The Potential Impact of the Indictment of Bashir on Darfur’s Humanitarian Situation

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

September 26, 2008

“Whenever the Save Darfur Coalition launches a new campaign, we feel it on the ground,” a representative of an operational humanitarian NGO told me. “They may be right in trying to address the causes of the conflict, but it’s our people that get beaten up on the ground.”

At first glance, the reaction of humanitarian actors on the ground in Darfur to potential indictments of the Sudanese president Omar Bashir seems pretty obvious. Darfur’s 2.5 million internally displaced people, the 4.2 million in need of food assistance and the 17,000 or so humanitarian workers would make easy targets for an angry Sudanese government. Humanitarian staff are keeping a very low profile these days. They have learned that those who speak out about atrocities in Darfur can be targeted by the Sudanese authorities.[1]

But like everything in Darfur, the situation is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Let me add some nuances to this discussion:

  1. The conflict in Sudan has become much more complicated than it was in 2003 when it first came to the world’s attention. It has evolved over the past five years – we can now speak about several wars in Darfur: between Darfur rebel movements and the government, between the rebel movements themselves, a proxy war between Chad and Sudan in which governments are supporting each other’s rebel forces with civilians being caught in the middle. And there are localized conflicts over resources and land. For example, in August, 70 Arab tribesmen were killed in armed clashes over water and grazing land in South Darfur. As one news report said “everyone has Kalashnikovs there.”[2]

As we have seen in many different conflicts, the war itself has created its own confusing dynamic. By most estimates, the Sudanese government and its allied groups are still the major cause of attacks on civilians, but they are certainly not the only ones. Even if the Sudanese government were to halt all of its military operations tomorrow, it is likely that the violence would still continue. This calls into question just how much control the government of Sudan currently exercises over the bands of militias that it supported in the earlier stages of the counterinsurgency. And Darfur has become a militarized region; some of the IDP camps, for example, are highly militarized.

A recent report by the Small Arms Survey reported that it is hard to tell who is responsible for the violence in the camps. Attackers are most often identified as ‘armed men.’ The term janjawid has become imprecise, referring to any Arab bearing arms.[3]

  1. The issue of humanitarian access is already very bad. According to the latest UN reports, humanitarian agencies are only able to access 70% of Darfur’s affected population. Attacks on humanitarian workers, kidnappings, and especially carjackings have become so commonplace that in one sense it is hard to see how things could get worse.

The number of security incidents affecting humanitarian workers and their assets has increased dramatically in 2008 in comparison to previous years. As of 27 July, 11 humanitarian staff members have been killed in 2008, compared to five during the first seven months of 2007. In the same period of 2008, 183 humanitarian vehicles have been hijacked, compared to 85 during the first seven months of 2007. During these hijackings, 146 humanitarians were abducted so far in 2008 compared to 106 in the first seven months of 2007. Armed men assaulted 87 humanitarian premises so far in 2008, compared to 50 in the period January to July 2007.[4]

A few weeks ago the World Food Programme (WFP) said that they may have to cut back on deliveries of food as more than 100 vehicles carrying WFP food aid have been hijacked in Darfur this year with 43 drivers and 63 trucks still missing.[5] This comes on top of the WFP cutting rations in May when truck convoys could no longer deliver sufficient food. Because of the frequent seizures of road vehicles, some humanitarian agencies have started renting, rather than owning, vehicles and have tried to travel by helicopter – but the number of attacks on helicopters (four in the past month) and the insufficient number of civilian helicopters makes this an unattractive alternative.

The situation has become so bad that some major agencies are pulling out, most recently German Agro Action which suspended food distribution to 450,000 people in North Darfur because of insecurity. MSF has stopped work in some areas.

  1. Some maintain that the Sudanese government will adopt a cautious approach towards the humanitarians in this period before indictments are issued and will devote its energy to working with the international community for alternative measures. The Sudanese government will not want to lend credence to Ocampo’s indictment by proving it correct on the ground. The government has also found considerable support within the Arab League and Africa for their opposition to the indictments and does not want to jeopardize that support. Certainly that has been the case on the ground thus far.

But it is important to remember that Sudan benefits from all of this international assistance pouring into its country. Although it is intended as short-term relief, in fact, it is yielding tangible benefits to the Sudanese government. Moreover, the presence of the humanitarians allows the Sudanese government to do other things with its funds than provide life-sustaining aid to its citizens. If the humanitarians were to leave and the government did not step into the void, then potentially millions of people would die, creating pressures for the international community to intervene more forcefully. It is in the Sudanese government’s interest to allow the humanitarians to operate in its territory but not to allow them to take actions that might fundamentally change the situation.

  1. The long-term prognosis for Darfur is pessimistic. As of July 2008, there were 4.27 million people in need of food assistance, of whom 2.5 million are IDPs. UNICEF reports that in the course of 2007, there were 250,000 new – or re-displaced – populations. Assistance agencies report that coping mechanisms in the camps are stretched – in part because the food isn’t getting in because of the horrific insecurity situation.

