Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Sudan, Sri Lanka

9 March 2009

Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Sudan, Sri Lanka

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



The United Nations was continuing to press the Sudanese Government to reverse its decision to revoke the licences of 13 non-governmental organizations operating in northern Sudan, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said at Headquarters this afternoon.

“We have been in touch with the Government of Sudan at many levels and, indeed, with other key players at many levels, over the weekend to get this message across,” said Mr. Holmes, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.  “The Secretary-General has been pursuing his calls to leading stakeholders in this and, of course, one possibility is a discussion between him and the President of Sudan at the right moment.”

While no conditions for such a conversation had been set, he suggested it would happen when it was likely to produce the right effect.  Meanwhile, Sudan’s decision to shut down the operations of more than a dozen international and national aid groups in the 36 hours following the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of President Omer al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court was expected to have a major impact on millions of people in Darfur who depended on life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Roughly 50 per cent of all aid workers in Sudan -– or 7,600 people -– were affected by the Government decision, he said, expressing concern about the way in which it had been implemented on the ground, and noting that the assets of some international non-governmental organizations, as well as some belonging to the United Nations, were being confiscated.  Indeed, one or two warehouses used by the World Food Programme (WFP) to store food aid had been seized, although, in that particular case, the Government had promised that it would be returned.  Some Sudanese officials had used intimidating behaviour towards humanitarian personnel, in contravention of agreements made with Sudan, and of the normal tenets of behaviour in such circumstances.  Hopefully such behaviour would stop, even if the decision was not reversed.

He said he had met this morning with leaders of some of the affected non-governmental organizations, which included the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam GB, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, who had been advised to exercise their right to appeal the decision.  In every practical way, as well as publicly, the United Nations system was supporting those aid groups, which, for their part, had adopted a united approach of mutual solidarity.  The Organization was also working to lend a hand to non-governmental organizations remaining in Darfur and northern Sudan, including through efforts to identify current and expected life-threatening gaps in aid, particularly in the areas of water and sanitation, health and food, and, over the longer term, shelter.

Several joint assessments with the Sudanese Government would be launched tomorrow to help pinpoint what could be done to blunt the decision’s worst effects, he said.  “But even where we can do something to mitigate these gaps […] we simply are not in position to replace these operations they’ve been conducting.”  That was true for the United Nations system, the remaining non-governmental organizations, as well as the Government of Sudan.

The most critical need was ensuring that clean water was available in some of the largest camps for the internally displaced, he said.  There were also specific concerns about potential and actual outbreaks of meningitis in one or two camps.  A major new effort would be needed to ensure that vaccinations were administered, a task that some of the expelled non-governmental organizations had previously carried out.  The longer-term effects of Sudan’s decision would have to be factored into any evaluation of how to ensure a safe and predictable environment, one that would operate according to agreed procedures and in which humanitarian aid could be provided in the future.

Asked whether the Government had presented any evidence for revoking the licences, he said no evidence had been provided so far, even though the United Nations had requested some justification.  Indeed, there seemed to be neither a consistent pattern to explain the expulsions, nor a link between the International Criminal Court’s decision and the previous activities of the expelled organizations.  “It’s reasonably clear this was a political response to a decision that had nothing to do with the UN or the non-governmental organizations.”

Any suggestion by Sudan that its actions against the aid groups were coincidental was “stretching the definition of coincidence rather far”, he said.  Nevertheless, the decision to focus on those 13 non-governmental organizations had not been particularly predictable or entirely planned for as the United Nations had developed contingency plans ahead of the Court ruling.  Those included a variety of possible responses and sought to ensure that as much assistance as possible was distributed before the announcement.  However, the Organization had, by definition, been planning for the unexpected under the shadow of a host of different threats, made both publicly and privately.

Pressed about comments made by the Permanent Representative of Sudan last week that the affected non-governmental organizations had flown witnesses to the International Criminal Court, he said he knew of no aid organization with its own planes shuttling in and out of Sudan, let alone taking them to the International Criminal Court.  That story was “farfetched” and only the aid groups could confirm whether they had been indulging in activities inconsistent with their mandates.  While the decision clearly did not conform with previous agreements between the humanitarian groups and the Government, the question of whether it was in breach of humanitarian law was for the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights to decide.

Asked to describe the situation on the ground, he emphasized that the United Nations had been immediately focused on dealing with the aftermath of the Government’s decision, particularly getting international personnel out of the country.  Most of the more than 200 non-Sudanese staff in Darfur had already left the region, with many having also left the country, but questions about the treatment of more than 7,000 remaining national staff were still being addressed.  In that regard, it was particularly important to consider how to maximize the continuity of operations as well as the knowledge base and capacity of those national staff members.

Meanwhile, it was unlikely that food would be disappearing overnight because food aid had been distributed ahead of the Court’s decision, he said, adding that it looked as though WFP would be able to make some emergency food distributions, even without the help of their expelled implementation partners.  Still, water remained a pressing concern in many places where those aid groups had managed water-distribution installations.  For example, there was a risk that Oxfam’s water-distribution system in the Kalma camp would gradually stop functioning now that its staff had been required to leave.  While the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) might be able to step in, the water situation was expected to become increasingly dire over the next several days.

He noted that the Government of Southern Sudan had made clear that the 13 aid organizations were still welcome to work in the South, but it was unclear what rules would apply to certain disputed areas such as Abyei.  Hopefully, future discussions would result in their being allowed to work there as well.

Asked for more details about contacts between the United Nations and the Government, he said they included the Cabinet-level Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, though not Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, who was under indictment by the International Criminal Court.  In fact, the Organization avoided contact with people indicted by the Court except in situations where doing business was vital.  Any “gratuitous” contact would be avoided.

Responding to questions about refugee camps in Sri Lanka, he said the United Nations believed dozens of casualties occurred each day, but those figures remained unverified.  The Organization had offered some future assistance in the form of transit and “semi-permanent” camps, but it remained concerned about restrictions on freedom of movement.  If the camps did not meet certain international standards that failure would affect the Organization’s ability to finance any aid.  Of course, that caused the usual dilemma of punishing those in the camps for the sins of others, but a close look at the camps would be needed before a decision could be made on long-term financing for something that was unacceptable on principle.

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