Background Briefing

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Sudanese Government Obstruction of Humanitarian Access

At the heart of the Sudanese government’s counterinsurgency strategy against rebels in Darfur has been a policy of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s civilian population whom Khartoum considers “the enemy” because they are of the same ethnicity as the rebels.  This strategy has included “scorched earth” tactics and a multitude of official restrictions, harassment and intimidation against international relief agencies and their staffers seeking to bring humanitarian aid to those put at risk.  By doing so, the Sudanese government has both instigated the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and prevented its resolution.

Khartoum has long been hostile to the presence of international relief agencies in Sudan. Its crackdowns and bureaucratic campaign of attrition are a continuing problem for the independent humanitarian aid agencies operating in Sudan, both international and Sudanese.52 

Aid workers trying to provide assistance in southern Sudan are familiar with a wide range of Sudanese government strategies to delay, limit, and deny access by humanitarian agencies to civilians in need of assistance during the civil war in the south. Flight bans, denials or massive delays in the processing of travel permits, limitations on the numbers of staff and unnecessarily bureaucratic or arbitrary procedures for importing and transporting relief materials have all been “classic” Sudanese government tactics to restrict aid to civilian populations. Over the past sixteen years, these policies have contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people from famine and diseases.53

Under heavy international pressure and media attention, in mid-2004 the Sudanese government established a new administrative system for Darfur, a system designed to expedite the visa and travel permit process through a moratorium on the usual administrative procedures.54 This system included a pledge to permit “freedom of movement for aid workers throughout Darfur.”55  To a large extent, this new process heavily contributed to the massive increase in humanitarian personnel and programs in Darfur in 2004 and 2005.

Since early 2005, however, the improvements were balanced by a new policy of increased harassment and intimidation of aid workers in Darfur. In addition, since early 2006, the Sudanese government has reverted to many of its usual practices of administrative delay and harassment, despite its own pledge to extend the moratorium, not just in Darfur but throughout Sudan.

Government Intimidation of Aid Workers

Since the massive relief effort began in Darfur in 2004, the government has tried to intimidate aid workers and organizations with threats and arrests of national and international staff. In a practice that has euphemistically been referred to as “administrative harassment,” international and Sudanese staff working for NGOs have been detained by Sudanese security officials, often on specious grounds.

Many of the incidents appear to be targeted at organizations that provide services to, or publicly advocate on behalf of, civilians displaced by the conflict and by the ethnic cleansing that has taken place. It is difficult to ascertain the precise number of incidents; many organizations fear that if they speak publicly about the incidents they will jeopardize their operational access to the populations in need. Several dozen aid workers at a minimum have been directly affected by the government’s harassment, but the practice has had a broader impact on all of those involved in relief operations in Darfur. 

Between December 2004 and April 2005 alone, at least twenty aid workers were arrested or detained, mainly in South Darfur.56 In May 2005, local Sudanese government authorities arrested and charged two aid workers from Médecins sans Frontières with publishing false information after the humanitarian medical organization published a report on conflict-related rape in Darfur.57 On October 23, 2005, government police and national security officials arrested at gunpoint two national staff members at an international organization’s compound in Kalma internally displaced persons camp, South Darfur.58  In North Darfur in February 2006, a United Nations staff member was detained and questioned by security personnel after returning from a security meeting with the SLA,59 a routine procedure to coordinate and protect relief work in rebel-held areas.

Militias sometimes block relief going to civilians in rebel-controlled areas. For instance, in Jebel Marra, relief workers reported that government-backed Janjaweed militias interdicted relief organizations trying to re-establish services to the displaced in early 2006, because the militias consider the displaced in eastern Jebel Marra to be “rebels” and are resentful of seeing relief going to them.60

Arbitrary Government Restrictions on Freedom of Movement

As noted above, in July 2004, the government of Sudan committed to a moratorium on restrictions for humanitarian work in Darfur in the context of its Joint Communiqué with the U.N. and it recently pledged to renew the moratorium until January 30, 2007.61 The moratorium was intended to remove obstacles to humanitarian work, including: suspension of visa restrictions for all humanitarian workers and permitting freedom of movement for aid workers throughout Darfur.62 

Yet despite giving this and other guarantees of “free access” to Darfur for humanitarian workers, Khartoum and state-level governments frequently place arbitrary constraints on aid workers in Darfur by dubious administrative delays and red tape related to visa extensions, identity documents, and travel permits.63 In a March 2006 statement, Gemmo Lodesani, the OCHA Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, faulted Sudanese authorities for “inconsistency in granting access, delays in visa deliveries, [and] unreasonable reporting requests followed by suspension of access or programmes for lack of compliance.”64

