Issue 29 - Article 11

The Darfur crisis: simple needs, complex response

March 24, 2005
Max Glaser

The crisis in Darfur has left some 80,000 people dead, displaced over 1.6 million (nearly 30% of Darfur’s estimated six million people), and created 300,000 refugees. What makes this crisis particularly shocking is the structural character of the violence: villages have been torched, and civilians have been deliberately targeted by (aerial) bombing, summary executions, massacres and systematic rape as part of a strategy of fear instigated by the Sudanese military and the so-called Janjaweed, armed and supported by the government of Sudan. The crisis in Darfur has therefore demanded both a humanitarian and a political response. The political response has consisted of increased pressure on the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed, ensure security and allow aid agencies into Darfur to provide humanitarian aid. Humanitarian needs include food, shelter, water, health, sanitation and nutrition. But more than that, the structural violence against civilians means that there is an urgent need for protection, as systematic abuse, rape and displacement continue unabated.

At least in the eyes of displaced Sudanese, the protection gap has a simple and straightforward solution: the presence of khawajas (foreigners), the only people they trust. Indeed, in many locations where humanitarian presence has been established, targeted abuse, attacks and rape have diminished dramatically. Local authorities became more cautious and more sensitive to protection issues. Protection by presence therefore may be an effective mechanism to reduce the vulnerability of civilians. Yet it also carries inherent risks, and requires some fundamental preconditions.

The humanitarian presence in DarfurAs international pressure on the Sudanese government led to improved access conditions during 2004, the humanitarian presence in Darfur increased significantly. By December 2004, approximately 55 international humanitarian organisations deploying an estimated 8,400 aid workers, nearly 900 of them internationals, were active in Darfur. Compare this with the position in April 2004, when just 11 agencies and 202 staff (36 international) were operating. However, of the 55 agencies in Darfur at the end of 2004, just ten accounted for 90% of expatriate staff. The other 45 organisations employed on average fewer than two expatriates each. Some UN agencies, including ones crucial to protection like UNHCR and UNICEF, employed only limited numbers of internationals (21 and 26 for UNHCR and UNICEF respectively in November 2004). Arguably, rather than there being too few agencies in Darfur there are in fact too many (small) ones. Competition over scarce resources, including human resources, has fragmented the overall response, and professional capacity is thin on the ground in many agencies. Heads of agencies confirm that many positions remain vacant for extended periods, and that staff turnover is high.

This dearth of international staff has obvious implications for protection by presence, which relies for its force precisely on the foreignness of the presence. Protection efforts are also hampered by the tendency of many agencies to limit their presence to the three state capitals, El Fasher in North Darfur, Nyala in South Darfur and El Geneina in West Darfur; only a minority of agencies have ventured out to remote areas. UN agencies – with the exception of WFP, which has opened several field stations – also confine themselves to the state capitals, as do the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the African Union Cease Fire Commission (AU-CFC). Insecurity is one reason for this, as well as issues of administration and logistics. But again, a lack of human (and financial) resources is also to blame.

Given Darfur’s size, effective protection by presence is badly under-resourced. In remote areas that are visited only intermittently, where there is no permanent international humanitarian presence, protection remains a severe problem. Conversely, where an international presence is established protection can significantly improve. In eastern West Darfur, for example, increased international presence after August 2004 saw a dramatic and acute drop in rape cases, sometimes by as much as ten-fold, according to organisations on the ground. This shows that presence can in itself make a real difference, even if it cannot address the underlying causes of abuse.

In other areas, mainly on the front lines between Sudanese government and rebel forces, humanitarian presence has brought stability and tranquillity as long as it has coincided with the disengagement of the warring parties. In Jebel Marra, for instance, the deployment of aid agencies was connected to guarantees from rebel forces to stay away from IDP locations and access roads, to avoid potential counter-attacks from government troops (ironically, but unintentionally, also serving the interests of government forces). However, as soon as fighting resumed insecurity prohibited humanitarian access once more. Incidents of insecurity included the Sudanese military shooting into towns (literally over the heads of aid workers), and the arrest, abuse and apparently targeted killing of international aid staff.

Rights, politics and protection

The UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) defines protection as ‘all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with … human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law’. In this definition, fulfilling human rights obligations would seem to be included as an objective of protection. But in Darfur the conflation of ‘rights-based action’, ‘humanitarian protection’ and ‘human rights’ is a recurrent problem. The organisation of IDP committees is one example of the dangers inherent in this conflation. In one instance, in West Darfur, international NGO staff promoted IDP committees to represent IDP concerns and needs. However, as soon as the staff left the security authorities arrested the members of the committee.

IDP committees are an attempt to mobilise a community in defence of its (human) rights. IDPs are certainly entitled to basic human rights, such as the right to association and assembly. But the current situation in Darfur does not yet allow for the promotion of rights. In fact, as the example shows, doing so risks harming the very people meant to be protected. These conditions imply a need for professional and experienced leadership, to enable informed decisions to be taken on appropriate approaches to the integration of protection in humanitarian action. The same approach will not work in all locations – protection is context-sensitive. Although the IASC definition appears to include fulfilling human rights obligations as an objective, the primary objective of ‘protection by presence’ in Darfur is to reduce the vulnerability of civilians and prevent abuse.

