It is now two weeks since Tom Vraalsen, UN Special Envoy to Sudan, negotiated an agreement with the Khartoum regime that fundamentally compromised the principle of unimpeded humanitarian access to the people of southern Sudan. Presented as the best arrangement possible given the brutal terms proposed by Khartoum, the agreement was to have been temporary (four to five weeks) and was to have provided emergency food access to the oil regions of Western Upper Nile from El Obeid in northern Sudan. This put the fate of the very people Khartoum has ferociously sought to destroy during the past months into the hands of their destroyers. The agreement has been strenuously objected to by humanitarian workers and organizations working inside and outside of the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan. Still, an agreement described as “not acceptable!” by Andrew Natsios, Director of the US AID, is drifting toward becoming a terrible fait accompli.
Eric Reeves [June 11, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Behind the scenes there has been a tremendous flurry of communication, strenuous objections to the Vraalsen agreement, conflicting signals from the US (the US charge d’affaires in Khartoum, Jeffrey Millington, signed off on the Vraalsen agreement; Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development, emphatically declared it “not acceptable!”)—and a simple reality: as of yesterday, June 10, 2002, no food has been delivered by Operation Lifeline Sudan to Western Upper Nile, the center of the oil regions in southern Sudan, from El Obeid or anywhere else.
What has now been officially agreed to by Khartoum and the UN is a five-day window beginning June 21, 2002, with food aid to be air-dropped from El Obeid, and with on-the-ground personnel and non-food humanitarian aid to come from Lokichokkio in Northern Kenya. But five days, at a highly limited number of sites, is a hopelessly inadequate opportunity in which to reach critically important humanitarian goals in Western Upper Nile. The UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks reports (June 6, 2002):
“Humanitarian actors working in Sudan estimate that between 150,000 and 300,000 people were displaced in Western Upper Nile alone between January and April .”
What will happen after this very brief and narrow window of opportunity has closed is unclear, though there are many ominous signs.
For first and foremost, we must recognize and declare honestly the nature of Khartoum’s ambitions for the people of this terribly stricken area, ambitions that have been revealed all too clearly over the past months, and indeed several years. They are nothing less than the destruction and displacement of all the indigenous populations in order to secure oil development concessions and create a massive cordon sanitaire for present oil production by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (Canada’s Talisman Energy, Malaysia’s Petronas, and China National Petroleum Corp.).
The ground and aerial campaign by Khartoum that has been conducted against the people of Western Upper Nile over the past dry season (December through May) has been authoritatively documented. There have been countless bombings, helicopter gunship attacks, villages burned, people displaced, their possessions and foodstocks destroyed. The emblematic event was Khartoum’s attack on Bieh, in the very center of Western Upper Nile, just off the new oil road south from Bentiu. Khartoum’s helicopter gunships directed heavy machine-gun fire and rockets into thousands of innocent civilians, mainly women and children, gathered for food aid at a UN World Food Program site (well-marked, in broad daylight, with permission secured from Khartoum—and with UN eyewitnesses to the attack).
The attack on Bieh makes perfectly clear another of Khartoum’s motives in shutting down humanitarian aid to Western Upper Nile: a desire to keep the eyes of international observers away from their ongoing atrocities.
What possible sense does it make to believe that this genocidal regime will take seriously humanitarian obligations in the very region it has been systematically destroying? For context, it should also be borne in mind that over the last three months Khartoum has dramatically reduced humanitarian access to Western Upper Nile; indeed, as of mid-May the regime had closed down all humanitarian access to the desperate region. Altogether, Khartoum is denying humanitarian access to 1.7 million highly needy people in southern Sudan, this according to UN Special Envoy Tom Vraalsen himself.
The alternative access Vraalsen negotiated with Khartoum, without consulting many key humanitarian organizations or the SPLA/M (thus violating the tripartite nature of the Operation Lifeline Sudan agreement), allows for exceedingly limited UN World Food Program food delivery from El Obeid in northern Sudan. The revelation today that this entails a mere five days of humanitarian access signals Khartoum’s contempt for the very idea of providing meaningful aid to the people of Western Upper Nile.
