Does humanitarian space exist in Chad?
by Helle Garro December 2008

On 1 May 2008, Pascal Marlinge, head of mission for Save the Children UK (SCUK) in Eastern Chad, was shot and killed by (at least officially) unknown assailants while travelling in an unarmed UN/NGO convoy close to the Sudanese border. Police investigations are ongoing, and to date the reason why Pascal was murdered remains unclear. Few expect the truth surrounding the killing ever to become known. This is not surprising in a society marked by deep ethnic conflicts and the absence of a competent state-based independent legal structure to resolve disputes and judge criminals. What is surprising, though, is the reluctance among the numerous humanitarian organisations present in Chad to openly denounce the assassination and put pressure on donors and political actors to improve the conditions for humanitarian interventions in Chad. This article explores the reasons for this, as seen from a field point of view.

The context

The humanitarian emergency in Eastern Chad began with an influx of Sudanese refugees as a result of the escalating crisis in Darfur in 2003–2004. As the emergency has grown, so the scale of the international humanitarian intervention has increased. Between 2006 and 2007, humanitarian funding for Chad almost doubled, from $187 million to $313m. The international military presence in Chad has also increased with the introduction of a UN force, MINURCAT, and an EU contingent known as Eufor. France, the former colonial power, also maintains its own military presence.

The political situation in the country is very unstable. It is widely acknowledged that extensive favouritism is granted by President Idriss Deby to members of his own clan, the Zaghawas, a minority representing less than 5% of the population. The President was nearly toppled in February 2008, and rebel groups along the border with Sudan continue to mount attacks against the regime. The Chadian government accuses Sudan of supporting rebel movements in Chad. Sudan in turn accuses Chad of backing rebels on its territory. Meanwhile, banditry has increased. Humanitarian workers are easy targets. According to the UN, between January and September 2008 six humanitarian workers were killed and 107 security incidents involving humanitarian staff were reported. SCUK has been particularly exposed: four weeks prior to the killing of Pascal, Ramadan Djom, a driver of Chadian nationality working for SCUK, was murdered in the same area, presumably in a car-jacking attempt. In July, a female delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was badly wounded during an attack on two ICRC vehicles in Abéché, the main town in Eastern Chad.

Humanitarian space

The efficient protection of victims within a crisis situation requires ‘humanitarian space’ to allow humanitarian workers to be able to assess needs, deliver aid and control its use while respecting the fundamental humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. The extent of such ‘space’ depends, among other things, on the level of respect given to international humanitarian law and on the security provided to humanitarian workers. Meanwhile, even if risk-taking is an inevitable part of humanitarian work, physical aggression against a humanitarian worker is considered a violation of international humanitarian law. In the event of such aggression, it is up to the organisation concerned to consider whether the violence experienced is considered – or not – as a vital decrease in the ‘space’ necessary to carry out their operations.

Reactions to the killing of Pascal Marlinge

In the hours after Pascal’s death, SCUK temporarily suspended all its operations in Chad. A couple of days later, a formal complaint was presented to the Chadian Prime Minister. Two months later, following an internal investigation, the organisation officially decided to continue its nutrition activities in Abéché and, pending funding, resume operations in the Dar Sila district by October 2008. However, at the beginning of November SCUK declared that the organisation had decided to pull out of Chad completely. Within the wider humanitarian community, there was little reaction beyond commemorations at coordination meetings and the dedication of the 2008 Consolidated Appeal Process to Pascal’s memory. A two-day suspension of non-lifesaving work had little impact as it coincided with a weekend. There seems to have been no concrete, consolidated protest.

Some steps were taken to improve security for humanitarian workers. The number of UN flights was increased, and Eufor started to communicate their patrol itineraries on a regular basis. Meanwhile, security coordination within the humanitarian community continued through regular meetings involving NGOs, UN agencies and MINURCAT/ Eufor.

The local authorities launched an official investigation into the attack, but so far with no concrete result. This is not unusual: it seems that none of the numerous attacks against humanitarian workers has led to the arrest of any suspects and no detailed official statements have been put forward by the authorities concerning (supposedly) ongoing enquiries. An investigation by the French authorities has also produced no official result so far. However, less than 24 hours after the killing of Pascal, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the incident was most likely due to ‘carjackers’.

The limits of the humanitarian community in Chad

The reaction of the national authorities and their international counterparts was not surprising given the political and economic interests at stake. The muted response of the humanitarian community in Chad is more startling. Why did the murder of Pascal – an active and well-known humanitarian – not lead to concerted, demands for improvements in the security environment for humanitarian workers in Chad?

The UN system is, in theory, entitled to put pressure on the local authorities to tackle insecurity. So far, though, the only reaction has been the deployment of the MINURCAT mission. Although costly – $315 million for the period July 2008 to June 2009 – MINURCAT has had little effect, and UN agencies have no official political influence in Chad. A report published by Oxfam GB concludes that, for the UN to be able to provide security to the population of Eastern Chad, including for Sudanese refugees, ‘the UN Security Council must give the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General in Chad a political mandate to promote and develop an inclusive peace process’ (Oxfam, Mission Incomplete: Why Civilians Remain at Risk in Eastern Chad, September 2008). Clearly, when considering that the omnipresent impunity is deeply rooted within the current political system, it will take serious and dedicated political will, both internally and externally, to improve the situation.

