(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)

This week the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) reported on a series of attacks on the civilian population in North Darfur by Chadian rebel groups. Between December 10 2009 and January 3 2010, attacks—including mutilation, rape and killing of civilians—were documented in the cities of Malit, Alsuyah and surrounding areas. Yet no word of the atrocities was reported by international news outlets. ACJPS has called for a full and thorough investigation of these attacks, which may constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

These reports from North Darfur draw attention to ongoing insecurity in parts of the three Darfur states and to the continuing failures of the current reporting system to highlight security threats. The month-long campaign of violence illustrates the UNAMID peacekeeping force’s limited capacity to respond proactively to protect civilians—as the force now enters its 2nd year of deployment with only 15,000military personnel deployed.

PHR continues to urge donor governments to honor troop commitments in order to make UNAMID an effective protection force prepared to take robust action to protect civilians. Material, logistical and political support are needed in order to fulfill the mandate of the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, which includes not only direct civilian protection, but also restoration of security conditions necessary for humanitarian delivery and promotion of human rights and the rule of law. In addition, the current deficit of women peacekeepers, police officers and translators, along with the lack of an integrated strategy to combat sexual and gender-based violence (expected some time this year), restricts the capacity of present uniformed personnel to respond to the needs of survivors.

The civilians left in the wake of the atrocities in North Darfur require medical treatment, including psychosocial services, and the communities of Um Za’at, Um Shurbak, Takous, Hilat Awlad Mahmoud villages destroyed in attacks on November 9 need support for rebuilding. The main UN humanitarian relief agency, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), is not authorized to work with internally displaced people (IDPs) in Sudan, so these services must be provided by international and national NGOs in the area—making the presence of properly trained NGO personnel essential, and effective coordination from UN sector leads indispensable (UNFPA and UNICEF in the case of the protection sector). On the Chadian side, it is vital that the returned rebels face justice, which requires international support for much needed justice system reforms in Chad and support for the DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) mandate.

UNAMID needs a coordinated response from the international community in 2010 to finally resolve the issues that for 2 years have hindered its performance and the realization of it’s mandate. Even the full deployment of 27, 000 UNAMID uniformed personnel, along with necessary military and other material (including military helicopters), will provide only minimum conditions for peacekeepers to address necessary measures to protect refugees, facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid and help provide United Nations personnel with protection and freedom of movement. Finally, as the events of the past month have highlighted, there is a continuing and urgent need to establish a regular system of information sharing and strategic collaboration on the security situation in Darfur and affected surrounding areas in Eastern Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR)—which should include UNAMID and MINURCAT (its peacekeeping counterpart in Chad and CAR), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

The ACJPS report of December 10 – January 3 attacks can be found at ACJPS.

The Save Darfur Coalition honored Darfuri women refugees at the Farchana Camp in Chad to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 and to kick off a global campaign of activism against gender-based violence.

Women refugees in Farchana Camp in eastern Chad drew up a groundbreaking, one-page women’s empowerment document known as the Farchana Manifesto, which outlines the needs and challenges women face in the camp, along with demands for participation and accountability in shared decision-making.

The document was written in June 2008, after seven women suffered torture and public humiliation. They were bound, whipped and beaten with thorny sticks of firewood because they worked outside of the camp to earn money for their families. Shamed as prostitutes, these women had their goods, money and food ration cards taken away by force. Though there is no proof, it is likely that at least some of these women became pregnant as a result of rape.

In response, eight Darfuri women authored a one-page document in Arabic to shed light on the plight of women refugees and open a dialogue with the world. This document made its way from the Farchana camp into the hands of Physicians for Human Rights and is published on PHR’s site DarfuriWomen.org, along with a video about the Farchana Manifesto.

In November 2008, PHR sent a team of four experts—three doctors and one human rights researcher—into the camp to report on the lives and needs of the women living there.

The team discovered that out of the 88 women interviewed, 32 had experienced sexual violence. Many who shared their stories had never previously spoken about the attacks for fear of isolation, stigmatization or retaliatory violence.

“The women of the Farchana Refugee Camp have confronted and continue to suffer from violence,” said Niemat Ahmadi, a genocide survivor and liaison to the Darfuri diaspora community at the Save Darfur Coalition.

These women have greatly amplified the courageous voices of victims of sexual violence in the camps.  Despite the suffering, they remain determined to seek justice for themselves and for women around the globe.

For each of the next 16 days, the coalition’s campaign will honor a leader in the fight to empower, protect and uplift Sudanese women and promote a corresponding action. The campaign will conclude on December 10 (International Human Rights Day).

The Save Darfur Coalition is asking that activists observe the 1st day of the campaign by reading and sharing the Farchana Manifesto with their networks.

(Cross-posted on Health Rights Advocate)