Issue 16 - Article 17

Humanitarianism: Imperatives and Principles in Southern Sudan

December 5, 2012
Cdr Nhial Deng Nhial, SPLM/SPLA Chairman for External Relations, Information and Humanitarian Affairs.
10 min read

The events that have unfolded in southern Sudan in recent weeks represent some of the increasingly stark and difficult choices faced by humanitarian agencies.

In January, all NGOs working in southern Sudan under the umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) received a letter in which the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, required them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with its humanitarian arm, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA). The deadline for doing so was the end of February 2000; if agencies didn’t sign they would have to leave the SPLM controlled areas in the south.

This letter followed months of negotiations between the SRRA, NGOs and key donors over the principle and text of an MoU that would govern NGO operations and outline the relationship between NGOs and the SRRA. Most agencies had indicated that they would be prepared to sign some form of agreement as long as the text was appropriate. A list of 19 points requiring change in the August 1999 MoU text was submitted to the SRRA by NGOs in late 1999. The debate was messy and drawn-out. Most telling was a public spat over the MoU between US government and EU officials, while the UN sat silently on the sidelines until close to the end. There was good reason for the SRRA to become impatient.

What polarised the issue further was the announcement in late 1999 of US government authorisation to provide humanitarian assistance directly to Sudanese rebel groups (in the end this decision was not implemented). Several NGOs openly criticised this because of the extremely problematic precedent for donor policy that it set, rather than any criticism of the SPLM per se. This move by the US arguably made the situation worse and increased the likelihood of a subsequent impasse. NGO criticism of direct US assistance infuriated the SPLM.

Shortly thereafter the SRRA sent the now famous letter informing NGOs to sign the August 1999 MoU text without any of the changes they had requested, or leave SPLM-controlled areas. A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued, with NGOs and donors lobbying the SRRA to lift the 1 March ultimatum and reopen negotiations. Finally the donors and UN got it together somewhat. In late February, a joint demarche of UN envoy Tom Vraalson, US envoy Harry Johnson, and an EU representative came to Nairobi to lobby John Garang and the SPLM. The SPLM was unmoved. The NGO forum tried to offer the SRRA a way out of the impasse, but again was rebuffed. At the eleventh hour, even a phonecall from US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to John Garang failed to change the mind of the SPLM.

To Sign or Not To Sign?

By this time, individual NGOs had begun to decide whether or not they would sign the MoU. About 10 days before the deadline the SRRA informed those NGOs who intended not to sign to move their personnel out the field – it could not guarantee the safety of NGOs who did not sign and who remained in the field after the deadline. Consequently, 11 international NGOs, representing around 75 per cent of OLS NGO activities, evacuated their staff and some of their assets. Sixteen NGOs active in OLS chose to sign the agreement. Some 22 NGOs who do not operate within the OLS umbrella had signed an earlier agreement (the same as this one) with the SRRA, as had eight indigenous NGOs. Concerns about the MoU were shared by all NGOs in the OLS consortium, including those who signed. This was communicated to the SRRA on 23 February 2000 in a joint statement that ‘the decision to sign or not sign is made under duress, with grave implications for continuing humanitarian support to the people of south Sudan.’

None of the NGOs had any desire to have to leave southern Sudan, and all continue to express a desire to reopen negotiations and find an acceptable solution with the SRRA. In terms of whether to sign or not, agencies had to weigh compelling arguments on either side of the dilemma.

Key Arguments For

  • The humanitarian imperative: people in southern Sudan need humanitarian assistance and NGOs can’t abandon their obligations to meet these needs.
  • NGOs sign agreements like this with authorities around the world, including with some unsavoury regimes. There is no difference between signing this MoU and other agreements NGOs have signed in other places.
  • The human rights community is moving in the direction of trying to hold the more ‘legitimate’ rebel groups (such as the SPLM) to human rights standards; the flip-side of this coin is that, in order to do this, such groups must be conferred reasonable legitimacy.