It is doubtful, however, that the UN system is sufficiently independent to be able to put the required pressure on the Chadian regime. Influential UN member states such as the United States and France (both Permanent Members of the Security Council) may be unwilling to risk their relationship with the Chadian government given their oil interests in the country and Chad’s geopolitical position. The fact that the US and EU provide the lion’s share of financing for the UN’s operations in Chad may make individual agencies reluctant to exert pressure on the Chadian government.

If the UN is constrained, what of NGOs, who should, theoretically at least, be in a better position to denounce impunity? What is holding them back? Why was the immediate reaction following Pascal’s killing limited to a timid ‘weekend protest’ rather than a loud outcry of disapproval and, if necessary, a suspension of non-lifesaving activities for more than just two days? A couple of weeks after the attack on Pascal, MSF Luxembourg suspended its operations in Iriba on the border with Sudan for three months following death threats against its expatriate staff. Why then did other NGOs operating in the same area not do the same?

The obvious answer is: concern for beneficiaries. This argument, however, needs to be placed within the context of the difficulties NGOs experience in providing good-quality relief in Chad. The reasons for this are many: short-term financing of projects, high turnover of often inexperienced staff and frequent interruptions due to evacuations. Furthermore, it is important to stress the lack of an overall coherent and coordinated strategy among the various humanitarian and developmental interventions in Chad. Activities regularly overlap and the host population is often neglected, despite being as much in need as refugees and IDPs.

Another reason for the lack of a concerted reaction from NGOs is the impressive diversity that characterises the organisations present in Chad. Despite the existence of the ‘Comité de Coordination des Ongs’ (the CCO) – a forum created in 2007 (following the initiative of, among others, Pascal himself) to coordinate information and enable NGOs to present a joint front to national authorities, donors and UN agencies – it is difficult for NGOs to speak with one voice, even on an issue of such pressing and shared importance as insecurity. While individual agencies, including Oxfam GB and several French NGOs as well as ICRC and the MSF sections present in Chad, have issued protests, these isolated efforts do not appear sufficient to change the situation: attacks continue, often by armed individuals in military uniforms, and impunity persists.

The presence of Eufor is also likely to influence the attitude of NGOs. Organisations may be inclined to confront insecurity using a deterrence strategy, relying on the reassurance of Eufor protection, rather than adopting an acceptance-based approach. This option, however, is obviously not a long-term solution and risks blurring the line between the civilian and military sphere. While the impact of impunity may be alleviated with the Eufor presence, it may also have reduced the need felt by NGOs to formulate a decisive complaint against insecurity.

The limitations of NGOs in Eastern Chad

We could of course ask a further question: what is holding NGOs back from denouncing, jointly, the inefficiency of humanitarian relief in Chad? After all, if the (true?) beneficiaries are not profiting from efficiently delivered humanitarian aid, and if the increasing climate of impunity allows anyone with the right ethnic background to loot and kill humanitarian workers, then NGOs have a responsibility to protest. And if verbal denunciation is not sufficient, the option remains of a consolidated and temporary, possibly partial, suspension of humanitarian activities. Such a move would force all actors, including politicians within the international community, to step back and reconsider how to approach the complex emergency in Chad.

There are, I believe, two reasons why such moves are rarely made. The first is that NGOs (perhaps particularly at HQ level) tend to underestimate the extent of the mutual dependency between themselves and their donors: just as most NGOs are dependent on their donors for financing, so too those same donors need NGOs to carry out relief work in the field. Second, as mentioned above, the diversity among NGOs clearly makes a coordinated approach very difficult. The fundamental concept of independence plays a vital role in the relationship that each NGO has with all stakeholders – including their fellow organisations. Therefore, each NGO most often speaks with its own voice and according to internal priorities. If furthermore no firm and clear reaction is given by the NGO directly concerned with the violence (in this case SCUK), it is even more unlikely that the other members of the humanitarian community will have the capacity to coordinate a strong response.

Is there sufficient humanitarian space in Chad?

To the extent that no open war is currently preventing humanitarian organisations from reaching civilians and non-combatants in need of assistance, humanitarian space exists in Chad. However, the reality in eastern Chad is that the basic principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality have become increasingly difficult to maintain: insecurity is seriously affecting the movements of civilians and humanitarian workers; the majority of NGOs in Chad show little independence in their relations with their donors; and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the local population (including bandits, government soldiers and armed rebels) to distinguish between all the various military and civilian actors in the country.

Based on these observations, coupled with the fact that many of the humanitarian organisations present in Chad (NGOs as well as UN agencies) have difficulties recruiting experienced staff (possibly partly due to the difficult context), there appears to be an urgent need to reconsider the current mode of humanitarian operations in Chad in order to improve the quality of relief work, and the security surrounding humanitarian workers and their beneficiaries. While it is clearly not the job of NGOs to ‘solve’ the political crisis in Chad, it is their responsibility to react when humanitarian workers and beneficiaries become direct targets. This role is particularly important as long as the UN agencies do not have the necessary mandate to exert efficient, outspoken political pressure.

It is up to each organisation to decide whether humanitarian space is indeed sufficient in Chad today. It is however clear that this ‘space’ is proportional to the violence committed against humanitarian workers and their beneficiaries. If no consistent political determination, nationally and internationally, is mobilised to combat impunity, then a concerted response by NGOs is crucial to ensure humanitarian space in Chad in the future.

Helle Garro formerly worked for SCUK in Eastern Chad. The opinions expressed here are the responsibility of the author only. Her email address is: