What Lies Ahead for President Mbeki’s Visit to War Affected Areas in Sudan?
Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG) welcomes the planned visits by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, Head of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), with war victims in Government and rebel-held areas in Sudan. We appeal to President Mbeki and the African Union to prioritize the protection of populations trapped by the conflict and to create a conducive environment for future rounds of talks between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).
President Mbeki agreed to conduct these visits with war-affected populations at the request of the SPLM-N in the last round of negotiations that ended on the 30th of April 2014. The Government consented to the visits as it is seeking to secure a bilateral agreement with the SPLM-N on South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the so-called “Two Areas” given a special status under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The talks stumbled on the same obstacle as previous rounds: the insistence of the Government to limit the scope of negotiations to the Two Areas, and the refusal of the SPLM-N to commit to a partial agreement without addressing in a comprehensive, national and inclusive way the root causes of the conflict – specifically through a national constitution forum. The AUHIP and the Government had gradually come around to agree in principle on the necessity of a comprehensive approach for ending all conflicts in Sudan and resolving their underlying governance causes. But despite this shift, the peace talks have remained hostage to the two tracks set up by separate mandates for the Two Areas, mediated by the AUHIP, and the Darfur process, led by Joint Chief Mediator and Head of the AU-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), Mohamed Bin Chambas. Meanwhile the humanitarian situation in all of these conflict zones continues to deteriorate.
President Mbeki’s planned visits offer the first opportunity for the Panel to assess firsthand the humanitarian situation of war victims since Mbeki’s visits to Darfur’s displaced and refugee camps in 2009. They may therefore help galvanize the mediators to prod the parties to agree on the desperately needed cessation of hostilities and help move the humanitarian agenda beyond the political stalemate it is currently locked in. Furthermore, the visits implicitly send the message that the situations in Darfur and the Two Areas have similar roots and humanitarian costs, therefore requiring a unified approach in the search for solutions. That conviction would have to be reflected in dynamic action by the UN and the AU to finally merge the two negotiation platforms into one, as well as in the agreement of the parties, the Government in particular. Were this to happen, the ruling elites in Sudan would have to address the root causes of the conflicts in a genuinely comprehensive, national and inclusive dialogue, open to more than the Government and the armed movements, and including other key stakeholders such as war victims, civil society groups and other political parties. The “national dialogue” exercise led by the ruling party is not inclusive, in either its participation or its management, and cannot take place in a meaningful way without peace and minimum guarantees for basic rights, such as freedom of association or speech. President Mbeki’s visits to conflict-affected areas, where he can speak directly to citizens suffering from the conflict, have the opportunity to highlight that their voices, indeed that of citizens across Sudan, are excluded from both the political negotiation processes and the NCP-led national dialogue. Without genuine public participation and legitimacy, no process can bring lasting peace to Sudan.
SDFG would also like to seize the opportunity of President Mbeki’s visits to war-affected areas to express serious concern for the safety of refugees in South Sudan who have escaped one war only to find themselves trapped in the middle of another. We call upon all international actors concerned with peace and the promotion of human rights in Sudan to exert maximum pressures on all parties of the conflict, in both Sudan and South Sudan, to protect civilians and respect international laws by removing all restrictions on the flow of aid to those who need it. We call on the UN Security Council to exercise its commitment to protect civilians by adopting the appropriate measures of article 41, Chapter V11 referenced in Resolution 2046 against any party refusing to comply with the resolution’s terms.
Background: Humanitarian conditions in SPLM-N held areas in Blue Nile and in camps for refugees from Blue Nile in South Sudan and Ethiopia
The humanitarian situation in Blue Nile State and the conditions in which internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees live, the latter in South Sudan and Ethiopia, are far less known to the public than the humanitarian crisis in South Kordofan and Darfur. The outbreak of conflict between the Government and the SPLM-N in 2011 has generated a desperate humanitarian situation, as well as grave and persistent human rights violations. The fighting and indiscriminate aerial bombardment and long range shelling have resulted in the significant loss of life among civilians, and has destroyed hospitals, schools, markets, clinics, mosques and churches, as well as disrupted livelihoods and caused the large displacement of communities. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCR), an estimated 249,000 people have crossed the border and have taken refuge in South Sudan and Ethiopia, and an estimated 800,000 have been internally displaced in SPLM-N controlled areas. There are also thousands of IDPs in Government-controlled areas, the total number unknown, deprived from humanitarian assistance and human rights protection, and inaccessible by independent media.
Despite the desperate humanitarian situation created by the war, the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N are unable to agree on conditions to allow independent international humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies access to the war-affected areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
The security situation of more than 216,000 refugees from Blue Nile and South Kordofan hosted in Upper Nile and Unity States remains uncertain because of the on-going fighting between South Sudanese government forces and the rebels in the areas surrounding the camps. Five militias and rebel groups aligned with the principal parties to the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan and the two regular armies of the neighboring states are either present in the immediate vicinity of the refugee camps or within striking distance from them. Taban Deng, the deputy leader of the dissident faction of the ruling party in South Sudan, made explicit threats against the refugee camps in Upper Nile and their inhabitants on Radio Tamazuj in May, accusing the refugees of assisting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir.
Most of the ongoing violations of the ceasefire agreement between the warring parties in South Sudan are driven by their determination to control the oil fields in both Upper Nile and Unity states that are situated close to the refugee camps. Key towns, including Renk, Nasir, Bentiu and Malakal, the latter two the state capitals, have changed hands several times, putting the security of refugees at risk. Both South Sudan government and rebel forces have looted and destroyed the meager possessions of refugees and the displaced and confiscated relief supplies. In April, in what the UN has called a game-changer, rebel forces in Bentiu killed more than 200 civilians, including economic migrants and refugees from Darfur, accusing them collectively of supporting President Kiir’s forces.
The South Sudanese conflict has blocked the supply routes for food and other critical humanitarian items, rendering access to refugee camps by road or river almost impossible. Humanitarian organizations working in refugee camps are facing severe challenges to continue the provision of life-saving services. Many organizations have evacuated many or all their staff, resulting in the shutdown or significant reduction of much needed services. Starting in February, refugees, who depend largely on humanitarian assistance to survive, have been deprived of regular food deliveries. As a result, hunger and disease have spread in the camps, particularly among the vulnerable groups that make up one third of the refugee population: children under five years of age, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and the sick people.
SDFG organized a solidarity visit to the refugee camps in Upper Nile in April 2014. The six participants were reporters and rights advocates with humanitarian backgrounds. The group visited the following camps: Kaya (18,613 people), Doro (47,157 people), Genderassa (17,192 people) and Yosif Batil (38,984 people). They reported horrific conditions and hunger in the camps. Refugees now find difficulties in securing one meal a day and were seen eating leaves and wild fruits. The rising security risks and lack of regular food deliveries appear to have forced many refugees to make a perilous return to areas held by the SPLM-N in Blue Nile, where they are now exposed to aerial bombardments and ground attacks by Government forces or affiliated tribal militias. These areas also have barely any services, including access to water, heath care and education, and, while land is available for cultivation, returning refugees have very limited access to seeds, in addition to contending with the aerial bombardment. Lastly, many of the returning refugees are not originally from these areas and there is potential for tensions between new arrivals and existing communities, particularly as the new arrivals have livestock.