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Sudanese women and children who fled the conflict in Geneina, in Sudan's Darfur region, line up at the water point in Adre, Chad, July 30, 2023.  © 2023 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

(New York, March 15, 2024) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to alert the Security Council in the coming days that Sudan has entered a downward spiral of extreme conflict-induced hunger, Human Rights Watch said today. The council should immediately take action, including by adopting targeted sanctions against individuals responsible for obstructing aid access in Darfur.

“The Security Council will be formally put on notice that the conflict in Sudan risks spurring the world’s largest hunger crisis,” said Akshaya Kumar, crisis advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Council just broke months of silence by adopting a resolution on Sudan last week, and should build on that momentum by imposing consequences on those responsible for preventing aid from getting to people who need it.”

The alert will be sent to the Council as a so called “white note,” drafted by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in accordance with its mandate under Security Council resolution 2417 to ring the alarm about “the risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity.” OCHA’s alert follows warnings by international aid experts, Sudanese civil society leaders, and Sudanese emergency responders that people across Sudan are dying of hunger. It also comes on the heels of Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) brazenly escalating its efforts to restrict the movement of humanitarian aid.

In a 2023 presidential statement, the Security Council reiterated its “strong intention to give its full attention” to information provided by the secretary-general when it is alerted to situations involving conflict induced food insecurity. The council should honor that commitment and convene an open meeting to discuss OCHA’s findings. That could pave the way for decisive action, including sanctions on individuals responsible for obstructing aid delivery, Human Rights Watch said.

Since conflict broke out between Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April 2023, both warring parties have restricted aid delivery, access, and distribution. Ninety percent of people in Sudan facing emergency levels of hunger are in areas that are “largely inaccessible” to the World Food Programme. “Communities (in Sudan) are on the brink of famine because we are prevented from reaching many of the children, women and families in need,” according to UNICEF executive director, Catherine Russell.

In February, Sudan’s military leader, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said the authorities would no longer allow aid to reach areas under RSF control. Aid organizations have repeatedly said that the SAF is obstructing their delivery of aid to RSF-controlled areas. Aid groups face a maze of bureaucratic impediments, including delays, arbitrary restrictions on movement, harassment, and outright bans on some supplies.

On March 4, Sudan’s foreign affairs minister added to the restrictions, announcing that the government opposed cross-border aid delivery from Chad to areas under RSF control. On March 6, Sudanese authorities informed the UN that they would allow limited cross-border movement exclusively through specific crossings under the control of forces allied to the military. Sudanese authorities have also blocked cross-line aid movement to RSF-controlled territory, which has put Khartoum under a de facto aid blockade since November 2023 at least, aid groups told Human Rights Watch.

The UN welcomed the Sudanese authorities’ announcement identifying aid crossings. The medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, however, raised concerns that this would leave “vast areas in Darfur, Kordofan, Khartoum and Jazeera states still inaccessible.”  

Aid operations have also been choked by limited funding. As of the end of February, the UN's appeal was 5 percent funded. That gap is exacerbated by widespread looting of warehouses, including a December 2023 incident in which Rapid Support Forces fighters looted stocks in a World Food Programme warehouse in Wad Madani that would have been used to feed 1.5 million hungry people and attacked an MSF compound, forcing the organization to evacuate its team. There have been widespread attacks on aid workers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, including killings, injuries and detentions.

The Security Council’s latest resolution 2724 on Sudan calls “on all parties to ensure the removal of any obstructions to the delivery of aid and to enable full, rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access, including cross-border and cross-line, and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that “the apparently deliberate denial of safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies within Sudan itself constitutes a serious violation of international law, and may amount to a war crime.”

The Security Council’s Sudan Sanctions Committee met in February, announcing that it “wishes to remind the parties that those who commit violations of international humanitarian law and other atrocities may be subject to targeted sanctions measures in accordance with paragraph 3 (c) of resolution 1591 (2005).”

The World Food Programme and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found in a recent report that food security in Sudan had significantly deteriorated even faster than anticipated, and that there is a risk of “catastrophic conditions” hitting the states of West and Central Darfur “during the lean season in early 2024,” roughly from April to July.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a US government-funded group that monitors food insecurity, said in February that the “worst-affected populations … in Omdurman (in Khartoum state) and El Geneina (in West Darfur state)” were expected to soon see “Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) outcomes.” Under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system, a globally recognized scale used to classify food insecurity and malnutrition, catastrophic conditions are the fifth and worst phase. The program determines that famine is occurring when over 20 percent of an area’s population are facing extreme food gaps, and children’s acute malnutrition and mortality exceed emergency rates.

According to new figures released by the Nutrition Cluster in Sudan, nearly 230,000 children, pregnant women, and new mothers could die in the coming months due to hunger.

In Darfur, civil society and local leaders have repeatedly sounded the alarm about hunger among displaced people living in camps in areas under RSF control. Leaders shared that their communities have resorted to eating ants, tree bark, and animal feed. People currently in West Darfur include survivors of waves of attacks by the RSF and their allied militias, which Human Rights Watch has described as “having all the hallmarks of an organized campaign of atrocities against Massalit civilians.” A local government official reported in early March that 22 children had died of hunger in Murnei, a town in West Darfur that was the site of horrific RSF attacks in June 2023.

In January, Doctors Without Borders raised the alarm on malnutrition in Zamzam camp in North Darfur, warning that “an estimated one child is dying every two hours.” A camp leader from Kalma camp in Nyala (South Darfur) told Human Rights Watch that 500 to 600 children and at least 80 older people have died in the camp since the start of the conflict because of what he believed was the result of lack of food and medical supplies. “People [are] dying every day,” he said. He said that the RSF has also been limiting the amount of food supplies entering the camp since it took control of the city in October.

In Khartoum, a communications blackout has forced hundreds of communal kitchens run by Sudanese emergency response rooms, a grassroots mutual aid network, to pause operations, leaving many people without food, and reports of people dying alone in their homes of hunger. “The shutdown has a significant impact on food access and distribution,” a member of one of the emergency response rooms in Khartoum told Human Rights Watch in mid-February, “it is happening while we are facing growing food insecurity and risk of famine in the capital.”

This is the first time Sudan has been spotlighted in this kind of an alert from the secretary-general to the Security Council. Guyana, Switzerland, the US, and other Security Council members have pledged to make combating food insecurity a priority for the UN’s most powerful body. 

“Council members should show leadership by holding open discussions to develop a plan that averts the risk of mass starvation in Sudan and imposing targeted sanctions on the individuals responsible for obstructing aid,” Kumar said. “The people of Sudan need more than words. They need food.”

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