“On the Obstruction of Humanitarian Aid,” African Studies Review Volume 54, Number 3 (December 2011)

African Studies Review, Volume 54, Number 3 (December 2011), pp. 165 – 74

Editors’ note: With this issue, the African Studies Review introduces a new section called “Commentary.” These pieces will be short contributions about current topics written by experts in the field and will provide up-to-date opinions on issues of concern and importance in African affairs. These commentaries will represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily shared by the editors of the African Studies Review or by the African Studies Association.

This issue features a commentary by Eric Reeves on the aftermath of the South Sudan Referendum and the creation of the new Republic of South Sudan. Here Reeves describes physical attacks on southern Sudanese populations and obstructions to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions by the Khartoum government, which constitute, in Reeves’s terms, crimes against humanity. Reeves is a long-time commentator and expert on Sudanese civil conflict. He has published extensively in the United States and internationally, has served as a consultant to human rights and humanitarian organizations operating in Sudan, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on Sudanese civil conflict.

“Humanitarian Obstruction as a Crime Against Humanity: The Example of Sudan”

Eric Reeves

Widespread military violence, much of it targeting civilians, accelerated dramatically this past June in the South Kordofan region of Sudan, and as of September 1 it had spread to Blue Nile State. Like much of Sudan, South Kordofan and Blue Nile are a highly combustible mix of ethnic animosities, tortured history, and great numbers of heavily armed men (see Small Arms Survey 2011). South Kordofan has the added misfortune of being the

Khartoum regime’s only oil-producing state following the independence of South Sudan on July 9, 2011. But while geographically in northern Sudan, much of Blue Nile and South Kordofan—and virtually the entire Nuba Mountains area in the center of South Kordofan—identifies with the South culturally, politically, and militarily. Tens of thousands of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers are from the Nuba and southern Blue Nile; they refuse to be sent back to the South or disarmed—and if pushed by Khartoum, they will fight to save their lands and cultural heritage. The SPLA-North is now a distinct entity, and considers itself and its political counterpart (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North) as fighting an aggressive tyranny in their homelands.

This is not hard to understand, particularly in the case of the Nuba. In the 1990s, during the first military action undertaken by the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party, the African people of the Nuba were nearly annihilated; hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced from their fertile lands. Though not a widely known event, there is almost no dissent among students of Sudan that this episode of ethnically targeted destruction was in fact genocide. And one of its most notorious and consequential features was a total embargo on humanitarian aid to the region for much of the 1990s, even as South Sudan was the fitful beneficiary of the U.N. umbrella effort known as “Operation Lifeline Sudan.” This embargo is of central concern here, given the horrific human suffering and destruction that followed directly from it.

Khartoum’s more recent military offensive in South Kordofan and Blue Nile extends the offensive begun on May 20 in the contested border region of Abyei (which lies immediately to the south of South Kordofan). Only belatedly has the international community acknowledged that the incident cited by Khartoum as casus belli was merely a pretext and that the attack was premeditated. The same is true of the regime’s assault in South Kordofan, where on June 5 tanks and military equipment began to pour into Kadugli, the state capital. Within days widespread and clearly planned military actions were under way, again pitting Arab militias and Khartoum’s regular armed forces against the African populations of the region, in particular those of the Nuba Mountains.

In Kadugli there were authoritative reports of house-to-house searches for Nuba, who were then piled into cattle trucks—or summarily executed. Roadblocks reminiscent of Rwanda in April 1994, and serving the same purpose, were also widely observed. Satellite imagery confirmed the existence of mass graves, as did eyewitness accounts from the ground collected by U.N. human rights investigators (who were shortly thereafter expelled by Khartoum). The presence in Kadugli of a U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) peacekeeping team did nothing to deter violence, or even protect African Nuba people who sought protection within the U.N. compound.

