“Darkness Visible: The UN Looks at Darfur But Refuses to See”

By Eric Reeves

October 26, 2010 (SSNA) — On October 20, 2010 the Darfuri news outlet Radio Dabanga—alone among all news organizations in the world—reported a remarkable admission by Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Representative in Sudan:

“[T]he Sudanese government ‘very often’ bars the release of data on child malnutrition in Darfur. Sudanese security services have also hindered or delayed UNICEF’s access to camps in Darfur, [Kastberg said]: ‘Part of the problem has been when we conduct surveys to help us address issues, in collaboration with the ministry of health, very often other parts of the government such as the humanitarians affairs commission interferes and delays in the release of reports, making it difficult for us to respond timely.”

“UN cooperation with the Khartoum ministries like the Ministry of Health has failed to secure publication of the reports. [ ] Kastberg also pointed out that certain government agencies hinder the entry of UNICEF staff into the camps. ‘Sometimes it is security services that hinder access or delay access, sometimes it is the humanitarian affairs office that delays the release of nutritional surveys. Sometimes it is delays in granting permissions and visas. It is different sections of different institutions which interfere in our work.’”

Lacking critical humanitarian data, denied the opportunity to conduct civilian assessments among distressed civilian populations, UN agencies and international nongovernmental aid organizations (INGOs) are often unable to allocate resources efficiently or to those most critically in need. The consequences are often measured in deaths—likely a great many deaths, though there has been no serious reporting on mortality from Darfur for over four years. This is not unavoidable bureaucratic delay; it is not simply making life difficult for aid workers; it is part of a larger, deliberate strategy whereby the Khartoum regime seeks to demoralize both those who are part of the vast humanitarian operation in Darfur, as well as those Darfuris who have been driven from their homes—some 3 million human beings (2.7 million internally displaced persons in Darfur, 262,000 refugees in eastern Chad—the overwhelming majority from non-Arab or African tribal groups). The obstruction and suppression of humanitarian data and reports is nothing less than a key tactic in ongoing “genocide by attrition.” By remaining silent, until Kastberg’s very recent remarks, the UN is acquiescing in Khartoum’s tactic, and has thereby become complicit in the massive human destruction and suffering it is purportedly seeking to stop.

We may wonder why Kastberg chose now to speak; the dispatch gives no reason, even as it has been clear for over a year that Khartoum’s suppression of humanitarian data and reports has been widespread and systematic. There has been no follow-on reporting, only reproduction of the Radio Dabanga report at a few websites; and there is no indication that anyone at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has any intention of speaking to the issue. Indeed, extremely reliable sources report that Georg Charpentier, the senior OCHA official for Darfur, has chosen to allow Khartoum to vet his press releases on any “sensitive” matter. His decision is entirely of a piece with the acquiescence in suppressing critical information about humanitarian conditions. Since journalists are not allowed to report from any but fully controlled sites in Darfur (and indeed rarely receive travel permits for the region), they have ceased to be the resource they once were. And terrified INGOs don’t dare get ahead of the UN in what they say about humanitarian conditions. (I have been asked several times by organizations speaking privately not to use their internal data or reports, or to identify them in even the vaguest fashion.)

Perhaps Kastberg found his voice because this year’s unusually long “hunger gap” in Darfur is now over, even as the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS) had issued a dire warning in May. Most of Darfur then suffered from “moderate food insecurity,” although a number of locations were already “highly food insecure.” But the “most likely scenario, July-September, 2010” (Figure 2 in the report), showed that virtually all of Darfur would be “highly food insecure” in late summer. The lean season “started earlier than normal” this year, and was predicted “to peak in August.” The FEWS report noted that, predictably, the food security situation in Darfur “deteriorated considerably in May [2010] compared to April” (page 2 in the FEWS report). Last year’s poor harvests had produced sharp and uncharacteristic increases in food prices; indeed, prices increased even during last fall’s harvest, the time when cereal prices typically decline. But dismayingly, we have had no information from the UN or INGOs about what was actually experienced by the people of Darfur, though a recent picture of food security from FEWS offers moderately encouraging news. So what happened during the months that the UN was afraid to offend the Khartoum regime because of official sensitivity over the issue of malnutrition in Darfur?

