Sudan: Making humanitarian work safer

News and Press Release
Originally published
JUBA, 31 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a policy-setting humanitarian forum, recently issued Saving Lives Together, guidelines on staff safety and security among UN agencies and NGOs. Despite a 'menu of options' that had been in existence since 2001, less than half the agencies surveyed by the IASC had heard of the policy.

The IASC's November 2006 report found that "there was no evidence that lessons learned were shared or adopted routinely as good practice. What became clear from the survey, however, was that the recommendations that emerged in 2001 remain as relevant today as they were when first formulated."

Southern Sudan provided an unusually strong example of security collaboration in which NGOs and UN agencies shared common security protocols and operating procedures. After the peace agreement of 2005, however, the system had to adapt.

A fragile peace

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005, ending Africa's longest-running war and creating semi-autonomous Southern Sudan with its own government. While things are certainly better than during the war, no one would call the south a conflict-free zone. One NGO worker told IRIN that, because of inter-communal fighting, his previous agency's work suffered from more emergency relocations in 2006 than during any of the war years.

Communal flare-ups, banditry and clashes between official armed forces or loosely affiliated militia are among the security threats facing humanitarian and development workers in the region.

Despite peace talks between the Uganda Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), long active in Southern Sudan, and the Ugandan government, attacks by the LRA on Sudanese civilian targets have been a regular - although less frequent - occurrence in the first months of 2007.

More than 50 agencies working in Southern Sudan participate in a UN-supported and donor-funded security set-up which, despite the arrival of UN peacekeepers, major political upheavals, and a constant turnover of staff and management in aid agencies, remains unusually flexible and well-regarded by UN and NGO agencies alike.

A unique system

During the civil war, under Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), humanitarian workers were given access to people in need through a tripartite agreement between the then-government of Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the UN.

Under the OLS security arrangements, field workers could declare a change in the security levels in their location immediately. Level three denoted some instability, while four indicated a need to temporarily move out of the area.

This system meant aid workers could get help when security turned bad - and relocate if necessary - but also that after a re-assessment, could resume work without lengthy procedures, according to UN officials in Southern Sudan.

The OLS system provided UN security coverage for all NGOs that signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the UN, explained Ilkka Laukkanen, field security coordination officer for the UN Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) in the south.

The 'OLS security' legacy

Much of the OLS apparatus and operational procedure has remained, organised through the office of David Gressly, the UN Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan.

"Any humanitarian agency that is in crisis and seeks our assistance we will do our best for, whether or not they have an MOU," Gressly told IRIN. About 59 agencies are now signed up to a general statement of cooperation that includes assistance with security.

Donors, this year led by the European Commission's ECHO, pay for extra security officers who have an NGO focus and an aircraft for rapid security assessments and evacuations. These can pull staff out of remote locations as long as there is enough of an airstrip for a small plane to land.

"Because the system is pre-funded, we have never had a problem in getting people out. There's not been a conflict between getting UN or other agency staff out," said Gressly.

The Malakal relocation

In November 2006, the strategic town of Malakal exploded in the fiercest fighting since the signing of the peace agreement.

"The decision was made to relocate all non-essential staff in the morning of 30 November and by 6pm it was completed. Around 235 people were relocated. The decision on who to take was based on how many could stay behind and fit into safe havens in the town," said Laukkanen. Gressly and UNDSS officers agree that the Malakal incident was an example of how the security set-up depends upon the goodwill of the authorities, who have to agree a pre-agreed 'window of opportunity' during which fighting ceases to allow security-related flights.

System 'vulnerable'

The system is also vulnerable in other ways. "By and large the system is successful and it might serve as a solution in a global context for collaboration with implementation partners without whom the UN's work in the field would be impossible," said Marcus Culley, a UNDSS security adviser for the south.

However, he admitted that at the moment the set-up relied on individuals who have had experience of both UN security and the OLS. "The challenge we face now is perpetuating this cooperation," added Culley.

Dependency issues

Laukkanen emphasised that the UNDSS actively encourages NGOs to set up their own security systems; while help has always been provided, they should not rely primarily on the UN.

Gressly emphasised that the arrangement is one of collaboration rather than dependency. But not all organisations are able to look after themselves.

"I represent a small NGO that is just starting up," said one European NGO worker in Juba, the Southern Sudanese capital, "so I am completely dependent on the UN for security."

"There are far too many NGOs without access to good communication, either with the UN or their own base," said Ian Sinkinson, an NGO focal point for security. He explained that many development NGOs came to the south once the peace agreement was in place and were not prepared.

The OLS was way ahead in providing equal security training for the UN and NGOs, says Sinkinson, and the new collaboration is rapidly improving, but NGOs themselves are not yet all doing risk assessments, particularly for their national staff.

"In NGOs often the security set up gets done after programming is in place," Sinkinson added, "many NGOs need to learn not to be so passive in sorting out their own security."