(New York) - The Sudanese government's announcement that it will expel 10 international aid agencies places the lives of more than 1 million people in Darfur at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. Sudan has an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure that relief aid reaches people in need in conflict situations.

The Sudanese government announced the expulsions shortly after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Human Rights Watch called on the government to reinstate immediately the agencies' licenses to operate and to facilitate all humanitarian agencies providing assistance in Sudan.

"President al-Bashir's response to being charged with crimes in Darfur is nothing less than retaliation against the millions of people there," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Sudanese government should reverse this decision immediately, or civilians in Darfur will again suffer the consequences of Khartoum's abusive policies."

The 10 agencies, which include Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children, CARE and the International Rescue Committee, are between them estimated to be providing 50 to 70 percent of the total humanitarian assistance in Darfur, including food, water, and medical care. Many also have programs elsewhere in Sudan that are affected. Their departure could have catastrophic consequences for more than a million people.

Human Rights Watch called on concerned governments and regional bodies, particularly those with close ties to Sudan, such as China and the African Union, to press Khartoum to reverse the expulsions immediately. Should Sudan fail to do so, the United Nations, the African Union, and individual governments should take swift and decisive action, including the imposition of targeted sanctions on al-Bashir and State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun.

On March 4, 2009, the ICC, in The Hague, announced the issuance of an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Within a few hours, the 10 international agencies had received letters from the government's Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) notifying them that their licenses to operate in Sudan had been revoked. That evening, HAC officials began visiting agency offices in both Darfur and the capital Khartoum, and seizing assets, including phones and computers. At least one agency has been given 24 hours to remove all international staff from Sudan; others are withdrawing staff from Darfur and elsewhere back to Khartoum. Staff in Darfur have also been harassed and threatened by national security officers. 

Despite assurances from Sudanese authorities over recent months, including HAC, that they would continue to facilitate the work of humanitarian agencies, it appears the expulsions were planned well in advance of the warrant being issued. On March 1, HAC officials in Khartoum told six of the agencies that, for "security reasons" they had to temporarily relocate their international staff to Khartoum from key locations in Darfur in advance of the ICC decision.

Under international law, the government of Sudan has primary responsibility for providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the more than 4 million people affected by the conflict in Darfur. Should the government be unwilling or unable to  provide such assistance, as has been the case in Darfur, then it is legally obliged to provide unimpeded access to independent and impartial aid agencies. Depriving specific populations of necessary assistance may be an unlawful reprisal or form of collective punishment, which are violations of international humanitarian law.

"Whether a government supports the charges against al-Bashir or not, all governments should reject Khartoum's shameful attempt at reprisal against long-suffering civilians," said Gagnon. "States need to send a message that Khartoum can't play with the lives of millions."