Despite weeks of opportunity to reverse, at least partially, an accelerating slide toward a massive humanitarian crisis in southern Sudan, both the UN and the United States seem paralyzed. Neither UN leadership nor the US State Department has been able to articulate a coherent or effective policy in responding to Khartoum’s concerted efforts to compromise Operation Lifeline Sudan. The regime faces no serious or effective pressure to reverse its policies on humanitarian aid—policies that now clearly threaten the ongoing viability of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Just today, the UN and Agence France-Presse report that Khartoum has further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis by preventing the delivery of 5,000 tons of World Food Program food aid from Ethiopia; the food aid “was originally intended to be distributed to Sudanese primary schools in areas suffering food shortages” (AFP, June 17, 2002). Aerial violence against civilians in the oil regions continues unabated, as does the ban on humanitarian relief flights. The people of southern Sudan have yet again been shamefully abandoned by those with the power to reverse this escalating war on civilians and humanitarian aid.
Eric Reeves [June 17, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
For those with the power to halt barbarism such as the National Islamic Front in Khartoum demonstrates on a daily basis, there can be no greater shame than allowing innocent civilians—including children and women—to die for lack of a forceful, determined response to this unspeakable cruelty. It matters not that human history is filled with examples of such shameful failure: every renewed moment of indifference or lack of courage becomes a part of the moral history defining all of us. Rwanda, Chechnya, Angola, Burma—the world is all too often defined by cruelty and suffering for which there are fully imaginable and practicable responses.
Nowhere is the more profoundly true than in Sudan. As the tenuous lifeline of humanitarian aid to the people of the south approaches the breaking point, UN leadership—in Khartoum and New York—gives no sign of being able to reverse the slide toward disintegration within the workings of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). Even the five-day window of humanitarian opportunity for the oil regions of Western Upper Nile (June 21 to June 25) seems to be in limbo, as the UN has belatedly refused to accept this contemptibly inadequate offer from Khartoum. But such an offer is precisely the sort that seemed all too predictable when UN Special Envoy to Sudan, Tom Vraalsen, negotiated away fundamental principles of OLS in late May in an effort to reach any agreement with Khartoum.
And the US State Department, having signed off on the Vraalsen agreement through its charge d’affaires in Khartoum, Jeffrey Millington, seems utterly confused and adrift. No intelligible policy statement about this urgent humanitarian crisis has been forthcoming. Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, has declared the agreement “not acceptable!” But such insistence finds no echo in any statement from the State Department (or other Western governments). And all the while Khartoum takes the measure of this ineptitude, this willingness to trade away key principles for supposed short-term humanitarian gain. Khartoum will calibrate its vicious responses accordingly.
We are witnessing an all too familiar refusal to accept the moral challenges of the moment. The destruction may not result from the terribly spasmodic violence of Rwanda, but there can be no doubting the deadly efficacy of Khartoum’s methods. We need only register fully the consequences of today’s announcement that Khartoum has finally, after six months, successfully blocked 5,000 tons of food aid for desperately needy school students in southern Sudan—and this is only the most recent example of Khartoum’s deliberate policy of humanitarian aid denial as a weapon of war:
“The UN food agency [World Food Program (WFP)] said the Sudanese customs and agriculture authorities had blocked entry of the [5,000 tons of] sorghum for six months for unclear reasons. The WFP said it had communicated to the government its regret at the non-delivery of the sorghum, which it had purchased from Ethiopia with a cash grant from the Norwegian government” (Agence France-Presse, June 17, 2002).
But the reasons aren’t “unclear” at all: Khartoum remains determined to use the manipulation of humanitarian aid, including food aid, as a way of furthering its war on civilians and civil society throughout southern Sudan. Sometimes the means are deliberate bureaucratic obstacles to humanitarian aid; sometimes they are explicit flight denials to areas in critical need (this was a major factor in the horrific famine of 1998 in Bahr el-Ghazal Province—and continues to this day, especially in the oil regions of Western Upper Nile). But far and away the most potent threat is the one represented by Khartoum’s recently negotiated compromising of various principles that have governed the workings of Operation Lifeline Sudan, the bastion of humanitarian hope for southern Sudan.
