In Darfur, time is running out

Published: 14 March 2006

By Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International

It is now nearly three years since newspapers and televisions were first filled with images of the violence and mass displacements in Darfur. Yet today nearly two million people remain in camps, over a million more are dependent on humanitarian aid, and civilians face daily threats of violence.

In recent months, security in Darfur has deteriorated to such an extent that the situation is as bad as ever before. This Friday, African Union (AU) ministers have an extraordinary opportunity to renew hope for Darfur by making the protection of civilians its foremost priority and calling for increased resources and an expanded mandate for the AMIS, the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Sudan.

As the African Union meets to decide AMIS’ future, at the top of the agenda is a possible handover to a UN intervention force. The UN has already begun preparing but African governments remain undecided. Either way, it is unlikely that a UN force will be in place before 2007 and while the handover debate rages, the urgent protection needs of more than three million civilians are in danger of being overlooked.

The conflict will not be put on hold for the next nine months. Irrespective of any future UN involvement, AMIS needs more troops, more funding and a stronger mandate, and it needs them now.

AMIS has done an admirable job in extremely difficult circumstances. Many of the enormous camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – some the size of small cities – are now relatively secure thanks in large part to the AU presence. In camps such as Kalma in south Darfur, thousands of women are now able to go out and collect much needed firewood under the watch of AU patrols. To do so before the arrival of the patrols was risking assault, or worse, death.

But outside these camps, and in areas where the AU force is not present, people cannot move around without fear of harassment and attack. Villagers – many unable to reach camps because the journey is too dangerous – live in perpetual fear. For those fortunate enough to make it to the camps, they wish for the day they can return to their villages – a sign that the conflict would be coming to an end. But for the moment the insecurity makes any talk of returning home an impossible dream.

Darfur, a region the size of Texas, is one of the least developed regions of Africa and is now experiencing what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And yet the AU is expected to keep more than three million civilians safe with fewer than 7,000 poorly equipped troops.

Even successful initiatives such as the firewood patrols have been limited. In most camps, the AU does not have the capability to undertake patrols day and night, so after dark displaced people are once again exposed to danger.

Humanitarian access, upon which half the population in Darfur is dependent, has also been affected by the failure to stem the violence. Half of Oxfam’s programs now have to be accessed by air because roads are too insecure.

The most urgent priority is to equip AMIS with a proactive, robust mandate that prioritizes civilian protection and allows AMIS greater flexibility to implement it. The Darfur context is much more complex, insecure and unpredictable than that in which the current defensive mandate was agreed in late 2004.

To effectively protect civilians the AU will also need a much larger, stronger force. At a bare minimum it needs enough troops to enable a 24-hour, 7 days a week presence in the camps. Top UN officials have spoken of a UN force needing up to 20,000 troops. There is no reason why the AU should have to make do with any less.

The international community has a vital role to play in this. While countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa have contributed significant numbers of personnel, AMIS is reliant on international funding and a donor conference is planned before the end of the month.

In the meantime however, the AU should call for the mandate to be strengthened and should voluntarily provide troops to staff the mission, while international donors provide increased funds with which to implement this expansion. Britain recently pledged a further £20 million to the AU force, but more will be needed if a difference is really to be made.

Amid all the talk of handing over to the UN, international governments are in danger of adopting an attitude of winding down the AU mission. This must not be allowed to happen. The coming months are crucial for Darfur: without immediately strengthening AMIS the situation on the ground could plummet new depths.

Equipping AMIS with more funds and a strengthened mandate would send a clear message to the displaced millions that their immediate safety is our foremost concern. It would also tell warring parties that the continued violence is not acceptable. On the other hand, maintaining AMIS in its present form – under-funded, ill-equipped and lacking sufficient personnel – is effectively telling millions of civilians that their suffering is going to get even worse.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:
Caroline Green at Oxfam in Washington DC
work +1 202 496 1174, mobile +1 202 321 7858