Moreover, all of South Kordofan is within reach of Khartoum’s major military air base at el-Obeid, which is just to the north. This has meant a constant aerial assault on civilian and humanitarian targets, especially in the Nuba Mountains—a continuation of the pattern I’ve analyzed and detailed for the past thirteen years (see Reeves 2011). The aerial offensive in South Kordofan has been extensive and concerted, and the clear goal has been to eliminate the troublesome populations of the Nuba once and for all. Early in the conflict a Sudanese church group (see Sudan Council of Churches 2011) reported that many civilians “have fled to the Nuba Mountains, where they are being hunted down like animals by helicopter gunships.” The U.N. has pleaded with Khartoum for humanitarian air access, but the world body has been denied on all fronts.

One form of the assault on humanitarian access was made clear in June 15 photographs from the Nuba Mountains, sent to a number of journalists and analysts, including to me. They all show Kauda, a particularly significant target because it was the location of an airstrip critical to the movement of humanitarian supplies into this remote region; it has now been destroyed following multiple intensive bombing runs. But the runway had no military purpose, since the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the Nuba has no aircraft; its only purpose was humanitarian transport. The attack occurred, moreover, as the World Council of Churches, which has close ties to the people of the Nuba, estimated that three hundred thousand people were already beyond humanitarian reach. Many fled deeper into the hills and mountains without food, water, or shelter.

I wish to argue here that such attacks are not simply war crimes; they are crimes against humanity, and they should be acknowledged by the international community as having reached this grim threshold. Specifically, I am arguing that the systematic and widespread obstruction of humanitarian relief in Darfur, previously in the South and Nuba Mountains and now in South Kordofan and Blue Nile as well, violates international law in ways that come within the ambit of “crimes against humanity” as the meaning of the term has come to be adjudicated since its first use in 1915 to condemn the Armenian genocide and was codified by the Nuremberg Charter (August 1945). The phrase is now a term of art in international law, chiefly as it has been defined by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although its interpreted meaning changed very little during the Cold War years, events of the 1990s—including genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia— accelerated legal discussion and international action. According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute of 1998, which provides legal authority and key definitions for the ICC, “crimes against humanity” are acts that are “com- mitted as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” (United Nations 1998).

Although the specific issue of impeding or obstructing humanitarian relief is not taken up by Article 7 of the statute, a good deal of informed commentary has addressed this question on the basis of the final subheading (7.1[k]), which refers to “other inhumane acts of a similar character [i.e., besides murder, extermination, enslavement, rape and sexual slavery, deportation, torture] intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” The relevance of such language to Khartoum’s actions targeting humanitarian relief in Darfur, South Sudan, and South Kordofan has been apparent to many observers, including Christa Rottensteiner (1999), formerly of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who commented, in a nuanced and even generally conservative analysis, that the denial of humanitarian assistance can be considered a crime against humanity:

In order for the denial of humanitarian assistance to become a crime against humanity, it would . . . need to be either systematic or widespread and based on a policy. This excludes random acts of impediment of humanitarian aid that are not committed as part of a broader plan or policy. Examples would be the spontaneous looting of a warehouse containing relief goods by civilians or soldiers, or spontaneous attacks on relief convoys by a group of drunken soldiers.

It is surely the case that the actions of the Khartoum regime in orchestrating the denial of humanitarian assistance meet the standard Rottensteiner lays down. Nine years later, in the British medical journal The Lancet (2008), John Kraemer, Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya, and Lawrence Gostin argued that the Burmese junta’s obstruction of humanitarian assistance following the devastating cyclone Nargis (May 2008) was a crime against humanity, as was Robert Mugabe’s obstruction of humanitarian efforts in Zimbabwe. The consequences for Burma in particular were noted by J. Benton Heath in 2011:

International humanitarian actors, when they were eventually allowed into the country, were largely confined to the city of Yangon for weeks following the disaster. The government insisted on channeling all relief through the military, and even seized supplies distributed by residents. A group of French and U.S. naval ships waited off the coast for two weeks with food, medical supplies, water purification systems, small boats, and helicopters, which were necessary to bring aid to isolated rural areas. Eventually, unable to get permission from the government, the ships withdrew without delivering relief. The Myanmar junta also originally impeded the access of international aid personnel from U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations, such as World Vision, the Red Cross, and Save the Children. (2011:420)

We will never know how many people died or suffered because of the actions of the Burmese junta, which was not inclined to allow a true mortality study in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. But according to reliable estimates the total number certainly exceeds 150,000, and according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “criminal neglect” on the part of the junta and “the initial delays [of humanitarian relief] could have cost tens of thousands of lives” (BBC 2008).

