The NGOs working in SPLM-controlled areas - under the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) coordination consortium - are deciding on an individual basis whether or not to sign the agreement by Wednesday, 1 March, the deadline imposed by the SRRA.
The SRRA told IRIN on Monday that 26 organisations had already signed the agreement. Among those who have refused to sign are some of the major players in south Sudan: World Vision and Care International, as well as Medecins sans frontieres (MSF)-Holland, Oxfam, Save the Children (SC-UK). However the single-biggest NGO operating in south Sudan, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), has signed the document.
The UN has been helping NGOs who decided not to sign to take "appropriate security measures", including withdrawal of staff and equipment from SPLM-controlled areas. The withdrawal was being conducted in an orderly fashion, without any security incidents and ahead of schedule, a UN source told IRIN on Monday.
The pullout comes after diplomatic efforts failed to persuade SPLM chairman John Garang to modify the MOU, extend the deadline and ensure that no NGOs were expelled. Garang argued he could not overrule the decision taken by the SPLM's National Liberation Council and the rebel movement appeared willing to bear the consequences of some NGOs pulling out, diplomatic sources told IRIN.
At the heart of the matter, according to humanitarian sources, is the issue of how to deliver aid into a war situation. NGOs and donors are concerned about the role of the rebels in distributing relief supplies and providing security, as well as the political independence of NGOs who sign such a "formal, legal agreement".
Of particular concern are specific aspects of the document such as the SRRA's stated entitlement to use NGOs' transport and equipment on certain occasions, the status of assets, terms of employment for local staff, and the payment of fees for services (such as security). "All NGOs, even those who have signed the memorandum, would have difficulties with parts of it," an NGO official told IRIN.
SRRA Executive Director Elija Malok explained that after a long negotiation process, the memorandum was "discussed and consolidated" with NGOs and adopted on 28 December 1999. NGOs who failed to sign by the 1 March deadline would cease to be the security responsibility of the SPLM.
"More ominously, they were informed that such staff would be considered a military security problem by the rebel movement, and dealt with accordingly," according to one humanitarian official.
"Some of the NGOs ... have decided to leave southern Sudan," Malok told IRIN. "That's the situation ... The people of south Sudan have been benefitting, yes, but they will understand." The memorandum issue did not affect UN agencies, who have a separate "ground rules" agreement with the SPLM, and those NGOs that signed would continue working as normal, Malok added.
Meanwhile, Nigel Marsh of World Vision told IRIN the organisation would be pleased to sign a Memorandum of Understanding whose terms were "clearer and more complete". "Unfortunately, the current document does not fulfill World Vision's criteria for being able to work effectively in south Sudan," he said.
"You can have different readings, depending on where you are coming from," said an official with an NGO that has signed the MOU. "It's not really going to constrain how we do things. Most of the things in the MOU are already what's happening on the ground."
The terms of operation that NGOs had to sign in some other countries, and in Khartoum with the government of Sudan, were much more "oppressive" than the SRRA document and popular perception of the current crisis appeared to be dominated by those who were refusing to sign, some humanitarian sources pointed out.
"The attitude that is coming across of ever more controls and rules is far more worrying than this piece of paper," one source said. At one point, NGOs in south Sudan gave the impression that they were so strong they were never going to negotiate or sign anything, and the SRRA's decision to "play it tough" may have stemmed from frustrations with that attitude, another source added.
The US, one of the major donors in South Sudan, stated in a recent press release that "any expulsion of NGOs, or confiscation of assets, would seriously jeopardise humanitarian operations, exacerbating further the human suffering in southern Sudan". Elija Malok told IRIN there was no question of the seizure of assets.
Greg Gottlieb, Senior Regional Adviser for Africa at the US Office for Foreign Disasters Assistance in Nairobi, stressed that the losers were the people of south Sudan. "We funded these programmes because they were needed," he said.
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