22 May 2006

Next Few Weeks to Be "Make or Break" for Millions with Lives at Stake in Darfur, Chad, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council

While Signing of Peace Accord Brought Real Hope, Situation Could Turn towards Reconciliation or Catastrophe, He Says in Briefing

NEW YORK, 19 May (UN Headquarters) -- Briefing the Security Council on his recent visit to the Sudan and Chad, Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that, while the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement brought real hope for the region, the next few weeks would be "make or break" for the millions whose lives were at stake.

"We can turn the corner towards reconciliation and reconstruction, or see an even worse collapse of our efforts to provide protection and relief to millions of people," he said, adding that, what he had seen in Darfur and Eastern Chad during his 6 to 11 May visit, had driven home how much really was at stake.  The next few weeks would be absolutely critical for millions of people in the region.  With the Darfur Peace Agreement signed the day before his arrival in Sudan, there was finally real hope that the corner was being turned.

"But, we can also still enter a downward spiral that will pull millions even further into the abyss," he warned, adding that the alternative to peace could be catastrophic.  With even more violence and attacks, the humanitarian operation could not be sustained and relief workers would have to withdraw.  Malnutrition and mortality rates would multiply, in some areas within weeks rather than months.

He said that, with so much at stake, all concerned would regret any failure to do everything possible to achieve the immediate agreed goals:  implementing the Peace Agreement and bringing on board those who had not signed it; immediately and substantially strengthening the African Union Mission in the Sudan (AMIS); taking concrete steps to accelerate transition to a United Nations operation, and making sure that the humanitarian lifeline to more than 3 million people was secure and funded.

The alternative to peace and reconciliation, he said, was what he had seen in the Gereida area of South Darfur:  massive displacement, constant violence and attacks against civilians, and a few humanitarian organizations struggling to provide relief to more and more people.  Likewise, the 8 May attack on the AMIS police compound at Kalma, its systematic looting, and the brutal murder of a Sudanese AMIS language assistant, underscored the necessity of new and better security arrangements for the camp.

In a positive development, he said the Governor of South Darfur had agreed that the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) could return to Kalma as camp coordinator, a decision also confirmed by Second Vice-President Taha.  Its return of would help not only to lower tensions in what had been the largest and most volatile camp in Darfur, but also allow much needed preparations for the start of the approaching rainy season.  Hopefully, AMIS civilian police could also return quickly to Kalma, and several other camps, from which they had withdrawn in the last few days.

"AMIS's role is more important than ever, whether in protecting the population, patrolling dangerous areas, building confidence, or helping to implement the peace agreement," he said.  The African Mission had to be supported and strengthened, immediately, to give it the capacity and credibility to do its job.  A stronger and larger AMIS presence would also help to establish the kind of secure environment, in which internally displaced persons would be able to return home.  It was to be hoped that conditions would be in place to allow significant returns between the end of the coming rainy season and the planting season in the spring of 2007.

He recalled that, when he had briefed the Council a month ago, access restrictions and funding shortfalls threatened the viability of humanitarian operations in Darfur, the largest single operation on Earth.  While that remained true today, there were some positive developments to report.  Regarding access restrictions, both the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Kosti, and Vice-President Taha had provided assurances that the moratorium on humanitarian access restrictions for Darfur would be fully implemented.  They had also agreed that procedures for humanitarian organizations had to be clear and predictable.

Since then, the Vice-President had issued a policy statement, declaring the Government's intention to ensure full humanitarian access to Darfur, he said.  Also, non-governmental organizations were invited to work with the Government in drafting the rules and regulations to ensure that national and international non-governmental organizations could carry out their activities freely and effectively, and in accordance with international human rights standards.  While those were encouraging initial steps, they must now be translated into real changes in the way national and local authorities dealt with humanitarian organizations and staff, in order to resolve the daily administrative nightmare.  To implement the moratorium, visas and stay permits that were valid until the end of January 2007 must be issued to non-governmental organization staff.  The Government should also lift the many other restrictions on access.

Second, he continued, a number of new contributions had reduced the funding shortfall for Darfur from 80 to 60 per cent.  The World Food Programme (WFP) would be able to avert at least some of the ration cuts for Darfur, as a result of several generous pledges.  However, additional funding was still needed for other essential food items.  Overall, there was still a shortfall of $389 million for Darfur alone, but additional contributions were urgently needed for the rest of the Sudan.  The total shortfall under the Work Plan for 2006 amounted to $983 million, and many vital sectors had received less than 20 per cent.

He said he returned from his mission with an even greater sense of admiration for the thousands of humanitarian and AMIS personnel on the ground.  "Their commitment to work in the most difficult conditions, and under constant threat to their personal safety, is truly awe-inspiring."  The attacks against relief workers had been relentless, threatening operations in many areas.  Humanitarian staff, compounds, trucks and vehicles were being targeted, literally on a daily basis.  Large areas across Darfur were inaccessible, as a result of those direct attacks and continuing fighting.

Turning to the situation in Chad, he said the threats against relief workers and the civilian population in the eastern part of that country were at least as serious as in Darfur, in some cases worse.  A total of 24 vehicles had been hijacked in the past few months alone.  Only two weeks ago, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) colleague had been shot and almost killed in Abeche.  All those attacks were being committed with total impunity.  As a result of the insecurity, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations had been forced to reduce staff and programmes in many areas, at a time when needs were continuing to increase, particularly those of the 50,000 internally displaced persons.

Severe funding shortfalls were also a major constraint, with only 25 per cent of the required $179 million funded to date, he said.  Additional donor contributions for the operation in Chad were urgently needed.  Another major concern in eastern Chad was the targeting of refugees and internally displaced persons, including children, for recruitment by various armed groups.  That was undermining the civilian and humanitarian character of the camps, and further increased their vulnerability to attacks.  The displaced and the civilian population were threatened by militia and rebel attacks and an almost total lack of law and order in the area, and at least 13,000 people had fled from Chad to Darfur in recent weeks to escape the fighting and attacks.

The situation in eastern Chad was expected to deteriorate further rather than improve, he said.  President Idriss Déby had made it clear to him that the Government lacked the capacity to ensure the security and protection of the civilian population in the east, as well as the humanitarian organizations there to assist them.  "This means that we are confronted with a very dangerous vacuum that is being filled by rebels, militia and others, leaving civilians, internally displaced persons, refugee camps and relief workers utterly exposed." 

He stressed that something had to be done urgently to prevent a scenario where more and more civilians were attacked and displaced, refugee camps became increasingly militarized and potentially embroiled in the conflict, and relief workers had to withdraw.  A number of options could be considered, including assistance to the Government of Chad to enable it to meet its security responsibilities.  Humanitarian organizations had been employing more Chadian security staff, but other security arrangements must be considered now, before the situation became much worse.  The High Commissioner for Refugees was developing various options in that regard.

In Darfur and Eastern Chad, humanitarian relief constituted a lifeline for close to 4 million people, he said.  Attacking relief workers or impeding their work meant attacking that lifeline.  If relief workers had to pull out, hundreds of thousands of lives would be put at risk.  Those attacking relief workers not only violated fundamental norms of humanitarian law, but they also endangered the lives of millions of their fellow citizens.  Impunity for the attacks had to end, and the attacks themselves must stop, he said in conclusion.

The meeting began at 10:10 a.m. and ended at 10:40 a.m.

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