Friday, April 24, 2009

Talking to/past/with/about each other

The 2nd regular Human Rights Forum in West Darfur this past Tuesday was either a huge success, an unmitigated disaster, or somewhere in-between – depending on how you look at it.

Flying home from the event, the small plane bounced over heat waves rising from the desert floor. Before long, a man in front of me leaned forward to vomit. As my seatmate handed him an air bag with one hand, she turned to me and cheerfully exclaimed, “I think today was great success… I mean, the government spoke openly about sexual violence!”

They did, I guess. Technically, the Government Human Rights Council brought up sexual violence only to accuse international monitors of fabricating reports. But, in the strange world of human rights reporting in Darfur, where symbolism often triumphs over substance, this could be a great leap forward.

The forum is intended to be a dialogue between the Government of Sudan and human rights monitors about modalities of reporting, such as monitors’ access to prisons and medical verification – But a lot can happen (or go wrong) when the universalist ideals of the human rights movement confront the realpolitik of implementation; When the West meets the Rest; And when human rights monitors actually meet the ‘monitored.’

Darfur human rights actors – both local and international, grass roots and institutional - have relied on a strategy to name and shame the perpetrators of violence in order to create public pressure and encourage behavioral change. The Save Darfur Coalition, Sudan divestment campaign, and even some rebel groups, among others, have been wildly successful in creating public awareness of human rights abuses in Darfur.

This public awareness has, in turn, influenced human rights reporting in Darfur - both in the way it is conducted and the in attitude that participants take towards each other. Now, although the nature of the conflict has changed from large scale atrocities to more subtle posturing and rampant insecurity, the legacy of the early movement remains.

The forum embodies the awkward situation existing today, where ‘namers and shamers’ – international human rights organizations - are expected to come face to face and work productively with the ‘shamed’ – the Sudanese Government and other perpetrators – to create change.

The Sudanese Government representative opened the reporting debate by cataloguing faults in published UN reports, implying that the incidents of sexual violence were wildly exaggerated and poorly documented, and that the language was imprecise and inflammatory. The human rights team leader deflected responsibility by saying her office did not specifically author the reports mentioned. At lunch I asked the team leader how she thought it went. “I think we did really well,” she said. “We had an answer prepared for that one.”

Like my colleague on the plane, she is right. But neither the answer or the question engaged the modalities of reporting and verification, nor addressed ways to improve communication or reduce the incidents.

It seems both sides want to move forward from this ideological imposed impasse. The human rights movement wants to transform itself from an outside whistle-blower to an engaged and relevant actor on the ground. To do this they must give up showmanship for scholarship, journalism for legalism, and symbolism for substance.

The Sudanese government wants to free itself from its negative reputation regarding human rights abuses in order move forward into new elections and new relationships with the international community. But to do so, it must listen and respond to the concerns voiced by international monitors.

The forum’s existence reflects the roles the two sides want to play, not the ones they currently do - but it offers great hope for the future.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thier Future vs Our Future

The expulsion of aid groups from Darfur will have important consequences not only for beneficiaries, but for the very future of humanitarian action worldwide.

Public debate on the expulsions of 13 NGOs has so far focused on the immediate humanitarian consequences – a possible meningitis outbreak, water supply and food distribution gaps, mass population movements, etc - and calls for the Government of Sudan to reverse its decision.

But the fact that the international community is calling for a reversal of the expulsions rather than pursuing legal recourse, reveals a deeper issue at the heart of the controversy - namely, the ambiguous legal status of today’s humanitarian organizations and their work.

Humanitarian assistance is enshrined in international law, but so limited as to be unrecognizable to those familiar with the operations of today’s multi-billion dollar a year industry.

For one, the Geneva conventions guarantee the right of the populations to receive life-saving assistance, but not the right of givers to give such aid. So, theoretically, a government could refuse humanitarian assistance from some actors if the populations’ needs were met by another group.

But the world seems to have moved beyond a limited interpretation of humanitarian assistance as meeting the immediate needs of suffering populations to view humanitarian organizations as moral arbitrators, public-opinion makers, and the embodiment of an international consciousness - both speaking out and acting against wrongs.

As a result, many of today’s organizations are walking on a tight-rope between neutrality and advocacy, between serving the immediate needs of populations, and trying to influence the root causes of suffering by speaking out against violations.

