On June 2, Sudanese security forces reportedly attacked medical personnel participating in a peaceful protest march through Khartoum, organized by students of the School of Medicine of Khartoum University. Reuters news service reported that doctors, while peacefully protesting the arrests of Dr Walaa Alden Ibrahim and Dr Alhadi Bakhiet, were beaten by security officials armed with sticks.

Dr Ibrahim and Dr Bakhiet were arrested on June 1, then re-arrested following public statements made by the doctors, detailing the conditions of their arrests and alleging torture at the National Intelligence and Security Services head offices in Khartoum.

The June 2 demonstration was disrupted by the arrival of security officials, who reportedly beat and arrested many of the medical personnel participating, and prevented doctors from the Khartoum Teaching Hospital from joining the demonstration. The African Center for Justice and Peace Studies has reported that six medical students were charged under Article 77 of the Sudanese Criminal Code 1991, banning “public noisiness” – in contravention of freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 39(1) of the Sudan Interim National Constitution.

As a membership organization of health professionals, Physicians for Human Rights calls for the release of the detained doctors, and condemns the torture and arrest of medical students involved in the organization of the peaceful protest.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)

(This blog post picks up from one written last week.)

Contrary to the agreement of UN and Chadian officials that the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT)  has “served its purpose,” the BBC reported news of clashes between the Popular Front for National Resistance (FPRN) and Chadian security forces over the weekend. Unofficial reports from the area reference heavy losses of both troops and vehicles sustained by the Government of Chad (GoC)—raising concerns about the possibilities for continuation of humanitarian operations in the area.

The Secretary-General’s speech yesterday continued to maintain that improved relations between Chad and Sudan would allow for a significant reduction of military troops in the volatile Eastern Chad border region; the speech did not respond directly to concerns from human rights groups regarding the financial and logistical components of the new security arrangement. More than 200,000 Darfuri refugees are dependent upon humanitarian operations by international and domestic NGOs for food, shelter, and medical care in the region.

Outlining the proposals advocated in his report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended the MINURCAT mission’s military component in Chad now be reduced from 3,300 troops to 1,400 troops. In context, the remaining military troops would represent only 38 percent of the troops initially authorized by the UN as necessary to securing the displaced refugee population and humanitarian operations in Eastern Chad. (Even before this withdrawal, the MINURCAT deployment never approached its full authorized deployment of 4,900).

As noted previously, over the past year the region has remained among the most hazardous operating environments currently sustaining humanitarian operations. The disruption of humanitarian operations this weekend was not the first such occurrence. Multi-week suspensions of operations by agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Food Programme (WFP) in November-December and May 2009.

Without sufficient security in the area, NGOs are unable to provide services ranging from food distribution—a particular concern ahead of the rainy season; water and sanitation projects—vital to control the spread of disease among overcrowded and vulnerable refugee populations; and medical services, including mobile clinics serving rural populations.

The continued absence of a military capable of securing the area and deterring further attacks could threaten not only the refugee community, but the ability of the humanitarian NGOs to continue to operate in the area.

In addition to these concerns, the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s report increase the informal role of the Détachement intégré de sécurité (DIS)—formed to provide security in the refugee camps and surrounding areas but increasingly relied upon to provide escorts to many UN agencies and some NGO convoys. The under-deployment of the MINURCAT military component, and its lack of troop-strength capable of providing military escorts, increased the role of the DIS (UN-trained Chadian police); this has diverted the focus of the force away from providing security to camp residents, including protection to women gathering firewood and animal feed and to those travelling to market of farming areas.

Along with replacing the lost 1,400 MINURCAT troops—the Government of Chad must also scale up the capacity of the Gendarmerie Nationale national police force of Chad in order to take over the security escorts required by humanitarians—a challenge considering the lower levels of operational and human rights training provided to this force.

Human Rights groups urged the Secretary-General to consider the security of NGO operations, as well as the need for consultation and transparency with refugee communities and humanitarian agencies on the ground. It is vital that the final recommendations, to be adopted by the UN Security Council later this month, are revised to include these concerns.

