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New Concerns Stir on Darfur’s Humanitarian Situation

March 30, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir expelled many of the country's aid workers after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of war crimes. John Holmes of the United Nations gives an update on the humanitarian situation in Darfur.

MARGARET WARNER: Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir continues to defy a March 4th International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest for war crimes in Darfur.

His initial reaction was to shut down more than a dozen aid groups caring for more than 2 million Darfuris driven from their homes. Today, Bashir was in Qatar, where he won the support of the Arab League summit in his standoff with the ICC.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged him to let the aid groups return, but Bashir refused.

Some 300,000 people have died in the conflict pitting black Darfuris and rebel groups against Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government. Today, President Obama said he was sending Special Envoy General Scott Gration to Sudan and Darfur.

For an update, we are joined by John Holmes, under-secretary-general of the United Nations for humanitarian affairs.

And, Mr. Holmes, thank you for being with us. First of all, what’s your reaction to the Arab League closing ranks around Bashir today? I mean, do you see that as a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.N., which had asked for the initial war crimes investigation?

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations Under-Secretary-General: Well, I think you need to keep in mind the distinction between the International Criminal Court and the United Nations. These are separate institutions.

It’s true that the Security Council asked for the original investigations, but the ICC makes its own judgments. And I don’t really want to comment on that part of it.

My concern is the humanitarian situation you were drawing attention to, too, and in particular the expulsion of these 13 international NGOs and three national NGOs, which threatens to cause an even worse humanitarian situation in Darfur if they’re not reinstated.

That’s what we’ve been calling for. So far, we haven’t achieved that. But I think what’s interesting is that much of Arab and African opinion makes a distinction between this ICC judgment, where I think many of them do support President Bashir, and the expulsion of the NGOs, which they don’t support because they can see it can have such a dramatic effect on a million or more people in Darfur who need that help desperately.

Rainy season brings dangers

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it's been nearly a month since the expulsion. What is the latest on the situation, humanitarian situation on the ground?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, as well as calling for the reversal of the decision, obviously we are working very hard, including with the government of Sudan, to try and make sure we plug the most critical life-saving gaps in food, and water, and health care, and sanitation, and areas like that.

And I think we can do a certain amount at least to plug those gaps, to make sure that more people don't die unnecessarily. What we can't do is replace that capacity in the short term, because the expertise, the knowledge of the systems, the organization that they represented, at about 40 percent of the whole operation in Darfur, cannot simply be replaced overnight by other people, however much they want to do that.

But we're trying to plug the worst gaps to avert the worse of the scenarios. We have some fears, obviously, for the rainy season, which will be with us in a few weeks' time, when obviously the risks of disease go up. We normally need to preposition a lot of goods for that, and we're not able to do that at the moment.

Hopes that NGOs can return

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I understand you were able to get in your March and April food deliveries, that is, the U.N. World Food Programme, using, what, local groups? But what are you going to do come May?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, what we'd like to do is to have ideally the NGOs who were there before back, because they were the experts at these food distributions. If not, we will have to find other ways of doing it.

The World Food Programme did do this, what I would call a quick and dirty food distribution using some local committees, but that's not an acceptable way of doing it for the sustainable future. So we'll have to try and find other ways of doing that.

As I say, what we need to do is to also find a way of working in the future which is more safe and comfortable and predictable for the aid organizations that work there. If we're constantly working under this threat of expulsion, under the threat of intimidation, it makes life very difficult, and it will be very hard to replace that capacity at all, even by other NGOs.

MARGARET WARNER: And how serious is the health risk? Some have said that, as the rainy season approaches, the chance of water-borne illnesses really increases.

JOHN HOLMES: Obviously, that's true. The chances of more malaria, dengue fever, meningitis, cholera, all those risks are definitely there.

We are going to do our best to avert them through these kind of crude gap-filling exercises which we can do, but the risks will increase. I'm not going to sit here and predict a catastrophe, but the risks are definitely there. They're definitely there for very large numbers of people.

And that's why I think the original decision was not a responsible decision. And I hope it will still be reversed.

Some camps refusing aid

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are reports that some of the refugee camps are being urged by local rebel leaders and have, in fact, followed this advice to actually refuse any aid given out by the government, for example, fuel to keep those water pumps going. Is it the case that really both sides are politicizing the whole relief issue?

JOHN HOLMES: It's certainly the case that in some of the biggest camps -- and there's a camp in South Darfur called Kalma Camp -- the leaders of the camp are refusing to have aid from anybody at the original NGOs they used to deal with.

Now, we have said to them that's not an acceptable position because they need to allow help to get in to the people they're looking after. And there's more than 90,000 people in that camp.

But, of course, you know, these things do provoke a reaction. That's why the risks are there. There are risks of people beginning to move in search of better assistance, maybe even across the border into Chad.

So that's why this decision has such large potential ramifications. And there is a risk that, even if we replace some of the capacity that we've lost, that it will not be acceptable to those local people for the reasons you've just given.

Political solution is complicated

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we said, as we reported, President Obama is sending a special envoy to the region. And reports were that he was supposed to go to Sudan and Darfur. What can the United States do here that others can't? What are you looking for the U.S. to do?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think it's important that we get full support in what we're doing and what we're trying to achieve on the humanitarian side from major donors like the United States. And the United States is a very generous donor to the humanitarian operation in Darfur and always has been. I think that's very important.

I think what's important, too, is if we can move to somehow a more constructive relationship about this, not only for the humanitarian situation, but also for the political situation and for the security situation, we need to make some progress.

Whether or not we keep the humanitarian operation going, we need to find a political solution to Darfur. And I hope that's what the special envoy of President Obama will be able to contribute to once he's been able to see the situation for himself on the ground. And I think we need to have a united international front on this kind of thing.

MARGARET WARNER: But, briefly, can such a political solution be found when the president of Sudan is now under indictment with an arrest warrant for war crimes?

JOHN HOLMES: It does make it much more difficult; there's no doubt about it. And, of course, the decision to expel the NGOs also makes it more difficult. So we are operating under more unpromising circumstances than we were before.

But that doesn't mean we can give up the struggle. It doesn't mean there's some other easy solution there waiting to be picked up. We have to find a negotiated way forward, and we have to work with the government of Sudan, however difficult that may be, in order to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: John Holmes, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, thank you for being with us.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.