Significantly, El Obeid is also Khartoum’s forwardmost military air base and oil refinery (receiving all its crude from the Greater Nile consortium). It is from there that the Antonov bombers depart on their deadly missions of civilian destruction, attacks that have frequently hit humanitarian operations as well. How likely is it that Khartoum will extend humanitarian access from El Obeid? Will relief planes and Anonov bombers be taking off from El Obeid for the same region (Western Upper Nile) with diametrically opposed missions? This is the grotesque, if quite improbable, prospect we have been invited to entertain by the UN’s special envoy.
So what will happen after the five-day access ends on June 26th? What will become of the desperate populations of Western Upper Nile? No one knows. At present there is nothing but Khartoum’s vague commitment, if it is even that, to negotiate further access. But in all likelihood, the arrangement of the present moment will slowly become the permanent one. There will be negotiations—in which Khartoum will stall, obfuscate, prevaricate—and in the end, unless the regime feels significant pressure, it will not budge from the present terms of humanitarian delivery. In other words, it now seems exceedingly unlikely that Khartoum will again allow food aid, or even medical aid, for Western Upper Nile to originate in Lokichokkio. A permanent crisis has been achieved, as Khartoum will certainly continue to seek military control of territory in Western Upper Nile.
The crisis is all the greater because the UN agreement with Khartoum is also of fundamental importance for humanitarian organizations not part of Operational Lifeline Sudan (OLS). Fear is growing that Khartoum, having shut down humanitarian access into Western Upper Nile for OLS, will now harass or even attack the flights and humanitarian activities of those organizations operating outside the OLS umbrella (these include, for example, Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders and a number of other organizations).
What has been the reaction of OLS humanitarian aid workers and organizations to Khartoum’s actions, and the impending catastrophe that will likely result from these actions? From Lokichokkio and Nairobi there has been severe and virtually unanimous criticism, though most individual commentary is not for attribution. Bewilderment and deep anger are common reactions, especially over the manner of negotiations, which were characterized by a lack of adequate consultation. There have also been several strongly protesting documents from humanitarian organizations addressing the threat created by the UN/Khartoum agreement (two are attached at the end of this analysis). Most fundamentally, humanitarian workers and organizations across the board believe that this agreement has destroyed the key principle of humanitarian access across front lines from a neutral country.
A letter from nine humanitarian organizations to M[asood] Hyder, UN
Humanitarian Coordinator, is utterly explicit about the consequences of the UN agreement with Khartoum:
“We the undersigned OLS agencies are gravely concerned at the unilateral decision taken by the UN to accept this proposal [from Khartoum]. It is our understanding that this was agreed without consulting all parties to the tripartite and TCHA [Technical Committee on Humanitarian Assistance] 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.” (full text below)
A Joint Donor Meeting of Operation Lifeline Sudan participants (June 3, 2002 in Nairobi) declared forcefully the importance of principles compromised by the UN agreement with Khartoum, with clear reference to the actions of Khartoum:
“The Joint Donor Meeting reaffirmed its commitment to the humanitarian principles that are the foundation of OLS and asked that a clear and unambiguous message be sent to all parties reiterating the need for unimpeded humanitarian access to all populations in need.” (“Access in southern Sudan–A Way Forward,” Nairobi, June 3, 2002; full text below)
In the context of Khartoum’s repeated refusal of humanitarian access (often in bureaucratic or administrative disguise), the Joint Donor Meeting document also noted that:
“there were an increasing number of instances where access and humanitarian principles are being subverted by administrative procedures. It is the view of the Joint Donor Meeting that the intention of placing locations under different headings [a common practice by Khartoum] is to add to restrictions, create ambiguity and deny people in need.”
This document also makes clear that the agreement negotiated with Khartoum is a violation of previous agreements:
“The basis of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) is a tripartite agreement between the United Nations, the Government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, as itemised in various protocols. The agreement provides for unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need. In December 1999 the parties signed the Agreement on the Implementation of Principles Governing the Protection and Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to War Affected Civilian Populations which includes a measure stating that war affected civilian populations have the right to receive humanitarian assistance.”
But Khartoum is explicitly denying “war affected civilian populations” this “right” of humanitarian assistance, and the UN agreement only diminishes that right. Thus although the Joint Donor Meeting document from OLS organizations presents a series of eminently reasonable and historically consistent recommendations for humanitarian aid delivery to southern Sudan, they will remain unimplemented unless there is very serious international pressure on Khartoum to back down from its obvious strategy of humanitarian aid denial.