Key Arguments Against

  • There are some important issues of humanitarian principle that are not met by the MoU text on offer, and if NGOs sign this text these principles could be undermined. Concerns about the text of the MoU included the requirement to work ‘in accordance with SRRA objectives’ rather than based solely on humanitarian principles; the right of the Sudanese to receive aid in an impartial manner; the ability to target aid according to the greatest need; and clauses that could reduce individual NGOs’ ability to guarantee the safety of their staff.
  • Regarding the human rights case mentioned above, it is argued that any MoU document should reasonably reflect both sides of the human rights coin (legitimacy and upholding human rights standards). This is essentially what the NGOs had been fighting for as they negotiated for an acceptable MoU.
  • It was felt by some agencies that there were strong reasons to believe that field staff would be under untenable levels of coercion and intimidation if the MoU was signed under the prevailing conditions, where the SRRA was attempting to exert increased levels of control over NGOs and their work.
  • The SRRA’s unwillingness to negotiate and its use of an ultimatum did not represent the norms of the mutually respectful relations that NGOs normally have with authorities around the world. The SRRA used an ultimatum knowing that many organisations are responsible for feeding hundreds of thousands of people each day. The ultimatum thus put humanitarian organisations under extreme duress as they tried to balance the immediate needs of Sudan’s hungry against the potentially even more destructive cost of allowing aid to be politicised and manipulated.
  • An NGO cave-in would be seen, with some justification, as yet another example of the NGO community’s inability to uphold principles over self-protection of their programmes, jobs, and turf. Another example of how we are all more worried about the survival of programmes, rather than considerations of principle. In the end, each agency had to apply its own organisational values and priorities to making its decision and, given the diversity of organisations represented, it is perhaps unsurprising that agencies fell on both sides of the divide in weighing the arguments.

What Now?

There has been almost unanimous disapproval of the SRRA’s handling of this, and the sad outcome is that so many agencies have been forced to leave Sudan.

While everyone continues to hope for a more reasoned and negotiated settlement to this critical situation it is nevertheless encouraging that humanitarian agencies have engaged in debates around principles in their decisionmaking – regardless of which decision they made. This in itself represents an increased level of analysis in decisionmaking by the humanitarian community.

2. The SPLA/M Perspective

The above article represents one of a number of contested viewpoints held about the situation in southern Sudan, and it is hard to get at the ‘truth’ sitting at a desk in London. The following points – drawn mostly from a press release by the SPLM/A on 1 March 2000 – present the SPLM/A perspective on the MoU issue. Signatory agencies reflect some of these views, while having yet others of their own.

  • The SPLM/SPLA believes there should be an MoU to regularise operations and promote cooperation between the SRRA and NGOs in the deliverance of humanitarian assistance. However, this good intention has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by some NGOs to mean control of their work by the SRRA.
  • In January 1999 the SRRA initiated discussions with the NGOs and other stakeholders such as the major donors. In March 1999 a consensus document was agreed. However, some NGOs requested more time to further study and discuss it with the SRRA. This request was granted until August when an agreement on the present MoU was developed with the approval of all the stakeholders. When asked to sign some NGOs again hesitated and requested yet more time to consult with donors and headquarters. The watershed event was the December 1999 National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting where the MoU was brought forward in addition to a Letter of Understanding (LoU). This had been put together by donors and NGOs as a ‘best case scenario’ from their perspective, and was seen as ‘bad faith negotiating’ by the NLC which rejected the LoU for the following reasons: 
  1. The LoU was substantially different from the consolidated text of the MoU.
  2. The LoU brought in OLS as a signatory; an idea that was irrelevant because the SPLM/SPLA has a Tripartite Agreement between the OLS and the Government of Sudan (GOS) in addition to several other bilateral agreements including the Ground Rules.

In seeking to put the record straight the SPLM/A stresses:

  • The Movement assures the international community that it will stick to its humanitarian mandate and will assist all NGOs to make this commitment a success.
  • The MoU was prepared in good faith and in the spirit of transparency and accountability. In relation to this, since 1994 the Movement has been involved in extensive reforms and democratisation which the international community has supported. These reforms will lead to greater efficiency and utilisation of limited resources for the benefit of the people.
  • The beneficiaries should be involved in initiating projects, and be given the right to be consulted. They are not passive receivers but partners.
  • It is important to streamline programmes and activities in order to avoid malpractice. ‘Chaotic situations’ with regards to humanitarian deliverance have been occurring in the New Sudan, particularly during the hunger and starvation of 1998. Of course some benefit from such chaos, but the SPLM/A believes that good organisation leads to good governance.
  • A good number of NGOs have signed the MoU. The SPLM/A re-assures these NGOs that the Movement will cooperate with them and give them all the protection they need. Of the 43 NGOs working in the New Sudan, 32 signed and only 11 opted not to do so.
  • The UN system (OLS, WFP, UNICEF and so on) is not affected because there is a tripartite agreement with them, the GOS and the SPLM/A. The ICRC is also not affected because there is also a separate agreement with them. This group by far represents the vast majority of international organisations working in the New Sudan, which means that the humanitarian situation will not be adversely affected.
  • The SPLM/SPLA is not expelling any NGO. The SRRA is only implementing a decision made by the NLC. It is a democratic right of any NGO to reject our laws and leave peacefully.

The SPLM/A press release is distributed in the ‘extra’ service of the UN IRIN information service. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or the Relief and Rehabilitation Network. For further information or free subscriptions contact IRIN by fax: (+254) 2 622129 or email: <>


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