There are fundamental problems with this situation. In the absence of a political settlement and in the face of rampant insecurity, the prognosis for the medium and long-term future is grim. Internally displaced persons living in IDP camps are better off than those who are not living in camps; standard health indicators are better – a fact which serves as a pull factor for needy people. They are unable to be self-reliant in the camps and must rely on international assistance.

But what are the long-term consequences of the international community feeding more than 3 million people? How long can this be sustained? What are the global costs – in terms of missed opportunities to serve other populations – of keeping up this monumental aid effort to Darfur? In spite of the more than $1 billion per year spent on humanitarian assistance in Darfur,[6] the situation isn’t getting better for Darfur’s displaced, either inside Darfur or for the 230,000 or so in neighboring Chad. Food prices have increased – by 150% in some locations.[7] Security is not improving. Is the international community prepared to continue this massive assistance to Darfur’s victims indefinitely?

  1. And then there’s UNAMID and the potential impact of indictments on the peacekeeping forces. Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir has said that he will ask the UN-AU forces in Darfur (UNAMID) to leave the country if the ICC issues an arrest warrant for him.[8] This is pretty clear – actually much clearer than the issue of the humanitarians.

Like the humanitarians, UNAMID has been attacked by armed groups allied with the Sudanese government and by the janjiweed. In July, former rebels detained 38 peacekeepers while patrolling an IDP camp. But UNAMID is largely seen as ineffective and excessively cautious – not only by the international community but also by the IDPs. UNAMID was supposed to have 26,000 police and soldiers, but only 140 Bangladeshi police and a smattering of others have arrived – the rest of the 8,000 or so troops are holdovers from the African Union mission. UNAMID’s lack of effectiveness is in part the result of the lack of commitment by the international community to provide the troops, helicopters and supporting materials to the peacekeepers. It is in part due to the intransigence of the Sudanese government which has created delays and bureaucratic obstacles galore for the peacekeepers.[9] In the Secretary-General’s report of 28 August 2008 on UNAMID deployment, he mentions the worrying increase in violence, the continuing air strikes. But there is a more fundamental problem: the international community has focused almost all of its attention on the peacekeepers, with little political energy left for the necessary political processes. And the mission is failing. This was foreseen by Jean-Marie Guehenno who asked:

“Do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capacity to defend itself and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the UN and tragic failure for the people of Darfur?”[10]

There could also be consequences for humanitarian funding and for humanitarian access if UNAMID were to collapse or be further marginalized as a result of government actions following an indictment. While neither UNAMID nor its AU precursors have had much impact in enlarging humanitarian space or in protecting aid workers or conflict victims, a sudden withdrawal of UNAMID forces – which was, after all, one of the signature diplomatic achievements – could lead to donor fatigue. This would also test the ability of the advocacy coalition to keep Darfur on the agenda in a relevant way. Although the peacekeepers have not enlarged the humanitarian space, the question is would its demise lead to a significant decline in accessible territory? Or to human rights violations on the ground or in the camps?

The bottom line: if arrest warrants were to be issued for President al-Bashir, the situation for both the humanitarians and the peacekeepers would get worse, but is unlikely to become cataclysmic. If the humanitarians were forced out, Darfur’s internally displaced persons would likely try to flee in larger numbers to neighboring countries, thus increasing the refugee numbers. And the humanitarians would likely expand operations there. But not everyone would be able to escape. The deaths, particularly among the very young and the very old, would be high.

But their situation is already so precarious that the impact would likely be a difference in degree rather than a complete catastrophe.

[1] For example, Care, NRC, Oxfam, Save the Children, and MSF have all had staff expelled from Sudan because of differences with the Sudanese government.

[2] Reuters, 21 August 2008.

[3] Clea Kahn, “Conflict, Arms, and Militarization: The Dynamics of Darfur’s IDP Camps,” Geneva: Small Arms Survey 2008.

[4] Human Rights Council. “Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention; addendum Report prepared by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Sudan on the status of the recommendations compiled by the Group of Experts mandated by the Human Rights Council in resolution 4/8 to the Government of the Sudan for the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 4/8 pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 6/34. A/HRC/9/13/Add.1, 2 September 2008

[5] World Food Programme, Press release 7 September 2008)

[6] According to Fabrice Weissman, Humanitarian Dilemmas in Darfur, MSF: July 2008, the budget for operations run by UN agencies was over $800 million in 2007 – a figure which dos not include aid from ICRC or NGO contributions which would certainly push the amount over $1 billion. US assistance to Darfur in FY 2008 was almost $770 million.

[7] USAID, 1 August 2008)

[8] “Sudanese president makes first public threat to expel peacekeepers,” Sudan Tribune, 22 August 2008.

[9] Washington Post, 4 July 2008.

[10] Joint NGO Report, “UNAMID Deployment on the Brink: The Road to Security in Darfur Blocked by Government Obstructions,” (Human Rights Watch: New York, December 2007) [September 23, 2008].