Human mortality in Darfur and other regions of Sudan has been similarly exacerbated by the systematic, widespread, and targeted obstruction of humanitarian relief—for more than twenty years. The consequences have been vastly destructive, so it is hardly surprising that Khartoum refuses to allow further mortality studies in Darfur (the last was in 2005); consequently, all assessments of total mortality must make key assumptions, especially about deaths related to violence. But the overall figure is certainly in the hundreds of thousands. (1)  And by all accounts, the vast majority of deaths in Darfur after the most violent phase of the genocide (2003 – early 2005) were not from violence but from disease and malnutrition. This only works to emphasize the significance of Khartoum’s criminality.

A History of Obstruction

The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian assistance has taken many forms over the past eight years in Darfur, as it had previously in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. It is now again being deployed in Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of newly displaced and acutely distressed civilians. The means of obstruction include the denial of visas and travel permits for humanitarian personnel; denial of humanitarian access to key areas for reasons unrelated to security; the halting of essential humanitarian supplies in Port Sudan; the gratuitous and incompetent testing of medical supplies; refusal to accept food deliveries on spurious grounds; the limiting of the transport capacity from Port Sudan and Khartoum to Darfur; contrived insecurity to prevent the movement of humanitarian personnel; arrests of humanitarian personnel as well as beatings and other threats; confiscation of humanitarian assets; and most dramatically, the expulsion from Darfur of thirteen international NGOs and humanitarian organizations, including two national sections of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in March 2009. These thirteen organizations had represented approximately half of the total humanitarian capacity in Darfur, and the relief effort never recovered from these massive losses, despite the claims of various international actors such as the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. These expulsions, given their implications for millions of beneficiaries, were all massive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Evidence of the manipulation and withholding of humanitarian assistance was apparent very early in the Darfur counterinsurgency war, which Khartoum mounted in response to rebellion by aggrieved African tribal groups. These non-Arab people had for years suffered discrimination, marginalization, and increasingly violent attacks by armed Arab militia forces. Once under way in earnest (April 2003), the campaign early on revealed an ambition not just to attack rebels, but also to destroy civilians and the civilian agricultural economy perceived by the regime as their essential base of support. Thus in early December 2003, Tom Vraalsen, the U.N. special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Darfur, declared in a confidential memo to Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, that “delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need is hampered mostly by systematically denied access [emphasis in original]. While [Khartoum's] authorities claim unimpeded access, they greatly restrict access to the areas under their control, while imposing blanket denial to all rebel-held areas”—that is, areas overwhelmingly populated by the African Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit peoples. So effective was this systematic denial that “present humanitarian operations,” according to Vraalson, had “practically come to a standstill.”

In the same memo Vraalsen also spoke of “first-hand reports … from tribal leaders and humanitarian actors on the ground” attesting that Khartoum-backed Arab militias “were launching systematic raids against civilian populations … [that] included burning and looting of villages, large-scale killings, abductions, and other severe violations of human rights. More recently, humanitarian workers have also been targeted, with staff being abducted and relief trucks looted.” Here again, the reference to “systematic” raids against civilians can only be construed as meaning systematized on the basis of race and ethnicity and designed to destroy the livelihoods of the targeted African tribal groups. According to Article 2 [c] of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention, genocidal acts are acts that are “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” But despite the ethnically targeted character of the violence against civilians and the deliberate destruction of foodstocks, water supplies, seeds and agricultural tools, crops, and livestock, there was political hesitation in various quarters over use of the “g-word.”

But despite this political cowardice—the fear that labeling genocidal acts for what they are would require active intervention—there was no hesitation on the part of human rights groups, observers on the ground, and ultimately the U.N. Commission of Inquiry in declaring that the actions by Khartoum constituted crimes against humanity. In turn, what is most notable in assessing the regime’s counterinsurgency war is that military operations and the denial of humanitarian assistance moved in perfect concert in a campaign of destruction that clearly targeted specific ethnic groups, although the two parts of the war were rarely connected as mutually reinforcing crimes against humanity.