For aid agencies that remain on the ground in Darfur who must now decide whether to remain, expand, or retreat, the expulsions have spurred soul-searching as to exactly which role they should play. This is a critical opportunity for the international community to reflect on the changing role of humanitarian organizations in the technology-saturated global village of the 21st century - answering such questions as:

Can confidentiality exist in a world of digital photos? (During the Abu Graib scandal, once the photos of torture were release, ICRC was severely criticized for not speaking out about the abuses earlier)

Can we speak locally in a world of global polarization? (moderate statements designed to influence local political actors to improve the humanitarian situation can be taken out of context and manipulated by extremists on both sides to influence the political process)

Can apolitical agencies effectively separately themselves from hybrid political-military-humanitarian interventions such as exist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and Congo? (if NGOs are seen as being ‘too Western,’ perhaps because their headquarters are in Europe, they may be perceived as part of a military intervention and hence a legitimate target for reprisals or attack)

Tension has been building on the subject ever since the 1970s when ex-ICRC staff, disgruntled with the strict speech embargo placed on the organization’s employees during the Biafra war, founded MSF and chartered a new course for humanitarianism that both meets needs and raises awareness of disasters.

And for the past two decades, in the age of celebrity activism, you-tube, and terrorism, humanitarians have struggled to play a role of ‘pragmatic neutrality’ -operating with sufficient discretion to “maintain the appearance on non-involvement in the politics of conflict (HPG Report),” but conducting sufficient public advocacy to maintain a seat at the policy table, secure funding, or influence the root causes of war.

This leads us to the slightly ironic situation in which aid groups have been accused of taking a stand on politics and security and have been evicted from the country (perhaps having chosen to emphasize the political over the humanitarian), and the UN Security Council, entrusted with maintaining international peace and security, has issued a statement stressing the reverse, namely, the importance of the humanitarian over the political. Yesterday, the Security Council, unable to reach consensus earlier this month on a statement vis a vis the ICC, instead stressed the importance of "continuing the distribution of humanitarian assistance to all the needy in Darfur."

This is a golden opportunity to transform the chaos of Darfur into more clarity for international humanitarian law.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hunger Strike

Residents, or at least a few powerful leaders, of Kalma camp in South Darfur and two other camps in North Darfur have rejected offers of humanitarian assistance.

In both written and spoken statements, camp spokesmen claim they cannot accept national or international NGOs that were not expelled from the country to fill the gaps in medical, sanitation, schooling or other services left by the recent expulsions of nearly half of the aid organizations operating in Darfur.

At best, this refusal represents the consensus of a group of violence-affected and wary residents mistrustful of the intentions of the government - believing that any agency left operating in Darfur is either too biased or too weak to be of any good.

At worst, the refusal is the result of manipulative rebel leaders wagering the suffering of their supporters against the possibility of portraying a negative media image of the Sudanese regime.

In theory, it doesn’t matter. Humanitarianism, by its very nature, is supposed to be above the fray. As long as civilians are suffering during wartime due to factors beyond their control, humanitarian workers should provide assistance.

Yet, it seems to matter. Engaging with IDP leaders who have refused aid (through dialogue, persuasion, or negotiation) in order to continue providing services sets a disturbing precedent. The refusal will continue until leaders feel they are loosing more than they are gaining from the current tactic – which may be after a significant number of deaths. And anything we, as a humanitarian community, give to these leaders is chalked up in the gains column (be it legitimacy, political advocacy, or physical assistance).

At the very least, the leaders should be held publicly accountable for the crimes.

In Darfur in the past year, there have been many examples of such 'humanitarian bargaining'. In one camp, fearing a retaliatory attack by militia groups after killing some members of the groups, residents of one West Darfur IDP camp took hostages and demanded the arrival of UN ‘protection’ troops before their release.

In another case, camp leaders in North Darfur refused access to UNAMID police and military patrols for months until compensation was paid to the owner of a motorcycle damaged by a UNAMID vehicle during an earlier patrol.

One of the most valuable commodities that IDPs have ownership of is their own image as victims/recipients. For Darfuris, that image has become quite prominent and hence a powerful negotiating tool – perhaps, an unintended consequences of the huge American advocacy campaign for action in Darfur.

The question now, is how far are we willing to compromise humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality to give aid? Can we let a group of people dictate the terms of aid just to ease our conscience over letting people die in faraway places?

How is this refusal substantively different than the Sudanese government’s harassment of NGOs - except without the excuse of sovereignty?

