How many more Aprils can the people of this region endure?'

by John Holmes, first published by The Independent

Three years ago this April, my predecessor first brought Darfur to the attention of the United Nations Security Council.

And now this April, I too have gone before the Security Council to brief it on the continuing tragedy of Darfur following my recent mission to the region. The cost of inaction continues to be paid in countless thousands of lives lost. How many more Aprils can the people of Darfur endure?

In three years, the number of people dependent on an increasingly fragile humanitarian lifeline in Darfur has quadrupled from one million to nearly four million people.

In recent months, access and safety for the thousands of aid workers seeking to assist them have declined precipitously. How can we sustain the world's largest humanitarian operation when needs are growing, but our ability to help is severely curtailed? A quick look at the numbers shows how much we have achieved in the past three years - and how much is at risk should bureaucracy and intimidation make humanitarian work untenable.

In April 2004, we had just over 200 aid workers on the ground assisting 350,000 people displaced by the conflict. Today 13,000 aid workers, primarily Sudanese, are assisting almost four times that number. Global malnutrition has been halved since mid-2004, and mortality rates slashed to well below emergency threshold rates.

But these lifesaving gains could only too quickly evaporate. The problems in Darfur continue unabated and have spilt over into neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic. Some 420,000 people in Darfur have been displaced from their homes since last May, despite the signing of a peace agreement then, bringing the total number of people displaced to more than two million - one-third of Darfur's population.

Rape and other sexual attacks continue, committed by all sides in a climate of total impunity. Malnutrition rates have begun to climb again, particularly outside the camps in remote, insecure areas.

Our ability to reach people in need is meanwhile shrinking to dangerously low levels. We judge that only half of those affected by the conflict are regularly receiving clean water and primary health care. Fewer than 40 per cent receive sanitation services. Worse still, at any one time, nearly one in four people in need can no longer be reached with any assistance, meaning that some 900,000 people are out of reach of the humanitarian lifeline.

Aid workers are under attack as well, in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions. Between June and December 2006, 12 relief workers were killed, more than in the previous two years combined. Last year, 120 humanitarian vehicles were hijacked. Hundreds of thousands of civilians can be cut off from life-sustaining help if and when humanitarian organisations withdraw from areas where their staff have been attacked. All the parties to the conflict share responsibility for these attacks.

Meanwhile, a stream of government red tape has severely hampered aid operations, sapped morale, and limited freedom of movement. A government which should obviously be helping those who are saving the lives of its own citizens has often seemed little interested in doing so.

So what is to be done? First, there should be an immediate end to all attacks against civilians by all sides in the conflict. Last week, the government of Sudan indicated its acceptance of the second United Nations support package designed to strengthen the African Union's peacekeeping efforts. We welcome this and all steps to increase protection for civilians. But speedy, effective implementation remains of the essence, and requires Khartoum's full co-operation. The people of Darfur can brook no further delay in the deployment of the full UN-AU peacekeeping force.

Second, we need safe, unimpeded access so that humanitarians can reach all those in need. One welcome note from my recent mission to Sudan was the signing of a joint communiqué in which Khartoum reaffirmed and extended its 2004 pledge to ease up on visa, customs and other requirements.

Finally, let us not forget that humanitarian action can never be a substitute for a political solution. I urge all parties to the conflict to support the efforts of the special envoys from the AU and the UN in ensuring adherence to an immediate ceasefire, and getting all the parties around the negotiating table to reach a lasting peace settlement.

John Holmes is the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator


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