A Call for Urgent Action on the Displacement Crisis in the Darfur Region of the Sudan

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

December 1, 2003

Sudan has for decades occupied the unenviable position of being the country worst affected by the crisis of internal displacement, with over four million persons forcibly uprooted. This crisis has been the result of the civil war that has afflicted the country intermittently since 1955. Just as the world now optimistically awaits an end to the war, with the prospects of a durable solution to the displacement crisis, another tragic conflict has erupted in the Greater Darfur Region in the West, between rebel opposition groups and the Government forces, reported to be aligned with local Arab militias. More than 670,000 people have been displaced, while an additional 70,000 people have fled as refugees into Chad and an estimated 3,000 unarmed civilians have been killed.

The internally displaced populations are reported to be in dire need of humanitarian assistance, including water, food, shelter, sanitation and medical care. And yet, humanitarian agencies face severe restrictions on access to the area. Humanitarian aid convoys and personnel have been the objects of attack and theft by armed groups. Displaced and other persons caught up in the conflict, especially women, children and the elderly, face daily threats to their safety. Both the Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland have recently expressed their deep concerns about this situation.

I am moved to add my voice as well, not least because of the irony that this displacement is occurring at a time when the Government of the Sudan has begun to gain international support for acknowledging and addressing the displacement crisis in the country and for the progress being made toward peace. It is noteworthy too that in September, the Government of the Sudan hosted a conference of the sub-regional organization, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which endorsed strong recommendations for national, regional, and international response to the crises of internal displacement in the member States. In the “Khartoum Declaration” adopted at that conference, Ministers of IGAD States “reaffirm that the primary responsibility of protecting and assisting the internally displaced and finding durable solutions lies with the national Governments” and at the same time “pledge and urge all concerned actors to provide humanitarian access to internally displaced persons for humanitarian organizations and to protect the safety and security of humanitarian workers.”

The Ministers also took note of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement “as a useful tool for developing and evaluating appropriate national policies and legislation on internal displacement” and noted “that the Principles compile the existing international law related to internal displacement.” The Guiding Principles provide that all concerned actors, including governmental and other forces, are obliged to guard against arbitrary displacement of civilians, protect them against physical harm if they are displaced, and ensure that they have access to adequate, food, water, shelter, medical care and other humanitarian necessities. Once conditions permit, competent authorities are to assist displaced persons to return to their homes or resettle elsewhere in conditions of safety and dignity.

At a time when the IGAD peace process for Sudan appears most encouraging, the developments in Darfur threaten to embroil the country in further internecine warfare. Only a comprehensive peace can restore the security and stability that the country so desperately needs and bring lasting solutions to the growing number of displaced persons.

The Government of Sudan is called upon to assume its primary responsibility to provide protection to its internally displaced populations and other affected communities and cooperate with the international community in facilitating access for the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance. Moreover, all armed actors in the Darfur region are obligated by humanitarian law to protect civilians against arbitrary displacement and ensure the safety and welfare of those displaced.

The Government and all those engaged in the search for peace must redouble their efforts to ensure that peace comprehensively covers the nation as a whole and restores security, dignity and the prospects for development and prosperity for the country.