Pressure on Khartoum is the key both to re-establishing a meaningful right to humanitarian aid for war-affected civilian populations—and to bringing the National Islamic Front regime to the peace-negotiating table. The recent UN agreement is an example of how precisely not to engage with Khartoum. If this lesson is not learned in short order, we will soon see the terrible consequences in Western Upper Nile, and will be further than ever from the just peace that is all that will insure truly adequate humanitarian relief.
“Access in southern Sudan—A Way Forward”
Agreed at the OLS Joint Donor Meeting attended by UN agencies and NGOs held at the Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi 3rd June 2002.
The Joint Donor Meeting reaffirmed its commitment to the humanitarian principles that are the foundation of OLS and asked that a clear and unambiguous message be sent to all parties reiterating the need for unimpeded humanitarian access to all populations in need.
The meeting took place as the government of Sudan issued a flight clearance for June that caused considerable concern. Not only were some locations denied, others were placed under an advisory because of a possible risk to humanitarian personnel or were refused because the place names were allegedly not known. The final requirement was that all humanitarian access to Unity (Western Upper Nile) must be through El Obeid.
The Joint Donors Meeting (JDM) noted that there were an increasing number of instances where access and humanitarian principles are being subverted by administrative procedures. It is the view of the JDM that the intention of placing locations under different headings is to add to restrictions, create ambiguity and deny people in need.
The JDM recognised that major changes to OLS operating procedures can only be made as a result of discussions and consensus involving all three parties to the tripartite agreement. In addition the JDM noted that operational decisions should be made by agencies on the basis of fulfilling the humanitarian imperative as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The basis of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) is a tripartite agreement between the United Nations, the Government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples ‘ Liberation Movement, as itemised in various protocols. The agreement provides for unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need. In December 1999 the parties signed the Agreement on the Implementation of Principles Governing the Protection and Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to War Affected Civilian Populations which includes a measure stating that war affected civilian populations have the right to receive humanitarian assistance.
The joint donor meeting has concluded that the principle of unimpeded access to those in need should be pursued vigorously and persistently by donors, UN agencies and NGOs.
Conscious of the dire need in certain key areas the JDM also stated that:
Access should be gained to 7 persistently denied locations in eastern Equatoria
A number of locations under ‘advisory’ should be accessed by OLS security and, if conditions allow, aid flights to those places should be notified on the weekly list.
With regard to the clarification of locations, a map showing all OLS airstrips should be prepared and made available to the GOS and SPLM.
Access Recommendations for Western Upper Nile (Unity)
Pending complete and unimpeded access to Western Upper Nile, the following should be pursued as a matter of urgency because of the immediate threat to large numbers of the civilian population displaced by fighting, and the imminent rainy season which will hamper aid activities.
A number of key locations should be identified and access secured. Locations in SPLM areas should continue to be serviced from the OLS base at Lokichoggio, so as to ensure access by humanitarian personnel for assessment, intervention and monitoring.
That access to these locations should be maintained for a sufficient period of time to allow meaningful interventions.
The JDM calls for the urgent convening of the Cross Line Committee to address these issues as a prelude to discussion at the Technical Committee on Humanitarian Assistance. In the meantime there is recognition of the key role to be played by donors and international partners to press for access to populations in need.
[letter to UN representative from nine international humanitarian organizations concerning the agreement negotiated between the UN and Khartoum]
Thursday, May 30, 2002
Mr M Hyder,
Humanitarian Coordinator, a.i.
Dear Mr Hyder,
At the HAF meeting on the 29th May 2002 in Khartoum, it was announced that the United Nations have accepted a proposal by the Government of Sudan to allow air access to a certain number of locations in Unity State through El Obeid only; air access from Lokichoggio was expressly denied in this proposal.
We the undersigned OLS agencies are gravely concerned at the unilateral decision taken by the UN to accept this proposal. It is our understanding that this was agreed without consulting all parties to the tripartite and TCHA 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.
We are requesting your office to call for an urgent convening of the TCHA to review this decision.
International Rescue Committee
Save the Children (UK)
Catholic Relief Services