Background Briefing

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The Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur are hindering humanitarian agencies from reaching hundreds of thousands of civilians dependent on international aid in many areas of Darfur. In recent weeks, the situation has become critical, with the U.N. estimating that at least 650,000 people are partly or wholly inaccessible to international humanitarian agencies.

Since late 2005 an upsurge of insecurity from armed clashes and criminal activity has caused humanitarian agencies to evacuate from many locations in Darfur and along the Chad border. Insecurity stems from clashes between the warring parties, intra-rebel rivalry, cross-border attacks by militia groups from Darfur into Chad, continuing attacks on the civilian population, and rampant banditry. More than 200,000 people in Darfur have been displaced from January through March 2006 alone and many of them are located in areas that are not regularly accessible to aid agencies due to continuing conflict. 

Even in areas where access to civilians is secure, humanitarian agencies are faced with increasing obstruction by Sudanese government policies and practices in Darfur. The Sudanese government has a long record of deliberately restricting the activities of international humanitarian agencies trying to assist civilians in conflict-affected areas of Sudan. Under international pressure, special procedures for aid work were introduced in Darfur in 2004 that facilitated the massive expansion of the aid effort. However the Sudanese government is now steadily rolling back the gains that were made. In February 2006 the Sudanese government passed a new law regulating non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  There is increasing harassment, arbitrary detentions, and intimidation of aid workers by government officials, and arbitrary administrative regulations are affecting the humanitarian activities of many agencies working in Darfur, even in areas that are secure.

The Darfur rebel movements and other armed groups, including bandits, are responsible for a growing number of armed attacks on humanitarian convoys and other threats against relief workers.  Numerous vehicles have been looted from humanitarian agencies and aid workers have been beaten or threatened in an increasing number of incidents over the past months, rendering many roads, particularly in volatile West Darfur, “no-go” areas for the U.N. and NGOs.

Under international humanitarian law (the laws of war), civilians suffering undue hardship have the right to humanitarian relief.  Parties to a conflict must allow rapid and unimpeded access of aid from humanitarian agencies to such populations.  Attacks on humanitarian workers, infrastructure and objects used in relief operations, including food and medicine, as well as deliberate impediments to relief efforts, are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes. When such obstruction is knowingly part of a widespread and systematic attack on a civilian population, it can amount to crimes against humanity.

Since mid-2004, when the Sudanese government was pressured by the international community into lifting its near total embargo on humanitarian activity in Darfur, there has been a massively expanded relief effort in the region. As of April 2006, 14,000 emergency relief workers are engaged in efforts to save the lives of 3.5 million Darfurians in need of humanitarian assistance. The recent, escalating trends of attacking and obstructing humanitarian agencies threaten to undermine the survival of more than three million people who are dependent on international aid.

Human Rights Watch urges the international community to take immediate steps to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access to all areas of Darfur. The United Nations Security Council and the African Union (A.U.) must put intense pressure on the government of Sudan to immediately remove all obstacles to humanitarian operations, cease attacks on civilians, and facilitate both the current African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) and any future U.N. mission in Darfur. All individuals responsible for attacks on civilians, including on humanitarian convoys, should also be placed under U.N. sanctions.

Donor governments must meet their financial commitments to international humanitarian organizations so that they can serve the needs of vulnerable groups, particularly displaced persons in especially hazardous areas such as Jebel Marra and other parts of West Darfur. Donors must also provide AMIS with the financial and logistical assistance, including military helicopters, needed to protect civilians and secure roads for humanitarian convoys. They must insist on an AMIS transition to a larger, more robust U.N. force at the earliest feasible time, to reverse the tragic decline and save lives in Darfur.

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