NEW YORK CITY: The humanitarian situation in Sudan continues to deteriorate rapidly as the conflict that erupted on April 15 shows no sign of abating.
The power struggle has recently been claiming the lives of civilians in ever greater numbers, while challenges of access are making it increasingly difficult for aid workers to reach the millions of Sudanese in need.
In May, despite signing a pledge in Jeddah, in which the two feuding generals agreed to allow the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance, the restoration of essential services, and the withdrawal of forces from hospitals and clinics, Sudan continues to be a highly insecure operational space for aid workers.
Since the beginning of the hostilities, 19 humanitarian-agency staff have been killed.
Bureaucratic barriers, such as customs, visas, and permits, continue to hinder the ability to deploy humanitarian teams into the country and onward to parts where needs are most acute. More than 220 international aid workers were awaiting visas to enter the country in July, with applications pending for weeks on end.
Barbara Woodward is the UK’s permanent representative to the UN and the penholder of the Sudan file at the Security Council. The penholders’ role is to lead the negotiations and drafting of resolution on a particular issue.
In an interview with Arab News in New York City, Woodward said: “The plight of the people of Sudan, 25 million of them in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, is really right at the top of our agenda.”
She noted that the task of gaining humanitarian access to Sudan was the worst in the world, and that obstacles to delivering aid constituted one of the major impediments to addressing Sudan’s humanitarian crisis.
“We can’t get that humanitarian aid to people because convoys are being attacked, and bureaucratic obstacles are being pushed in the way, such as customs, visas, and permits,” she added.
Woodward pointed out that despite enormous efforts, the warring parties had not fulfilled their commitments to facilitate humanitarian access, leaving the international community deeply concerned about the fate of Sudan’s population.
And she highlighted the gravity of the situation, expressing concern for the people in Sudan, those who had fled, and the continuous reports on atrocities.
She said the UK was working to address the crisis through financial aid and diplomatic actions, adding that the UN Security Council meetings the British had called were only one part of a comprehensive strategy.
Woodward said: “About 25 million people are in need of aid. Nearly 5 million people are displaced, including some who were already displaced, and about 42 percent of the population need food aid.
“There’s the second group of people, about 1 million people, who have fled Sudan into Chad and into South Sudan primarily. They are of course in need of attention.
“That’s why we’ve split the UK aid package of $33.5 million, with a portion for Sudan, about $27.2 million, and then $6.3 million especially directed to South Sudan and Chad, including for reports we have had on grievous body violence.
“And then, this is not just a pure humanitarian mission. The reports we’ve heard of atrocities — of breaching international humanitarian law, violence, ethnic violence, sexual violence — are creating another layer of humanitarian problems. Those are all made worse because, as I said, we can’t get in humanitarian aid,” she added.
Sudan’s Darfur region had been scarred by a two-decade conflict that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and more than 2 million displaced.
Two months into the current war, Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, painted a dire picture of the Darfur states, particularly South Darfur, describing “babies dying in hospitals where they were being treated, children and mothers suffering from severe malnutrition, camps for displaced persons burned to the ground, girls raped, schools closed, and families eating leaves to survive.”
He said: “Hospitals and water facilities have come under attack. Humanitarian warehouses and offices have been ransacked. Aid workers have been killed.”
Griffiths noted that reports of mass killings in the restive province “should spur the world into action,” adding that “the world cannot allow this to happen. Not again.”
On what action the world should take, Woodward said that bilateral action was imperative, adding that the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had personally engaged with military leaders.
She pointed out that the UK’s second approach had been to focus on active participation in local and regional peace initiatives, such as those involving the Quad (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the US) and the African Union core group on the Sudan crisis, of which the UK was a member.
“And then, of course, there’s what we can do here at the UN. As the penholder, the UK has been responsible for calling seven Security Council meetings in the last five months to try and draw attention to the situation in Sudan and try to press hard for the parties to end the fighting so we can get aid to the people of Sudan and try and get Sudan to end the fighting and move back to civilian rule,” Woodward said.
The leaders of more than 50 international human rights and humanitarian organizations recently agreed that Sudan was “no longer at the precipice of mass atrocities; it has fallen over the edge,” and warned of inaction in the face of the disaster unfolding “before our eyes.”
Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: “In the face of mounting atrocities in Sudan, the Security Council has neglected its responsibility to robustly respond.
“The world’s foremost body on international peace and security should not remain silent in the face of grave international crimes.”
Addressing concerns about the Security Council's response to the Sudanese crisis, especially in comparison with the Ukraine conflict, Woodward drew a distinction, saying that the Ukraine war was initiated by a permanent member of the Security Council.
She noted that the situation in Ukraine had a different dynamic, citing Russia’s role in calling what she called spurious meetings related to Ukraine and its use of the veto.
According to Woodward, while there have been numerous meetings on Ukraine, it “should not detract from the fact that we are very, very cognizant of the appalling plight and the circumstances that the people of Sudan face at the moment and the fragility of the situation there.”
There has been no dearth of regional and international efforts to resolve the Sudan crisis. Many meetings have been convened separately by the AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the Arab League.
The IGAD also established the Quartet group of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan, which during a meeting in July resolved “to request the East Africa Standby Force summit to convene in order to consider the possible deployment of the EASF for the protection of civilians and to guarantee humanitarian access.”
In May, in Jeddah, the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces signed the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan — the Jeddah Declaration — in recognition of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law and international human rights law. A few days later, they inked agreement on a seven-day ceasefire, one of many that did not hold.
Then, at the end of May, the Saudi US-facilitated talks were suspended after the SAF withdrew, accusing the RSF of failing to implement the ceasefire.
The talks reportedly resumed on July 15, before the SAF again announced the return of its delegation from Jeddah owing to a lack of agreement on several issues, including their position that the RSF should evacuate civilian homes and public facilities in Khartoum.
In July, Egypt hosted the Sudan’s Neighboring States Summit, bringing together the heads of state and governments of the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, and South Sudan, with the aim of finding a solution. The leaders agreed to establish a ministerial mechanism comprising foreign ministers of Sudan’s neighboring states to coordinate their efforts to resolve the conflict.
The AU has many a time stated that such multiplicity of approaches does not serve the will of the Sudanese people. The AU peace road map calls for the establishment of a coordinated mechanism to ensure all regional and global efforts are harmonized and impactful.
Woodward said: “The problem we have, I think, is not so much the proliferation of initiatives, which shows just how willing people are to support the cause of the peace in Sudan. It’s the fact that the two parties will not stop fighting.
“A unified initiative should of course lead to an end of the fighting and the establishment of some sort of civilian rule. Those are the two key elements.”
She pointed out that the Jeddah agreement was a promising initiative that aimed to facilitate humanitarian access. Although both parties had fallen short of their commitments, she expressed hope that the initiative would gain traction again.
Woodward said the international community was working tirelessly to deliver aid and monitor violations of international law, while remaining committed to ending the fighting and restoring civilian rule.
“My message for the Sudanese people would be that we are desperately trying to get you the humanitarian aid that you so urgently need.
“We are doing our best to monitor the violence and the violations of international humanitarian law, so that we can call the parties to account, and we want to see the end of fighting and we want to help the restoration of civilian rule back in Sudan,” she added.
Her message to the Sudanese military leaders was unequivocal: “Stop fighting.”