Press Conference on Expulsion of Non-Governmental Organizations from Darfur

16 March 2009

Press Conference on Expulsion of Non-Governmental Organizations from Darfur

16 March 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The expulsion of non-governmental organizations from Darfur would have a dramatic impact on the ability to provide humanitarian assistance there and in Sudan as a whole, John Holmes told correspondents today at Headquarters.

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, while welcoming the “very good news” that the kidnapped aid workers of Médecins Sans Frontièresfrom Belgium had been released over the weekend, said that joint United Nations-Sudanese Government assessment teams were on the ground to look at some of the  critical gaps in humanitarian provisions after the non-governmental organizations left.  Although the impact would not be felt overnight, the expulsion over time would impact such issues as provision of water, sanitation, outbreak of diseases and food.

He said the World Food Programme (WFP) had enough stores to provide, through local community-based organizations, food for two months, which would meet the most immediate needs.  A problem in the continued provision of clean water in the camps was delivery of fuel for pumps and access to camps, because Government organizations were not always welcome there.  He was also worried about the issue of meningitis in some camps.  He was working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and some non-governmental organizations that were still there to ensure that a vaccination campaign to cover some 100,000 people could be launched.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had been talking to the Government about the need for transitional arrangements for the expelled organizations, he said, although its principled position was that the decision to expel should be reversed.  Such arrangements included the departure of staff and the transfer of assets, among other things.  There had been pragmatic cooperation in that regard.  International staff of the non-governmental organizations had been allowed some extra time to sort out problems with national staff and to hand over data and assets.  The Government had assured that, despite the decision, it remained committed to previous agreements on facilitation of humanitarian assistance and existing coordination mechanisms.

He had been “taken by surprise” by the statements of the President of Sudan, Omer Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, to the media about “Sudanizing” the relief operations and ensuring that, within a year, no foreign organizations would be working in the humanitarian assistance area.  Such a decision would be inappropriate and should be reversed.  Clarification in that regard was urgently needed, as 13,000 of the 14,000 aid workers already were Sudanese, and the organizations were already heavily “Sudanized”.

Answering correspondents’ questions about President Bashir’s statement, Mr. Holmes said it was not clear whether the President just meant non-governmental organizations or United Nations agencies, as well.  It would obviously have enormous ramifications for the welfare of the people in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan if the agencies were required to leave.  The idea that the United Nations would simply hand over goods at the port to be distributed without its involvement and monitoring would be unacceptable, as it would be to foreign donors and aid organizations.  If organizations were expelled, national staff would lose their jobs, also leading to severe problems.

It was difficult to calculate the number of deaths as a consequence of such a decision, he replied to a related question, but in that case, the Security Council could legally do whatever it chose to do, including the application of sanctions.  However, forcing a country to accept aid was not a way to distribute humanitarian assistance, he added.

Whether the remaining organizations, some 72 of them, could take up the activities of the 13 that had been expelled was a matter of striking a balance, he continued.  No non-governmental organization was rushing to fill the gap, as that would undermine the position of those that had been ousted.  On the other hand, there was a need for humanitarian assistance.  Also, most of the remaining organizations were small and did not have the capacity to fill the gap.  Over time, the United Nations could fill the gap, but it also wanted the decision to expel to be reversed, even though the Government had assured that no more organizations would be expelled.  Ongoing contacts with the Government in that regard included those between the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and the President.

Asked for a reaction to charges that non-governmental organizations were providing information to the International Criminal Court, he said that whatever relationship those organizations had with the Court was entirely up to them.  There was no need for OCHA to take a view on that.  Non-governmental organizations working in Sudan were engaged in the distribution of humanitarian aid.  That also included protection of civilians, including prevention of sexual violence.  He had no reason to believe that charges made against them, such as stealing, were justified.  Those organizations’ finances were not monitored by the United Nations, but they were monitored by boards and auditors.  The organizations in question, moreover, were “serious” organizations with a good reputation.

In response to a question about United Nations assets seized by the Government, he said a list was being compiled, but no value could be given yet.  The Government had agreed to return to the United Nations any assets that were being distributed by non-governmental organizations on the United Nations behalf.

Regarding the figure of 300,000 deaths as a result of the fighting in Darfur, Mr. Holmes explained that that figure was an extrapolation of the 200,000 deaths quoted earlier by his predecessor, based on mortality figures.  Most of those deaths were not the direct result of violence, but of deprivation, camp life and other causes.  The figure was an estimate.  Although the death rate as a direct result of violence had increased, it was a small proportion of the total death rate.  The figure of 300,000 was, of course, increasing as time went by.  A new calculation had not as yet been made.

Asked whether United Nations funds in Sri Lanka would be used for camps which detained the refugees, he said some projects indeed involved assistance to people in camps.  The United Nations had always insisted on freedom of movement.  If, once temporary identification cards had been distributed to those people, they did not have freedom of movement, some serious questions would arise.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.