A related concern is that the humanitarian response is increasingly perceived as biased. Arab nomad leaders have stated that they see Western organisations, UN and NGOs alike, as being anti-Arab, and claim that they have not received any assistance. It is true that, currently, most if not all assistance goes to Fur IDPs. Given that these populations are in greatest need, this seems to be in accordance with the principle of impartiality. While the principle must be upheld, it is also important that humanitarian strategies take into account the opinions or concerns of ‘the other side’, or at least listen to them, if only to avoid the appearance of favouritism. The fate of Arab nomads is a case in point. Some may have been, or perhaps are, involved in atrocities and violence against civilians. Many, and probably most, nomads may have had little or nothing to do with abuses, but suffer equally from the consequences of a collapsed agricultural sector, failing markets and food shortages. The principal difference between them and the displaced population is, of course, that the Fur have been exposed to systematic violence, rape and displacement. But Arab representatives also cite cases of violence and abuse which they or their families have been exposed to. The fundamental point is that Arab nomads constitute part of the conflict environment, and so their concerns must at least be properly understood to ensure an even-handed, impartial and non-biased humanitarian response.

The way that the word Janjaweed is used illustrates these Arab concerns. For many of Darfur’s people, Janjaweed has become synonymous with ‘bandit’ or even more generally ‘bad person’. Any Arab camel rider or Arab-looking individual is referred to as Janjaweed, as are all perpetrators of violence and crime. Given the scale of the violence and abuse in Darfur, this is to a degree understandable, however inaccurate. But the distorted use of the label has also taken root among aid workers. Subsequently, the term has lost its distinctive meaning of ‘armed horseman’ or ‘Arab militia’. For example, on one occasion an aid worker referred to Arab nomad children as Janjaweed, meaning that they were not entitled to aid. Equally, many attacks and robberies are instinctively attributed to ‘Janjaweed’. Not all aid workers hold this view. But labelling like this amounts to taking sides in the conflict. Appropriate contextual knowledge is therefore essential, especially in the context of protection by presence. It is important to understand that there is more than one loser, more than one victim.

On various occasions, Sudanese government officials have referred to the international humanitarian presence as an ‘intervention’. International humanitarian agencies are viewed as ‘agents’ of an anti-Arab, anti-Sudanese international agenda. In the officials’ view, the khawajas are the cause of all Darfur’s current problems, and stand in the way of (their) solutions. In an ironic way this is true, in that it is precisely for this reason that displaced people insist on the presence of khawajas – to prevent abuse and intervene when it occurs. Caught between the displaced and the government, international organisations, given their protective capacity, thus risk becoming actively involved in the conflict.

However, protection should not be mistaken for conflict resolution or the restoration of civil rights. The most pressing priority in Darfur is to prevent the ongoing violence and abuse against civilians. The fact that the perpetrators of these violations include Sudanese government proxies (the Janjaweed), as well as members of the police forces and military, certainly complicates the response to these violations, but it does not compromise the potential of ‘protection by presence’ as such. To achieve a successful ‘protection by presence’ strategy, however, UN agencies such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and UNHCR, along with bodies such as the IOM and the AU-CFC, must be effectively deployed. To ensure and preserve the neutrality of humanitarian actors on the ground, a clear division of labour is essential between organisations providing aid (and protecting by presence), and organisations preventing abuse and/or placing pressure on the government over rights violations. But again, it is of paramount importance that all these actors – aid organisations, UN agencies, the IOM and the AU-CFC – are present as close as possible to the locations where violations and abuses are committed.


In December 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that the UN’s approach in Darfur was not working. Annan was undoubtedly indicating that international pressure on the government of Sudan was not yielding the results expected in terms of the disarmament of the Janjaweed and the effective protection of civilians. Annan called on the UN Security Council to speed up the deployment of African Union (AU) troops, adding that ‘it should be investigated what other measures can be taken to hold individuals who are responsible [for war crimes] in order to move forward’. The dispatch of more AU troops to Darfur is appropriate and essential. The protection afforded by humanitarian presence can only be effective if it is accompanied by credible force.

The objective of protection by presence is not the prosecution of individuals guilty of, or responsible for, abuse and alleged crimes. The main purpose is to prevent the abuse of civilians. To this end, it would perhaps be more effective to have fewer organisations with a larger response capability and capacity, rather than a multitude of small (and weakly-resourced) agencies, fragmenting the response. But humanitarian actors are not the sole providers of protection. A successful approach requires a collaborative and parallel response by various actors, and simultaneous action at various levels. However, such a response can only be effective if it is supported by actual presence on the ground.

Max Glaser was UN-OCHA Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer in Darfur between July and December 2004. Previously, he worked for ten years for MSF-Holland. Between 2002 and 2003 he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He is the author of Negotiated Access – Humanitarian Engagement with Armed Non State Actors (see This article reflects the author’s opinion only.

References and further reading

Sylvie Caverzasio (ed.), Strengthening Protection in War (Geneva: ICRC Central Tracing and Protection Division, 2001).
The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001).

Simon Chesterman (ed.), Civilians on War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001).

Diane Paul, Protection in Practice: Field Level Strategies for Protecting Civilians from Deliberate Harm, Network Paper 30, Humanitarian Practice Network, July 1999.

Karen Kenny, When Needs are Rights: An Overview of UN Efforts To Integrate Human Rights in Humanitarian Action, Occasional Paper 38 (Providence, RI: :Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, 2000).

Mark Frohardt, Diane Paul and Larry Minear, Protecting Human Rights: The Challenge to Humanitarian Organizations, Occasional Paper 35 (Providence, RI: :Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, 1999).


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