Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Sudan's Humanitarian Situation

24 March 2009

Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Sudan's Humanitarian Situation

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


The joint assessment mission to gauge the impact of the Sudan’s expulsion of non-governmental organizations on the country’s humanitarian situation was a first positive step to address the situation in Darfur, John Holmes, the top United Nations humanitarian official, said today, while cautioning that key tests still lay ahead.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Mr. Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the conclusions of the joint United Nations-Government of the Sudan assessment mission had been released in Khartoum.  They focused on food, health, nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation, and showed the impact on the humanitarian situation in the three States of the Darfur region unless critical gaps were filled immediately or the Government reversed its decision to expel the non-governmental organizations. 

Urging a reversal of the decision to expel 13 international non-governmental organizations and revoke the licences of three national ones, he said the joint assessment showed that efforts by the Government, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations to plug the gaps were “band-aid solutions”.  The World Food Programme (WFP) was carrying out a “quick and dirty” food distribution programme that could last for two months; pumps for water required fuel and maintenance; sanitation sludge tanks needed to be cleaned out in order to prevent health problems; and non-food items like shelter needed to be distributed to some 700,000 people.  Moreover, the upcoming rainy season could exacerbate existing problems.

He said the assessment showed there was much work to do in ensuring a sustainable and efficient aid operation.  There was a lack of staffing and financing, while the lost expertise in, and long-term planning and monitoring of, the huge aid operation set up by the non-governmental organizations and the United Nations could not be replaced in the short term.  There was also a matter of access, as people living in camps for the internally displaced did not trust Government officials.  Security was also important, and it was a matter of great regret that a local aid worker had been shot dead recently, apparently during a robbery.

Asked about the statement by the Permanent Representative of the Sudan to the United Nations that there were no gaps in delivering humanitarian aid as non-governmental organizations from the region would step in, Mr. Homes said there was no instant crisis.  While the capacities offered by the non-governmental organizations in question could not be replaced quickly, local and regional groups could fill the gaps if financed in a sustainable manner, but that could not simply happen overnight.

As for Sudanese allegations that the extent of the meningitis outbreak in the camps had been exaggerated, he said it was true that meningitis was endemic in certain regions, but any outbreak must be addressed urgently so that it did not become dangerous.  A major vaccination campaign should be organized.

Asked to give examples of the humanitarian impact, he said some 650,000 people needed the services of health clinics.  It was true that the Government had provided doctors, but clinics were too far away and often offered only partial services.  The full report, to be published shortly, would give more details.

Warning that not all numbers mentioned in the report should be added up in order to arrive at the total number of people who would be affected, he said there was some overlap but some 4.7 million depended on aid.  Some 1.1 million people were receiving “crude handouts” from WFP, but that was a “one-off” operation.  The aid operation was a network, a whole, and if parts of it were taken away, the whole operation was affected.  The number of children and lactating mothers who would be affected was not readily available, but it could be estimated at a few thousand.

Asked whether the local staff of the expelled non-governmental organizations had the expertise to fill the gap, he answered that, since the non-governmental organizations had left, the local staff now had no employer to work for.  Capacity and financing were necessary to tap their expertise.  As for regional non-governmental organizations, the United Nations had nothing against their coming in, but no matter where they came from, they needed the sustainable financing, capacity and expertise to step in.  To replace the current capacity would take one to two years.

Responding to a question as to whether the current situation was not a clear example of the “responsibility to protect” and if no lessons of Rwanda had been drawn, Mr. Holmes warned against comparing the situation in the Sudan with the Rwanda genocide, adding that he did not himself use the word genocide.  The issue of “responsibility to protect” was a preventive that was being addressed by the General Assembly.  The reality was that humanitarian aid could not be provided if the Government did not cooperate.

In response to several questions as to why the United Nations had not investigated Government allegations that the non-governmental organizations in question had been spying, he said allegations of spying and stealing had been raised, but he had not been offered any credible evidence.  Until credible evidence was offered, no investigation would be launched.  As far as the United Nations knew, the allegations were unfounded and the non-governmental organizations in question had been doing what they were supposed to do -- providing humanitarian assistance in an impartial way.

Asked to clarify “political access”, he said it was a question of whether Government workers could gain access to camps.  The Kalma camp, for instance, contained some 100,000 people with a hostile attitude towards the Sudanese Government.  It was a question of whether the safety of Government workers there could be guaranteed.

The Sudanese officials involved in the joint assessment team had worked very seriously, he said in reply to another question.  Expelling the international non-governmental organizations and revoking the licences of local ones had been a “reckless act”, but the fact that the United Nations was working with the Government to address the situation was a good sign.

Asked about the assets of the expelled organizations, the Under-Secretary-General said they had been seized by the Government, but he was trying to ensure they were being used to help the people in Darfur.

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