In sum, the Secretary-General’s recommendations advocate for the withdrawal of 1,400 troops by 15 July (leaving only 1,900 international troops in Chad until 15 October 2010, when they are planned to cease all operations and commence their final withdrawal), while the Government of Chad must source the necessary financial and logistical resources to secure a volatile region hosting in excess of 200,000 Darfurian refugees, whilst sustaining renewed attacks from militia groups possibly associated with the Government of Sudan.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)

Next week, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the future of the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) peacekeeping force in Eastern Chad will be released, outlining the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops in the Chad-Sudan border region visited by PHR researchers in 2008. The report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, released by PHR in June 2009, outlined urgent human rights issues in Eastern Chad, including food insecurity, camp infrastructure, access to health and psychosocial care, and security for refugee families. Among the disturbing findings of our investigation was a 50% rate of rape or sexual assault reported by women interviewed by the PHR medical team.

Since the time of PHR’s investigation, a number of security threats and human rights issues have been recorded — via international media reporting on hijackings and kidnappings of humanitarian aid workers, and reports such as that released by the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH) on the continued need for the peacekeeping force.

Many large-scale infrastructure issues remain, such as the weak Chadian legal system, drought and food shortage, and the continued operation of militarized rebel groups in the area, as well as auxiliary practical issues such as low phone coverage (a key issue for reducing attacks against refugees and humanitarians, as emergency phone calls allow for MINURCAT forces to be alerted to security problems). The recent dispute over the continued presence of the MINURCAT force has detracted focus from these problems, which need to remain at the forefront of the diplomatic and humanitarian agenda in Chad. (Despite ongoing needs in Eastern Chad, the Chadian Government opposed the MINURCAT mission’s renewal in January 2010.)

The withdrawal of MINURCAT transfers responsibility for the security of refugees and humanitarian operations to the Government of Chad (GoC) — a significant challenge for a state with low material wealth and incomplete infrastructure. So, what can be done, given the limitations of the current circumstances?

First, it is important to remember that the continued existence of the 200,000 Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad relies on the efforts of humanitarian aid workers and UN staff on the ground: managing the refugee camps, distributing WFP rations and shelter items, and providing emergency medical care. Humanitarian agencies have continued to operate in Eastern Chad despite increasingly frequent security threats to NGOs and personnel, and rely on police escorts in order to operate in the Phase IV security environment. The current system of police escorts for NGO convoys must be taken over by the Chadian police force, and it is particularly important that NGOs are not obliged to pay or provide other compensation for the new security arrangements, and that the GoC accept responsibility for ensuring the security of the humanitarian operations.

Secondly, refugee communities and the humanitarian actors working with refugees must be consulted and kept informed of the transition and departure of MINURCAT and how the GoC will continue MINURCAT’s security and protection activities. In order to ensure this takes place, the GoC should immediately establish a dialogue and consultation forum with refugee communities and humanitarian workers, and the international community should remain engaged in the transition process to ensure that this takes place.

Thirdly, it is of utmost importance that the MINURCAT withdrawal not be allowed to disrupt the humanitarian operations in Eastern Chad and/or detract from refugee security and protection. The continued monitoring of the human rights situation on the ground, and a specific focus on the security and protection needs of refugees, is paramount. The numbers of the civilian police force should be increased as the military component is phased out, and measures must be taken in the recruiting process to improve the conduct of police officers, sensitize police to human rights and gender issues, and dramatically raise the number of women police officers.

The disappointing withdrawal of the MINURCAT force — before the benchmarks of withdrawal have been met (see the Secretary-General’s December 2008 reports) — should not distract the UN Security Council or the international community from addressing the ongoing problems affecting the Darfurian refugee population in Eastern Chad. The reduction of arms, sexual and gender-based violence and human rights abuses (demilitarization of camps) must remain a key priority, along with assisting the voluntary and safe return of communities. In addition to resolving security issues on a community level, it is vital that widespread problems, such as the capacity and training of national law enforcement agencies, judiciary and prison systems, are addressed, and that the Chadian military assigns a quick reaction force to take over from MINURCAT’s civilian component.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)

Action Agenda: Realizing Treatment and Support for Women and Girls in Darfur (393.0 KB)

Last Thursday marked the end of General Gration’s first 12 months as US Special Envoy to Sudan—an event that closely followed the one year anniversary of the Government of Sudan’s expulsion of humanitarian organizations in March 2009.