For when UN Special Envoy Tom Vraalsen negotiated humanitarian access to the oil regions of Western Upper Nile in late May, a number of key principles of humanitarian aid delivery fell by the wayside. And Khartoum, sensing weakness, has attacked additional principles. For example, the distinguished humanitarian organization World Vision has now been explicitly denied a role in humanitarian aid delivery from El Obeid (the northern city Khartoum has specified as the only one acceptable for food delivery to Western Upper Nile). It is unprecedented for an organization that operates under the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan umbrella to be singled out for such treatment.
Only five sites have been granted access by Khartoum during the absurdly short window of June 21 to June 25—and Khartoum explicitly denied access to Tam in Western Upper Nile, citing opposition military control. This, too, compromises a fundamental principle. Indeed, the bedrock principle of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) is unfettered access to civilians in need wherever they are in Sudan. The exclusion of Tam as an aid delivery site for the reasons given by the Khartoum regime is yet another terrible precedent if accepted.
Confidential reports from Washington, Nairobi, and Lokichokkio all suggest that this brutalizing of OLS principles has led the UN to hold off on agreeing to the terms proposed by Khartoum. But this only means that we now have the worst of all possible worlds: the UN, with US acquiescence, capitulated in late May to Khartoum’s demand that food aid for Western Upper Nile be moved from Lokichokkio to El Obeid in northern Sudan, where it is fully under Khartoum’s control (and of course with every day that passes it is increasingly unlikely that Khartoum will ever allow aid delivery to resume from Lokichokkio).
But instead of securing reliable humanitarian access to Western Upper Nile, the agreement now appears to failing even in its short-term mission. So far, three weeks after the “agreement,” no aid has been delivered to Western Upper Nile from El Obeid, despite the desperate nature of conditions. Moreover, Khartoum, sensing lack of resolve and clarity on the part of the UN and the US, is seeking to establish other dangerous precedents. If World Vision is successfully banned from OLS operations in Western Upper Nile, this will encourage the regime to intimidate other humanitarian organizations on any number of issues. And criticism of Khartoum’s behavior in denying humanitarian access is likely to be the primary occasion for such efforts at intimidation. World Vision, for example, was one of nine very visible signatories to a letter sent to Masood Hyder, UN Humanitarian Coordinator (Khartoum) on May 30, 2002:
“We the undersigned OLS agencies are gravely concerned at the unilateral decision taken by the UN to accept this proposal [moving humanitarian relief for Western Upper Nile to El Obeid from Lokichokkio]. It is our understanding that this was agreed without consulting all parties to the tripartite and T[echnical] C[ommittee] on H[umanitarian] A[id] agreements. The failure to consult all parties seriously undermines the spirit of the OLS tripartite and TCHA agreements. We are gravely concerned at the long-term implications for neutral impartial humanitarian access to the population of southern Sudan.”
Time is running out, not only for the people of the oil regions in Western Upper Nile but for the very viability of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Every day that passes without a rollback to the previous terms of humanitarian relief works to turn present arrangements more fully into a fait accompli—on Khartoum’s terms. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year in Western Upper Nile, adding to already staggering numbers. How will they be assisted in the midst of Khartoum’s oil war? and from El Obeid? Tom Vraalsen, who negotiated this controversial aid “agreement,” has publicly cited the UN figure of 1.7 million people presently denied humanitarian aid by Khartoum. How can this appalling number be accepted? Why is the UN Secretary General indifferent to the crisis that has been precipitated? Why has the US State Department been unable to offer a single useful or principled statement on the crisis?
From such ineptitude, callousness, and cowardice are human catastrophes too often fashioned. Sudan, so may times victimized over the past 20 years, would seem to be on the verge of offering the world yet another ghastly example.