In January 2006 a number of international humanitarian agencies were denied access in Darfur and had their travel permits revoked following an ad hoc request by the Sudanese government Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC, the national relief coordination agency that is the liaison with international NGOs), that agencies submit questionnaires providing detailed financial information pertaining to their operations.65  In some locations, the request was extended to U.N. agencies.66 While it is legitimate for the Sudanese government to request basic financial and operational information from aid agencies running programs in Sudan, such requests have often been the way for the Sudanese government to target and restrict specific agencies or relief activities in particular areas.

In another example of harassment, the HAC official in Garsila (Wadi Salih locality) insisted on charging fees for the issuance of identification cards to international NGO staff.  This was despite an official letter from HAC in Zalingei, dated March 13, requesting that HAC officials in Wadi Salih, Mukjar and Jebel Marra localities not charge any fees.67 While this may appear to be an isolated bureaucratic incident, it is part of a much larger pattern of constant problems over visas, travel permits to Darfur, travel permits within Darfur, limitations on items and quantities that can be shipped to Darfur, and a host of other regulations whose purpose seems to be to deny rather than facilitate access, such as the HAC’s March 11 announcement that international nongovernmental organizations could only transport three barrels of fuel per trip “to reduce losses in case fuel is looted by the SLA.”68 Relief workers frequently comment that Sudan is the hardest “emergency” situation in which to help those in need.

Government officials at the local, state and national levels frequently threaten to prevent agencies from having access to civilians in need in Darfur—and those threats have been carried out, sometimes in a very high-profile fashion. On April 2 the Sudanese government barred the plane of U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland from landing in Khartoum or Darfur for a previously agreed upon visit, for patently specious reasons,69 and also prohibited the plane from flying over Sudanese airspace to reach the refugee camps for Darfurians in Chad.

The next day, April 3, the Sudanese government expelled the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a key operating agency in Darfur. The NRC managed and coordinated the largest internally displaced camp in Darfur, Kalma camp (outside Nyala, South Darfur), housing 100,000 people. At a meeting in South Darfur, the authorities told the NRC to end all humanitarian operations in Darfur and leave. The government gave no reason for refusing to renew the mandate, and at this writing, has not provided the requested written confirmation.70

The Sudanese government appeared to back down on Egeland’s visit, and claimed, after protests from the U.N. Secretary-General and others, that the visit was only “postponed.”71  Egeland responded, “I cannot go now. This is not a game. This is serious humanitarian work. . . . I had agreed on a time with them and I cannot just come and go when they please.”72 The U.N. Security Council, in a presidential statement, later expressed its regret for the decision of the Sudanese government not to renew the NRC’s contract and to deny Egeland’s entry to Darfur; it called on the government to explain its reasons for doing so.73 As of the writing of this report, Egeland was scheduled to visit Sudan, including Darfur, on May 6.

Egeland is far from being the only official or representative of a foreign government to whom the Sudanese authorities has denied access for transparently false reasons. One of many such events was in late March when the foreign minister of Sweden was barred from traveling to Darfur to assess the deteriorating humanitarian situation—although she had been previously cleared for travel there. Notwithstanding the same excuses being offered by the Sudanese government as for refusing Egeland, she said she believed the decision was really linked to Sweden’s actions in the U.N. to send U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur.74

The prospect of the transfer of civilian protection duties from AMIS forces to a U.N. protection force may be one reason for Khartoum’s mounting hostility to international representatives since early 2006.75

At the heart of this hostility is the U.N. Security Council’s March 2005 referral of the international crimes in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation. Underlying Khartoum’s opposition to a U.N. protection force in Darfur appears to be apprehension that the U.N. force would enforce ICC arrest warrants. The U.N. Security Council’s Commission of Inquiry (January 2005) and the Panel of Experts of the Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on Darfur (December 2005) have implicated many Sudanese government officials in crimes against humanity and war crimes. While ICC warrants have not been issued against Sudanese government officials, the government has adamantly refused to cooperate with an ICC investigation—and is no doubt equally adamant about blocking potential process servers—even if that means hindering humanitarian assistance to Darfur’s millions in need.