We know that the civilian population of eastern Jebel Marra has been the focus of very intensive offensive military activity, and consequently denied virtually all humanitarian access since February, including food aid (very recent exceptions include areas now under Khartoum’s control; these occasions provided limited assistance, primarily to children). In his November 2009 report on Darfur, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon still had the forthrightness to declare that “an estimated 800,000 households [ ] have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector.” But his most recent report (October 22, 2010) is much less forthcoming; in its one-and-a-half-page section on “humanitarian conditions,” the report devotes only a single paragraph to providing any data on the situation in Darfur, and much of this is grim indeed: “Extreme poverty continues to be a key feature of vulnerable Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) communities. In August 2010, for example, 96 percent of Darfur IDP households surveyed had incomes below the [international] poverty threshold” (and more than 40 percent of these households had income less than half of even this minimum). Such acute and widespread poverty makes all the more telling the report’s noting that “rising food prices have compounded the problem [of agricultural self-sufficiency]. In Northern Darfur, for example, food prices have risen 83 percent since August 2009.” For households already extremely impoverished, such inflation can mean the difference between moderate and severe food insecurity. Moreover, it is too early to predict what food supplies this more promising harvest will yield: insecurity is extreme, conditions on the ground are highly volatile, and many Darfuris are reporting threats by marauding militia groups to seize crops and kill those who would gather them. A number of Arab tribal militia groups have occupied land that was formerly farmed by African sedentary farmers, and other Arab groups have allowed their livestock to trample and destroy crops.

Why, then, is there no mention of malnutrition rates? Ban Ki-moon claims (on what basis we are not told) that 80 percent of Darfuris have “good food consumption”: but even if true, what about the 20 percent that do not? Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) reaches the emergency threshold at 15 percent of a given population. Moreover, we know that there has been no survey of many needy populations, especially in Jebel Marra, home to some 300,000 people, predominantly Fur. Those that have not been surveyed are those most likely to have no humanitarian access—or only limited access—and to be most distressed. These are the people whose needs and food insecurity must be assessed in any honest rendering of humanitarian conditions in Darfur.

In judging Ban’s suspiciously astringent statistical rendering, let’s remember Kastberg’s words: “[T]he Sudanese government ‘very often’ bars the release of data on child malnutrition in Darfur.” We must wonder why the UN Secretary General himself neither mentions this fact nor offers any specific data on malnutrition, especially among children. A spokesman for the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) suggested to a UN reporter on August 11 that malnutrition data were at hand and would be made available “in the next one to two days”; all too predictably, nothing has appeared since. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Ban Ki-moon—despite declaring early in his tenure that Darfur would be a signature issue—has joined Charpentier and others within the UN who are content to accept Khartoum’s suppression of embarrassing data and reports.

THE FAILURE revealed by Kastberg’s admission runs deep within the UN response to Darfur’s agony. UNAMID is failing in its primary mission of protecting civilians and humanitarians, and yet Ban’s report touts deployment percentages, number of patrols, and various other box-checking activities of the mission as if these were somehow relevant to the broader reality: deeply threatening insecurity continues to accelerate in Darfur and UNAMID is powerless to stop it. A blunt observation from a close observer of UNAMID echoes what I’ve heard in numerous conversations with aid workers, human rights researchers, and even UN officials:

“As a protection force, UNAMID is an absolute disaster—a $1 billion a year disaster. Now it is investing a sum said to be more than $300 million in a new supercamp for itself in el-Fasher. It is reviled by the vast majority of Darfurians. Even within UNAMID itself, it is hard to find anyone who has anything positive to say about the organization. The sense of demoralization is overwhelming.”