Seven years after Kofi Annan belatedly secured a Memorandum of Understanding from Khartoum (July 2004) that permitted the presence of international relief organizations, there are exceedingly few remaining expatriate workers, and they are confined to the several larger urban centers in Darfur. Even here they are at considerable risk—from opportunistic banditry, kidnapping, and violence, but also from severe physical abuse by Khartoum’s forces. These methods have proved effective; several organizations withdrew early on and others (e.g., the important medical relief organization Médecins du Monde) have withdrawn recently. And again, in 2009 there was a massive expulsion of thirteen of the world’s most distinguished humanitarian organizations; in 2010 Khartoum expelled essential senior aid officials, including those from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration–organizations whose presence is critical if displaced persons are to return with safety and dignity.

The physical assault on humanitarian workers is clearly tolerated by the local security forces. While much of Darfur is genuinely beyond the regime’s control, banditry and attacks are permitted in many locations where Khartoum has full military power. Since 2004 there have been hundreds of car-jackings, dozens of kidnappings, and more than 150 assaults on aid workers, a number of them deadly (it should also be noted that more than 50 peacekeepers have been killed in Darfur, some clearly at Khartoum’s behest). According to one highly experienced U.N. official who worked on Darfur for a number of years, this climate of insecurity and criminality is deliberately maintained by Khartoum as a means of threatening—and thus controlling—humanitarian operations.

Sabotaging Humanitarian Assessment

Physical intimidation and assault are not the only means by which aid work is obstructed. In recent years one of Khartoum’s most effective weapons against humanitarian programs in Darfur has taken the form of preventing the collection, organization, analysis, and dissemination of information crucial for organizations making life-and-death decisions about how to allocate limited resources. An unreleased Tufts University study noted in January 2011 that:

Crucial information about the humanitarian situation is lacking ….

Where humanitarian access has been maintained there have been serious delays and blocking of key information, for example, the failure to release regular nutrition survey reports, which contain the vital humanitarian indicators that enable the severity of the humanitarian crisis to be judged. International humanitarian capacities have been seriously eroded and impaired to a point that leaves Darfuris in a more vulnerable position now than at any other time since the counter-insurgency operations and forced displacements in 2003 …. (2)

Reports from the deep field, which are increasingly rare and dangerous undertakings for my sources, are adamant about U.N. complicity in this suppression of critical information, pointing particularly to U.N. head of humanitarian operations for Sudan, Georg Charpentier. Charpentier is evidently intimidated by Khartoum; he refuses to speak honestly about conditions in Darfur, including those affecting aid workers, and he has also acquiesced in the suppression of data and reports on malnutrition. Most shamefully, he has lied about humanitarian access in the region. According to the respected Dutch news research organization Institute for War and Peace Reporting (2011), Charpentier claimed in a written statement that “‘UN humanitarian agencies are not confronted by pressure or interference from the Government of Sudan.’” This claim has been explicitly repudiated by U.N. officials speaking off the record, and it is also belied by a great many publicly reported instances (many from the U.N. itself) of “pressure” and “interference” of an extreme sort. These include the refusal to grant visas or travel permits; the confiscation of vehicles and fuel; the deliberate exacerbating of violence so as to raise the U.N. security level (and thus preclude travel to a wide range of locations); and point blank denial of road or air access to areas critically in need.

Most of what we know about Khartoum’s pressure to suppress data on malnutrition and disease and about the intimidation, obstruction, harassment, and expulsion of international and domestic humanitarian operations comes from Radio Dabanga, an extraordinary grassroots network in Darfur. For its part, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), following the expulsions of March 2009, simply ceased publishing its “Darfur Humanitarian Profiles,” data-rich and comprehensive overviews of humanitarian conditions. The last report presented conditions in Darfur as of the end of 2008.