Should the leaders who have orchestrated the refusal be condemned publicly by UNAMID for the crime of denying humanitarian access to suffering civilians?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Lot Can Change in Three Weeks

The pace of change in Darfur has been blindingly fast over the past weeks - we’ve seen JEM take and then withdraw from Muhajeriya town, their flight and pursuit by GoS across a wide swath of Darfur, an alleged preemptive attack by JEM on the GoS stronghold on Malam, sustained bombardment of vast areas and a huge population movement, shifting alliances and surprise fighting between groups and former allies on the ground, peace talks beginning in Doha concurrently with a high level UN leak about the ICC warrant and subsequent denial by the ICC.

One theory holds that it has all been an accident – that the clash in Muhajeriya in mid-January which sparked the rest was an accidental escalation of a personal feud between two mid level commanders. Once the fighting started, JEM took the town and then didn’t know quite what to do with it.

Regardless of the reasons, the consequences have been enormous - and the disjointed response by peacekeepers and the international community has again shown that the intellectual challenges of peacekeeping are often far greater that the physical.

Two major consequences of the fighting have presented serious dilemmas to the mission. The first is the sudden and unexpected movement of thousands people from South Darfur (Muhajeriya, Sheria, Abu Dangal, and surrounding villages) to over-crowded camps in North Darfur. The second is the equally unexpected wave of shifting alliances which has left unclear who is in control of which territory and where things may lead.

The first priority is attending to the immediate food, shelter, hygiene, and medical needs of thousands of exhausted and dehydrated displaced. Yet the numbers and method of displacement has raised questions that may influence the way aid is delivered. The organization of the displaced - most have arrived on rented trucks packed with belongings – has caused speculation that the movement is a deliberate relocation of SLA/M supporters to areas of humanitarian relief to ensure provisions for the armed group as it looses territory. If the arrivals are a blatant ploy, how should humanitarians respond?

Additional speculation exists as to why the displaced have come so far north when there are closer camps and areas of refuge. It could be a natural tendency to displace towards kinship groups, or it could be a conscious return-migration - most of the new displaced are Zaghawa communities originally from North Darfur who relocated to the Muhajeriya area during a severe drought in 1973. In the latter case, their arrival could complicate the return process significantly. How should humanitarians assist communities who are potentially moving to reclaim old land they haven’t inhabited in 30 years?

On the political front, the first sign of shifting alliances was the surprise disarming if SLA/M (a partner in the government) by GoS discussed in my previous post, and the quick power changes continue to cause confusion. The movement of JEM fighters hundreds of miles from their bases in Chad to Muhajeriya and back again created suspicion between armed groups on the ground that one or the other was complicit in the attack. This tension is particularly apparent between GoS and SLA/M (the sole signatory of a peace agreement) combatants who have joint-control of some areas of Darfur. These suspicions have caused assassinations, proxy battles, and retaliation resulting in hundreds of deaths and a deterioration of confidence slowly built since the partnership was established in 2005.

The smaller, fringe rebel movements are shifting gears quickly trying to stay on the winning side of the battle, and many are hiring out to either side of the conflict. It is now unclear who controls large parts of North Darfur – including the volatile areas where humanitarian presence is most needed.

The uncertainty of what may happen in coming weeks has been reflected in the same-day announcement and denial of the decision to issue an ICC warrant for President Bashir. I believe the leak of the decision by the UN was deliberate. Because things are changing so quickly on the ground the UN does not want to situation to stabilize (with an agreement between GoS and JEM) and then be thrown off again by the warrant. I think the leak was intended to allow commanders to take the facts into consideration during the times of instability, so that a warrant won’t come as a shock.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Military Ethic

UNAMID issued a strange denial yesterday of rumors claiming it had transported armed combatants from one place in Darfur to another. The denial was true, but barely – the combatants weren’t armed at the time they were transferred - and the incident illustrates the continued dominance of a military ethic over a civilian one within UNAMID which marginalizes civil society relative to armed groups in Darfur.

During the fighting in Muhajeriya in South Darfur earlier this month (in was has become a familiar seen in Congo, the Balkans and elsewhere) hundreds of civilians crowded around the UN base seeking protection from the cross-fire of battling JEM and SLA/M (Minni Minnawi) ground troops and later, GoS air bombardment.

The public details are fuzzy, but at some point GoS forces, having realized that the government-affiliated SLA/M troops would be defeated, intervened to forcibly disarm the group before JEM could acquire their weapons. Hundreds of disarmed and vulnerable ex-combatants (SLA/M) then arrived at the UNAMID compound seeking protection and were inexplicably given entry by the commanding officers of the base.

Despite the questionable legality of this move, once the men were inside, the mission was forced to care for them. The fighters were eventually transported by UNAMID helicopter with their consent to more friendly territory in Darfur.

