsible for the disappearance of assistance in rebel areas. The Sudanese government often knowingly and purposefully prevented humanitarian assistance from reaching civilians in rebel-controlled and contested areas. Rebel movements rarely prioritised the humanitarian needs of the communities under their control. International actors are also at fault. International interventions not only failed to support meaningful peace, justice and security initiatives, but also made it progressively more difficult for humanitarian actors to access and assist vulnerable populations. Belligerent actors and international interventions left aid agencies with a limited purview in which to design and implement the humanitarian response to an enormous crisis. As a result, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the decisions made by aid agencies during the different stages of the conflict contributed to the emergence, deterioration and collapse of cross-line assistance. Aid agencies must ask themselves if the collapse could have been prevented, or if it was an unavoidable consequence of the geopolitical situation in Darfur.

Those humanitarian actors still concerned with providing assistance to all vulnerable populations in Darfur must determine if there is anything that the humanitarian community can do to re-establish access and deliver assistance throughout Darfur. Many contend that the humanitarian community is capable of expanding access and assistance despite the many serious obstacles to doing so. Others believe that humanitarian space in Darfur is destined to shrink further, and predict a complete prohibition on international aid workers.

Reopening humanitarian access to rebel and contested areas in Darfur will involve high-level advocacy and diplomacy directed at senior Sudanese government officials. These officials will not be receptive to the appeal. The heterogeneity of centres of power within the government demands that political pressure is delivered in a sustained and coordinated manner. The complexity of the humanitarian community makes the coordination this would require difficult. Individual and collective leadership by senior members of the humanitarian community will be essential to persuade government officials to modify their position. The UNAMID SRSG in particular must be much more assertive with respect to access. He should also be transparent with the government about his intentions in this regard (remembering that being transparent does not imply asking for permission).

High-level pressure must be augmented by continual pressure by humanitarian actors directly towards lowerlevel national and local government officers, particularly HAC officials in Khartoum and Darfur. As political pressure is applied, donors should allot funds specifically for assistance inside rebel and contested areas. NGOs and UN agencies in Darfur must reprioritise working with vulnerable populations outside government territory. Aid agencies should be honest and transparent with the government about their objectives outside government territory. Developing personal relations with local community leaders and local HAC members will be crucial for the success of any project. Aid agencies should develop plans for entirely locally staffed projects. Projects can be managed remotely by national and international staff in government territory in Darfur, in Khartoum or from abroad. Aid agencies must re-establish a network of contacts with rebel and janjaweed-affiliated groups. This should include not only political leaders but also local field commanders. Where necessary, UNAMID or OCHA should act as intermediaries between international and armed groups. Aid agencies should facilitate meetings outside Sudan between armed groups, aid agencies, community leaders and government officials in order to re-establish trust with the rebels and ultimately develop protocols for entering rebel territory.

Jonathan Loeb is an independent consultant. This article is based on a case study of cross-line aid in Darfur, to be published by the Humanitarian Policy Group later this year.

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