Despite U.N. silence, we know of the deaths and deprivation in Darfur; and we know that they are not accidental: they are not collateral damage, but rather the face of war as Khartoum has chosen to wage it in Darfur, in southern Sudan, and now in South Kordofan. It is cheap and immensely destructive, and it requires only intimidation of the international humanitarian presence and the failure of nations with possible leverage to compel the regime to grant unfettered access. Failure by the international community to characterize these actions as crimes against humanity has led to expedient and morally corrupt “negotiations” on the ground over humanitarian access, research, and the promulgation of information about human suffering and destruction. In seeking access to acutely needy civilians and the opportunity to assess populations, members of the humanitarian community are obliged by Khartoum’s officials to trade away various guarantees contained within the Memorandum of Understanding (Khartoum, July 2003) that established the terms of reference for relief efforts in Darfur.

Why is it important how we refer to these actions by Khartoum? I would argue that it is finally, Sudan—not Burma or Zimbabwe, horrible as they were—that is the test case for how we designate the deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance. For twenty-two years throughout Sudan as a whole, for eight years in Darfur, and for the past months in Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, the NIF/NCP regime in Khartoum has deliberately and systematically denied, obstructed, destroyed, or attacked humanitarian facilities and personnel. These are surely crimes against humanity, and the language of the Rome Statute, if not unambiguous, provides a clear legal basis for prosecuting a number of the political and military leaders. The reality of these massive crimes should define for all nations the nature of their bilateral relationship with Khartoum. In fact, the gradual international acceptance of this ruthless cabal of men concerned only with maintaining their monopoly on wealth and power suggests just how far we remain from the ideal of international justice.

But these crimes must be named, and the full legal implications of widespread and systematic denial of humanitarian assistance must be articulated repeatedly, forcefully, and with the clear threat of ultimate prosecution. Otherwise we invite similar tactics on the part of other regimes facing rebellion or civil unrest. In addition to Burma and Zimbabwe, threats exist in a number of other countries, including Syria, Chad, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And the list will grow longer in a global future that seems defined in many regions by food and water shortages, the massive proliferation of small arms, and declining economic opportunities.


British Broadcasting Corporation. 2008. “The World.” June 2.

Heath, J. Benton. 2011. “The Duty to Accept Humanitarian Assistance and the Work of the International Law Commission.” New York University Journal of International Law and Politics (JILP) 43 (2): 419 – 77.

Institute for War and Peace Reporting. 2011. “UN Accused of Caving In to Khartoum Over Darfur.” ACR Issue 284 (January 7). http://iwpr.net.

Kraemer, John, Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya, and Lawrence Gostin. 2008. “Blocking Humanitarian Assistance: A Crime against Humanity?” The Lancet 372 (9645). www.thelancet.com.

Reeves, Eric. 2011. “‘They Bombed Everything that Moved’: Aerial Military Attacks on Civilians and Humanitarians in Sudan, 1999–2011.” www.sudanbombing.org.

Rottensteiner, Christa. 1999. “The Denial of Humanitarian Assistance as a Crime under International Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 835 (September 30). www.icrc.org.

Small Arms Survey. 2011. “Armed Groups and the Risk of Conflict in the Three Areas.” www.smallarmssurveysudan.org.

Sudan Council of Churches. 2011. “South Kordofan: Reports of Mass Atrocities.”

United Nations. 1948. “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the

Crime of Genocide.” www.icrc.org.

_______. 1998. “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.” U.N. Document A/Conf. 183/9. http://untreaty.un.org.


1.         Mortality in Darfur has been a controversial issue for a number of years, chiefly because of the paucity of data, particularly for violent mortality. I believe the data, particularly data from July 2010 by “Darfurian Voices” (www.darfurianvoices.org), suggest total mortality of approximately 500,000 for the past eight years, from all causes, in Darfur and eastern Chad. The often cited “U.N. estimate of 300,000″ is in fact a crude extrapolation from previous totals made in 2008 by then Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes. It has no particular authority other than the convenience of its source. I offer a detailed analysis of extant data at www.sudanreeves.org.

2.         “Navigating Without a Compass: The Erosion of Humanitarianism in Darfur.” Received confidentially, January 2011.