Another senior and highly experienced aid official, recently completing his mission in Darfur, declared with equal bluntness: “UNAMID is a disaster; it has protected nobody.” Certainly the evidence suggests that this unprecedented “UN/AU hybrid” is precisely the weak and compromised force that Khartoum wanted with its insistence throughout 2007 that UNAMID be “predominantly African.” And in its shameful failure to respond to the recent massacre at Tabara village (North Darfur), UNAMID has sealed its reputation as an impotent, deferential, and painfully ineffective operation. According to the September report from the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the September 2 attack claimed 58 lives and many more were wounded (the Centre has provided a great many names of the victims); UNAMID neither responded to pleas for help from relatives of the victims nor managed to assess the carnage afterwards.

It is a savage irony, then, that UNAMID is tasked with reporting on monthly violent mortality in Darfur. The mission’s figure for September? In the wake of the Tabara massacre, as well as consistent reports of many scores of civilians casualties in villages in and near Jebel Marra—several of which have been completely destroyed—UNAMID reports that 63 civilians were killed in Darfur; and of these 52 were reported as IDPs murdered in the camps. These figures—suggesting that in September only eleven violent civilian deaths occurred outside the camps—simply have no meaningful relation to actual civilian destruction in Darfur, destruction that UNAMID is powerless to halt but instead absurdly understates.

But is the UN Security Council any better in its behavior toward Darfur? Beyond its countless hortatory resolutions on Darfur, its impotent “demands” of Khartoum, its farcical enforcement of an arms embargo on the region, its inert Darfur sanctions committee, and its continual diplomatic deference to Khartoum, the Council has actually made things positively worse for Darfuris. A recent top-level Security Council delegation undertook a trip to Uganda, Juba (South Sudan), and then el-Fasher (North Darfur). Allowed to speak only to the residents of the carefully controlled and monitored Abu Shouk IDP camp (just outside el-Fasher), Council members still heard from courageous individuals who dared to speak the truth about their lack of food, their insecurity, and their despair. Immediately after the Security Council delegation flew on to Khartoum, the regime’s security forces sought out sixteen of these outspoken individuals (who had gone immediately into hiding) and managed to arrest two of them. But even though speaking with the Security Council was the conspicuous—and only—reason for their arrest, the Council has still offered no formal response, no demand that these individuals be freed. This ensures that even greater intimidation and security crackdowns will follow. Having shown itself so feckless on this occasion, the Council has ensured that Khartoum will assume the same in the future.

This augurs poorly for the six IDP leaders from Kalma camp (outside Nyala in South Darfur), who have been in the protective custody of UNAMID since August. Ibrahim Gambari, the expedient and callous Joint Special Representative of the UN and AU to UNAMID, appears ready to surrender the six, despite earlier UN assurances that such release would be accompanied by guarantees that international standards of justice would obtain in any trial of the displaced persons. UNAMID’s handover of the IDPs to Khartoum’s security forces could trigger immediate and widespread violence in the camps.

THE WORLD has grown weary of Darfur—the incessant, intractable, and dispiriting spectacle of human suffering and destruction with no end in sight. News organizations are increasingly constrained by lack of access and Khartoum’s brutal repression of domestic opposition voices, Darfuri and other. The diplomatic community has lost heart in dealing with the fractious rebel groups that no longer represent the people on whose behalf they claim to fight, even as Khartoum has made no real effort to encourage engagement. Human rights organizations only sporadically speak out about Khartoum’s endless commission of atrocity crimes and its supplying weapons to militia allies; a total lack of access to Darfur has effectively silenced these critical voices. Only a few observers note the regime’s continuing recruitment from Arab tribes, many of which have now been manipulated and turned against one another as they compete for abandoned lands and Khartoum’s political favor (violent mortality has been high among rival Arab groups for the past three years). The regime—not for the first time—has shown an uncanny ability to outmaneuver and finally outwait the international community. Observing the continuing lurch of virtually all diplomatic activity toward securing the southern referenda, these brutal men have grown confident that they can have their way with Darfur. This is certainly the thinking that lies behind their extremely ominous “New Strategy for Darfur.”

But if we turn away from Darfur, if we allow only its darkness to remain visible, we will be indulging a cruel moral solipsism. Henry James famously insisted that “the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.” Darfuris may be forgiven for wondering what place they have in the “world as it stands.”

Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.

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