Following the report of the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry in January 2005, high-ranking Sudanese government officials made statements threatening the safety of international staff in Darfur in the event of ICC prosecutions of Sudanese officials who might be accused of war crimes.76 Although the humanitarian organizations are not affiliated, directly or indirectly, with the ICC, to Sudanese officials they seem to represent the “international community.” These government threats have placed frontline international relief workers in jeopardy of the most immediate retaliation for any action towards international prosecution of Sudanese government suspects for alleged international crimes in Darfur.

Government’s Restrictive New NGO Law

The Sudanese government erected another considerable structural obstacle to humanitarian and development activities in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan when on February 21, the legislature passed the Organization of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act, 2006, informally known as the “NGO Law.” It requires, among other things, that nongovernmental organizations register with the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission. This gives HAC a gatekeeper’s role over which organizations are allowed to work in Sudan and which are not.

In itself, registration is not objectionable—every country has some administrative regulations on organizations working there. But the HAC has played an obstructive role in administering and coordinating international relief in Sudan since its inception. It and its predecessor agency constricted relief deliveries during the north-south war and in Khartoum, where many southerners fled during that war. Many HAC personnel have a security, not a relief, background.77 Examples of its obstructive approach in Darfur are noted above.

The NGO Law effectively blocks all avenues of appeal against denials of applications for registration by HAC.  Because of the lack of an appeal mechanism before an impartial body and hence the potential for unchecked arbitrary action, the law violates the right to freedom of association.78 

Just before the NGO Law went into effect the Sudan Social Development Organisation (SUDO), a Sudanese nongovernmental organization operating in Darfur, was being harassed by HAC pursuant to a slightly less stringent 1999 law. SUDO’s regional director was summoned by Sudanese security officials in Geneina, West Darfur, on February 20, 2006, for questioning about his background, the alleged political activities of SUDO and its protection activities and sources of funding.79 On March 8, shortly after the NGO Law was passed, HAC informed SUDO’s director that SUDO did not have a mandate for “protection” activities. HAC claimed that the executive director of SUDO, Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, had a criminal record.80 On March 9, HAC informed SUDO in writing that all SUDO activities in West Darfur would be shut down.81 On March 11, HAC ordered the SUDO office in Zalengei, West Darfur, to freeze its activities from March 13 and surrender to HAC its vehicle and two motorbikes, office equipment, and hand over the keys to its clinic and nutrition centers, among other things. After international pressure, on March 28 HAC officials apparently authorized in writing the reopening of the SUDO office in Geneina. Even then, SUDO was informed it must reapply within ninety days under the new NGO Law.82

On April 6, ten donor governments, including the U.K., France, the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, sent a joint letter to the Sudanese foreign minister, Dr. Lam Akol, reiterating their concern over certain provisions in the NGO law that would “substantially hinder the ability of donors, international and national NGOs to continue providing effective humanitarian assistance and development cooperation in the Sudan.”83

[52] Since the 1989 coup, the Sudanese government has imposed massive bureaucratic obstacles on independent organizations while supporting programs of Islamic organizations.

[53] Human Rights Watch,  Famine in Sudan, 1998: The Human Rights Causes, (New York: Human Rights Watch: February 1999).

[54] The moratorium was included in the Joint Communiqué between the Sudanese government and the United Nations, signed on July 3, 2004.

[55] The text of the Joint Communiqué states that the Sudanese government commits to:

Implement a ‘moratorium on restrictions' for all humanitarian work in Darfur, and remove any other obstacles to humanitarian work, including:

  • Suspension of visa restrictions for all humanitarian workers and permitting freedom of movement for aid workers throughout Darfur;

  • Permitting immediate temporary NGO registration through a simple notification process that OCHA will offer to manage on behalf of NGOs; permanent registration shall be processed within 90 days; and

  • Suspension of all restrictions for the importation and use of all humanitarian assistance materials, transport vehicles, aircraft and communication equipment.

    [56] “Darfur: Aid Workers Under Threat,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, April 5, 2005, [online]

    [57] “Second Sudan Aid Worker Arrested,” BBC News, May 31, 2005, [online]; “Darfur: Arrest War Criminals, Not Aid Worker,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, May 31, 2005, [online]  After considerable international pressure, the charges were eventually dropped.

    [58] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” January 30, 2006, [online]

    [59] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” March 9, 2006, [online]

    [60] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with international relief organization, March 23, 2006; confidential communication, Human Rights Watch, March 24, 2006. Attacks on civilians by these pro-government militias have continued in West Darfur and elsewhere throughout the ceasefire period.