In the course of the past 12 months, the humanitarian community and UN Country Team in Sudan have made significant efforts to rebuild programming disrupted by the expulsion of 13 international and 3 Sudanese NGOs—efforts that have been encouraged by the US Envoy’s office. Now one year on, however, the loss of specialized programming continues to challenge NGOs and UN agencies working on the ground.

As Physicians for Human Rights and numerous other organizations pointed out in a public letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November, multi-sectoral programming addressing the vulnerability and needs of women and girls has been affected seriously by this disruption in programs and services. But broader efforts to re-establish programming lost in the expulsions have been unable to rebuild the base of gender expertise in the humanitarian community prior to 2009.

The range of women-specific concerns spans all areas of humanitarian programming in Darfur: specialized health needs; different levels of education; cultural issues concerning sanitation and hygiene services; and, not least, the widespread incidence of sexual violence across Darfur. There is an urgent need to improve the coverage of relief distribution to target women effectively, expand programming into rural areas, and encourage the mainstreaming of gender concerns by NGOs and UN agencies.

Even prior to the expulsions, the breadth and consistency of women-focused programming had suffered a number of setbacks in 2008, including the closure of many women’s centers, the suspension of psycho-social programming in some instances and increasing obstacles for NGOs to communicate with other agencies. In order to remedy this, we need strong sector coordination and the commitment of sufficient resources to the UN lead agency for Gender-based Violence (UNFPA) to implement the strategic plan designed to address these issues.

In response to this urgent crisis of treatment and services, Physicians for Human Rights has issued a briefing paper to the Special Envoy’s Office: Action Agenda for Realizing Treatment and Support for Women and Girls in Darfur, outlining the conditions of this crisis and immediate actions needed to realize both responsive and proactive programming to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls in Darfur and provide support to survivors. The paper outlines the need for a commitment from the US Government to expend the necessary resources for women and girls in Darfur and to establish a consistent message in the Special Envoy’s diplomatic relations.

Over the past 12 months, a number of humanitarian sectors—water, sanitation, shelter—have been restored and rebuilt, yet vital services such as psychosocial support, medical and legal outreach and livelihoods support for women and girls remain devastated by the impact of the expulsions. It is the duty of the Special Envoy’s office to ensure that US engagement in critical events, such as the upcoming Sudan elections and the continuing Darfur Peace Accords, does not divert attention from the unmet needs of women and girls any longer. By March 31, 2010, General Gration should announce his office’s strategy to address the following:

  • US Government support for humanitarian programming to reduce the vulnerability of women and research to establish a recommended service provision model that can be replicated in under-served communities.
  • US Government funding for sector coordination to the UN lead agency for Gender-based Violence in Darfur, UNFPA. This funding commitment will allow for UNFPA strategic planning to increase treatment and support and facilitate broader initiatives to reduce vulnerability to violence.
  • US Government use of diplomatic leverage to ensure that the Government of Sudan take responsibility for managing and acting on information received through the Tripartite Reporting Mechanism and institute a Rapid-Reporting mechanism between State and Federal bodies of the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC).
  • US Government encouragement of troop-contributing and police-contributing countries to boost deployment of the UNAMID peacekeeping force; the provision of outstanding equipment, in particular military helicopter assets, remains critical to increasing the mobility and operational impact of the mission in a volatile security environment. A commitment is also needed to boost the number of female troops and police sent by police- and troop- contributing countries.
  • US Government promotion or development of a multi-year funding mechanism for relief, early recovery and emergency projects through the 2010-2012, pre-election to post-referendum period, for projects to mitigate the risks of sexual and gender-based violence should complex emergencies arise in Sudan and to provide the necessary treatment and support for survivors.

As the largest donor to the humanitarian operations in Darfur, and as a key diplomatic player engaged with the Government of Sudan, the US Government has the opportunity to assure that the urgent needs of women and girls in Darfur are met. The US Special Envoy’s office represents the political and diplomatic interests of the American people and has the ability to commit both the diplomatic and financial resources of the US Government to address the needs of survivors, and prevent further violence.

Physicians for Human Rights invites all individuals and organizations who wish to see these recommendations become a reality to contact the Envoy’s Office and ask for a plan by March 31st 2010. Contact jread[at]phrusa[dot]org for more information.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)