NAIROBI, 18 April 2011 (IRIN) - Aid workers have raised serious concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sudan's troubled Darfur region where, they say, a prevailing climate of impunity has often resulted in humanitarians being killed, injured, abducted or car-jacked.
"There have been very few successful investigations of criminality against aid agencies, and understandably this has only encouraged greater caution and aversion to risk in the conduct of humanitarian activities," Aly Verjee, senior researcher at Rift Valley Institute, told IRIN.
As a result, humanitarian space has been affected as organizations do only what is most necessary, for fear that anything more will increase the danger to staff, risk damaging ongoing essential activities and signal to the authorities unwelcome ambitions to do more, Verjee added.
The latest incident against aid workers was resolved on 13 April when the African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and camp leaders successfully mediated the release of 12 Sudanese aid workers who had been taken hostage by a youth group at Kalma camp for the internally displaced in South Darfur.
The aid workers had been conducting a vaccination campaign and were taken hostage in retaliation for the arrest, four days earlier, of an IDP who worked for a national NGO.
"We cannot understand whether crimes against UN and NGO workers are orchestrated to reduce the range of our activities or if they are a result of banditry and getting concessions from whoever wishes to pay," a UN worker, who requested anonymity, told IRIN. "However, the lack of prosecution indirectly leads to a further reduction of humanitarian space, which is already quite small in Darfur due to government's imposed security restrictions to conflict-affected areas.
"We are afraid if we push into areas we are not allowed to reach we could be targeted. But if the level of risk for humanitarian security becomes too high, how long can we resist till we are forced to withdraw?"
Abby Stoddard, co-author of the 2009 study, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments , notes that "aid workers in the most dangerous settings face few options. In places like Sudan [Darfur], Somalia and Afghanistan, the choice boils down to reducing or withdrawing essential aid from needy populations, or running intolerable risks to the lives of staff and partners."
According to the study, attacks have increased sharply since 2006 and Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and Pakistan top the list of the most violent contexts for aid work.
An OCHA report published on 12 April 2011, Stay and Deliver, highlights Darfur as "hosting numerous and fragmented armed non-state actors and criminal bands that operate with impunity in parts of the vast region beyond the reach of any official or security presence".
However, despite being ranked second in the World Security Database's incident statistics against aid workers between 2005 and 2010 [ www.worldsecuritydatabase.org ], UNAMID sources said attacks against staff declined in 2010, compared with 2009. This year, some 16 UNAMID peacekeepers have been killed and at least 80 injured.
Since March 2009, armed groups in Darfur have kidnapped 30 aid workers, all of whom have been released, with the exception of three Bulgarian air crew, contracted by the UN World Food Programme and seized in January 2011.
"NGOs have their own security system but fall under the UN security management system, which means that if they request assistance by UN security, the UN will always provide support," said a UN staffer, who requested anonymity.
To maintain their neutrality and not be associated with the peacekeeping mission, he said, NGOs often chose not to request support from the UN and prefer to handle kidnappings and other crimes against their staff themselves.
Government under pressure
In a statement on 28 January, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on UNAMID to put pressure on the government of Sudan to guarantee the security of peacekeepers and civilians.
Jehanne Henry, HRW's senior researcher on Sudan, told IRIN the issue of impunity was entrenched and unrelenting in Darfur. "Despite the government appointing a new special prosecutor to deal with crimes in Darfur, the protection system remains weak and the immunity of people in position of power continues to be problematic."
Abdel-Dayem Zumrawi, the special attorney for Darfur crimes appointed by the Sudanese in October 2010, stepped aside recently after two years of service.
At a news conference on 27 December 2010, Zumrawi said "efforts to serve justice in the war-torn western region have been overshadowed by the political situation in the country".
Henry said: "If Khartoum wants to convince the people of Darfur of its commitment to lasting peace and reconciliation, there must be a credible threat of prosecution for those who are implicated in the crimes committed against the people of Darfur.
"There is a sentiment among many in Darfur that there is no accountability for any act, and that those connected to power can get away with anything," she said.