    [61] U.N. OCHA, “Fact Sheet on Access Restrictions in Darfur and Other Areas of Sudan,” April 20, 2006.

    [62] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” March 9, 2006, [online] Among other unimplemented provisions, the Moratorium also was supposed to permit immediate temporary NGO registration through a simple notification process that OCHA would manage on behalf of NGOs; and permanent registration to be processed within ninety days.

    [63] International humanitarian law provides for the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief workers and aid—see the final section of this report.  But because the parties to the conflict have yet to agree upon Darfur-wide rules for the travel of  humanitarian staff, relief workers must depend on ad hoc decisions of local and state officials, as well as by local rebel commanders.  This patchwork of rules that are always subject to change adds to the risk faced by relief workers.

    [64] OCHA, “Sudan Humanitarian Overview,” Vol. 2, Issue 1, January 1 – February 1, 2006, [online]

    [65] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” March 9, 2006, [online]

    [66] The HAC, part of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, is mandated to partner with international organizations in relief efforts, and works as liaison between international organizations and internally displaced persons camps in Sudan. 

    [67] United Nations, “United Nations Situation Report,” March 20, 2006, [online]

    [68] United Nations, “United Nations Sudan Situation Report,” March 12, 2006.

    [69] The reasons given by a changing cast of spokesmen have varied from a statement presented by Sudan’s state minister for foreign affairs, Al-Samani Al-Wasleea, citing “internal reasons” that required a ten-day postponement (“Sudan says will Allow UN official to visit Darfur,” Sudan Tribune (Khartoum)/Associated Press, April 5, 2006, [online], to Foreign Ministry spokesman Jamal Ibrahim saying: “Because of the special circumstances of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, the local authorities said it was not advisable to welcome him at this time” (Anna Willard, “After visit blocked, UN’s Egeland mulls Sudan return,” Reuters, April 5, 2006, [online] Other pretexts given for the postponement of Egeland’s Darfur visit include his Norwegian nationality (following the controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad printed by a Danish newspaper and reprinted in Norway) and the closure of airports in Darfur for maintenance. See Willard, “After visit blocked, UN’s Egeland mulls Sudan return.”

    [70] “Norwegian NRC must leave Darfur displaced camp,” Sudan Tribune, citing Norwegian Refugee Council Press Release, April 3, 2006, [online]; Norwegian Refugee Council, “NRC forced out of Darfur,” April 5, 2006, [online]

    [71] United Nations, “Statement of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on the Planned Visit of USG Jan Egeland to Darfur,” April 4, 2006, [online]

    [72] Anna Willard, “After visit blocked, UN’s Egeland mulls Sudan return,” Reuters, April 5, 2006, [online]

    [73]  U.N. Security Council, “Presidential Statement,” SC/8688, April 11, 2006, [online]

    [74] The excuses, after her arrival in Khartoum, used to revoke her permission for Darfur travel were the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and the Danish cartoons. “Swedish foreign minister barred from Darfur,” Mail & Guardian Online, Johannesburg, South Africa, March 29, 2006, [online]

    [75] Officially, the Sudanese government says it would welcome a U.N. peacekeeping force, but only after a peace agreement. As the government is a party to the peace talks, it is in a position to prevent and delay an agreement indefinitely.

    [76] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, Khartoum, May and June, 2005.

    [77] Human Rights Watch confidential source, March 30, 2006.

    [78] The law has been criticized by many NGOs in Sudan.  See United Nations, “United Nations Sudan Situation Report,” February 23, 2006.

    [79] United Nations Country Team in Sudan, “United Nations Sudan Situation Report,” February 23, 2006, [online]

    [80] Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam was jailed several times and accused of capital offenses in connection with his activities in Darfur. See Human Rights Watch, “Sudan: Rights Defenders in Darfur Detained,” press release, March 9, 2004, [online] Dr. Mudawi was never tried on these allegations.

    [81] United Nations Country Team in Sudan, “United Nations Sudan Situation Report,” March 12, 2006, [online]

    [82] Confidential communication, Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2006. See also Amnesty International, “Sudan: Continuing blockade of humanitarian aid,” AI Index: AFR 54/010/2006, April 4, 2006, [online]

    [83] Letter from the embassies of Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Delegation of the European Commission to His Excellency Dr. Lam Akol, Minister of Foreign Affairs, April 6, 2006.

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