There may have been some rationale behind the decision to admit the disarmed troops and not the civilians – 1) the combatants seeking protection were a smaller group than the civilian population and 2) the SLA/M combatants would more likely have been targeted by victorious JEM rebels - But the incident was clearly a violation of the fundamental principles of humanitarian law prioritizing the sanctity of civilian life in combat.

The series of decisions made during this crisis reveal the prioritization of military concerns over civilian ones within the Mission which has potentially contributed to militarization of the conflict.

The African Union mediated Darfur peace talks in Abuja in 2005 were widely criticized for giving armed factions a much larger seat at the negotiating table than unarmed civil society groups. Since these talks there has been an effort to include civil society in various peace initiatives, but partiality towards armed groups continues on the ground.

UNAMID civilian staff are limited to permanent deployment in the three Darfur capitals while UNAMID military are deployed widely at team sites across the states. The UNAMID military staff on the ground often forge stronger relations with the armed combatants within their area of responsibility, than the civilians. UNAMID commanders develop relationships with rebel and army commanding officers, and rely on each other for information, protection, and logistical arrangements

When an incident of note occurs, civilian staff may conduct 1, 2 or 3 day field mission to the team sites where they interact with a wide variety of civilians. But without being on the ground permanently, UNAMID civilian staff are unable to build lasting relationships with teachers, doctors, artisans, police, local leaders and others.

The majority of information received and disseminated by UNAMID is skewed towards armed groups and filtered through the relations of armed actors on the ground. When calls for more peacekeepers are made in the international press, it must be noted that these “peacekeepers” are not experts in humanitarian law, and their presence on the ground may actually elevate military over civilian actors in the conflict.

More troops may not be the answer – but rather a new focus on building functioning and lasting relations with a cross-section of Darfur society and the deployment of civilian staff more widely.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Visiting a Sick Person

A delegation of IDP leadership in El Fasher approached UNAMID in December to warn that January would be a violent period. They felt exposed to retaliation by government-affiliated militia if a warrant was issued by the ICC for President Bashir, and claimed that both rebels and government would be consolidating their positions in the lead up to a political upheaval that would reconfigure the peace process.

Fearing for their own well-being and for the safety of UNAMID, the delegation asked what UNAMID troops intended to do if security deteriorated during the month. Senior mission officials assured the IDP delegation that UNAMID would continue regular patrols to provide safety for civilians throughout Darfur.

One Omda summed up his theory of UNAMID patrols’ contribution to safety in the camps with the comment “You know, we (camp residents) are not opposed to UNAMID patrols - as ineffective as they may be - but the patrols are a bit like sending a friend to visit a sick person in the hospital. The show of solidarity is nice, but it won’t heal the problem.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Returing to a New Darfur

I recently landed in El Fasher after three weeks of vacation aboard the last flight to slip in to Darfur before a series of rebel movements and GoS bombing in the area shut down the airport.

Dropping my bags off at home, the ceiling fan and glasses were rattling from the nearby bombardment and I decided not to unpack quite yet. UNAMID still seems to have one foot in Darfur and one foot out - never quite deciding if they will run at the first instance of attack or stay throughout.

The Darfuris can sense this equivocation and the first question residents of one displaced persons camp asked me was why UNAMID had stropped patrolling since the bombing began. When I asked the police commander I was assured that the patrols were continuing from strategic vantage points within the town. Given the topography of El Fasher, I eventually learned this meant climbing trees and observing the camps with binoculars. Residents were needless to say not assured by this, but also not too worried. It appears the bombing was concentrated on JEM positions and there were few civilian casualties.

Most of the projects I was working on before I left are now largely irrelevant. The fast-pace of military and political change in Darfur often means a new start and new analysis every time you come back from leave.

In the office my boss assured me to continue planning activities as normal and that there would be no evacuation in the near future. But arriving home that night, I found my house mate (who works in supply chain) packing for Entebbe, Uganda where he would be coordinating the foreseen evacuation.

Most people blame this schizophrenic direction on the dual political commands received by the mission from its African Union and United Nations bosses (particularly in regards to support for or criticism of the ICC indictment). But I see a fundamental disagreement between the humanitarian side (political affaires, human rights, etc) and the administrative/logistic side of the mission. Humanitarians seem to operate under the assumption that the UN and its member states are willing to risk lives for the ideals of the Geneva conventions and civilian protection during war time.

It remains to be seen which direction one will win out…but the Mission’s upper management did collectively agree that if we do evacuate it will not in fact be called an evacuation (because that sounds too much like we are abandoning the people of Darfur) but rather a "relocation." 