Deterioration in Darfur (Op-ed)

Published: 5 May 2006

While the Sudanese government and the rebel movements talk optimistically of signing a new peace agreement, the reality in the camps and villages of Darfur is increasingly grim. Darfur is descending ever further into violence and lawlessness, with every month seeing tens of thousands more people forced from their homes, and humanitarian organizations unable to reach them.

The African Union, which is mediating the ongoing negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria, has set today as an informal deadline for the peace process to produce an agreement. But any signed piece of paper will be meaningless unless accompanied by a real commitment to change the situation on the ground and end the violence, ensure the safety of civilians and guarantee unrestricted humanitarian access.

Two years ago, in April 2004, another cease-fire was signed after negotiations in Chad, but it has been consistently violated since Day One by all parties to the agreement. Not only has the situation in Darfur not improved, it is again significantly worsening.

Recent events in Darfur are illustrative of the rapid deterioration here. The United Nations estimates 200,000 people have been newly displaced since the start of 2006, adding to the 2 million already sheltered in makeshift camps. In South Darfur, displaced villagers continue to flow into the town of Gereida. Forty thousand people have fled their homes in fear in the past few months, and community leaders say an estimated 300 villages around Gereida have been completely emptied. These displaced people are now finding refuge in temporary camps on the edge of town, where need is far outstripping supply. Similar situations are playing out across the region.

Yet all across Darfur, the ability of aid agencies to deliver urgently needed goods and services is gravely threatened due to rising insecurity. More than 3 million people in Darfur – half the region's entire population – depend on humanitarian assistance, because the conflict has destroyed their traditional means of livelihood. Notably, the level of access for aid agencies is now at its lowest in two years.

According to Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, aid agencies in Darfur have no – or at best limited – access to more than 650,000 of those 3 million people desperately in need of assistance. Roads are often too dangerous for travel, preventing not only aid workers but also essential supplies from reaching the camps. In Shangil Tobai in North Darfur, frequent attacks and targeted hijacking of humanitarian vehicles puts lives in danger and makes it impossible for organizations to carry out programs that benefit the camps' 20,000 displaced people.

The people of Darfur, however, need more than humanitarian aid. They are also in urgent need of protection. The proposed intervention by the United Nations will not be in place until next year at the earliest.

Strengthening AMIS

Meanwhile, millions of people throughout Darfur face daily danger. The existing African Union mission (AMIS) is restricted by its lack of numbers, funds and capacity to intervene. With just 7,000 troops to patrol an area the size of Texas, the AU has its hands tied.

In its present form, AMIS can do little to address the needs in Darfur. Donor nations and the international community must commit to strengthening AMIS immediately, with more troops, more funding, and a more proactive interpretation of its mandate to prioritize civilian protection.

And while the AU is restricted by a dearth of resources, it must still take on more responsibility itself, and take concrete measures to improve civilians' safety. For instance, AMIS patrols are only carried out during daylight hours but by 24-hour, seven-days-a-week patrols inside and outside the camps would be a significant step toward greater protection. It must also step up specific patrols to protect women gathering firewood. Such patrols are infrequent, if they occur at all.

Protecting civilians

While extremely welcome, a signed peace agreement will not by itself guarantee civilians' safety. The increasingly complex nature of the conflict and the lack of participation in the peace process by many segments of the Darfuri community greatly decrease the chances of any agreement being widely carried out.

It is critical for the international community to promote a broader Darfur-Darfur dialogue to help reach a comprehensive, viable settlement to end the conflict. Efforts must also be redoubled to protect civilians, enabling them to live in safety with unrestricted access to assistance wherever they are. Otherwise, irrespective of whether there is a peace deal or not, the situation in Darfur will only continue to worsen.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America and Helene D. Gayle is president and chief executive officer of CARE.