Darfur has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, with an estimated one million people displaced since fighting intensified early in 2003. The UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, recently characterised the situation as ‘ethnic cleansing’. With the hungry season approaching, violence continuing despite a recent ceasefire agreed at peace talks in Chad, and humanitarian agencies unable to access the majority of the at-risk population, there is a clear risk of large-scale famine mortality.
This Briefing Note draws on a variety of sources and on thematic research previously conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group to highlight some of the key humanitarian issues in the context of Darfur. The Briefing highlights the following issues:
• Civilians in Darfur are being subjected to indiscriminate violence and forced displacement on a massive scale. The central and critical humanitarian issue is therefore one of protection. One element of this is a growing concern that people are being deprived (sometimes deliberately) of food, water and access to relief assistance. What meaningful actions can be taken to increase levels of protection for the civilian population, and allow access to relief assistance?
• Effective political action to address the roots of the crisis is vital, and a negotiated ceasefire may be the first step. This has a bearing on the humanitarian priority: the immediate protection and assistance of civilians. But humanitarian priorities are in danger of being subordinated to other political goals, including the current Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) peace process between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA) in the south, and broader foreign policy and security objectives. How can these agendas be reconciled?
• International engagement with the crisis has been slow and ineffective. Primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens lies with the Sudanese government, yet the evidence suggests that the government is itself in large part responsible for the threats currently faced by civilians. Despite mounting pressure from international agencies, Western governments have appeared reluctant to press the Sudanese government to fulfil its obligations. How should international political and aid assets be used to protect civilians at risk in Darfur? What combination of observer presence and political pressure is called for?
• In the absence of political action to provide greater protection for civilians, how effectively can aid agencies meet humanitarian needs, given the currently restricted levels of access?