(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)

The UN reported last week that six aid groups have suspended operations in eastern Chad. Nearly 300,000 Darfuri refugees have fled across the the Sudan-Chad border to escape violence in Darfur. Among the groups suspending operations are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which reported the kidnapping of a French ICRC worker and five Chadian colleagues near the Sudanese border this week, and French NGO Solidarités, which lost a Chadian employee earlier this month.

As reported by PHR investigators in Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support, and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, Darfuri refugees in the Farchana Camp in eastern Chad are entirely reliant on the aid provided by UN and humanitarian agencies and face daily threats to their health and security. A September report from Amnesty International supported PHR’s findings at Camp Farchana and further spoke to the volatile security situation in eastern Chad, where more than 50 armed attacks on humanitarian workers have taken place during 2009. Armed banditry has been a persistent security threat, and is cited as the biggest danger facing Darfuri women and girls when they leave UNHCR camps to collect water and firewood.

PHR and other groups have long called for the implementation of firewood patrols around UNHCR camps in eastern Chad, where women and girls have to travel up to 30 kilometers away from camp to collect firewood for cooking, water to supplement the inadequate rations available in the camps and hay or straw to feed animals they raise for milk and meat. Forced to leave the camp in order to satisfy basic human needs of themselves and of their family members, Darfuri refugees plead with peacekeepers assigned to their protection, with little effect. The MINURCAT peacekeeping force and Détachement intégré de Sécurité (DIS) police units fail to provide for the security needs of the refugees; as reported in the September Amnesty International report, refugees report rebukes by DIS, telling refugees to take up their issues with camp administrators.

It is clear from events in recent weeks that the security situation in eastern Chad is insufficient for humanitarian access: aid agencies providing life-saving assistance to Darfuri refugees must be assured security for their convoys and for their international and Chadian employees. The UN should immediately review MINURCAT operationality and renew calls to donor governments to ensure full deployment of MINURCAT uniformed personnel to protect Darfuri refugees and humanitarians in Chad, along with all necessary military and other material, including military helicopters.

PHR continues to encourage all troop contributing countries and police contributing countries to recruit female officers for protection units trained to address sexual and gender-based violence and to increase funding of humanitarian operations in Chad and Sudan, to ensure the provision of healthcare services to survivors of gender-based violence.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)