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Darfur: chronicle of a death foretold

12-06-2007 Article, Kaële magazine, by Fabien Franco

This interview with ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger was first published in Kaële magazine on 5 June 2007, and is reproduced here with the magazine's kind permission. (Originally published in French)

 1. Can you explain the humanitarian implications of the conflict in Darfur?  

To be a Darfurian today – of whatever ethnic origin – often means survival in a climate of insecurity. Rural communities have been particularly affected. People’s livelihoods are threatened by looting, restrictions on freedom of movement and lack of access to basic medical care and veterinary services. Coping mechanisms such as small-scale trading are being harmed by crop destruction and unstable front lines. Insecurity also affects civilians who have fled their villages in search of relative safety in camps for internally displaced persons. Despite the reduction in military confrontations in recent months, there has been no overall improvement in the level of violence and anarchy. This makes it more difficult for aid workers to reach the victims of conflict.

This human tragedy can be solved only by political means.

 2. Do you believe we are dealing with genocide?  


The ICRC’s primary mandate is to work for the understanding and dissemination of international humanitarian law while taking independent and neutral humanitarian action. It is not, however, the ICRC’s role to comment on the existence or otherwise of a genocide situation. The Commission of Inquiry set up as a result of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1564 concluded in 2006 that genocide was not taking place in Darfur. However one describes the situation in Darfur, violence always cause s suffering.


 3. What room for manoeuvre does the ICRC have?  


In conjunction with the Sudanese Red Crescent and other national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the ICRC has continually stepped up its action in response to the crisis, especially in remote areas. The confidential dialogue we maintain with all parties to the conflict allows us the necessary access to victims in order to continue our work and deliver aid where it is most urgently needed. Notwithstanding the prevailing insecurity in many parts of Darfur, the ICRC is still present in all three states. Although there is broad acceptance by all parties to the conflict of the ICRC’s presence in Darfur, this does not always protect its staff from attack. The big problem is banditry and crime. I must therefore emphasise the need to respect the ICRC’s mission.

 5. You have visited Darfur three times since 2004. How have you seen the conflict develop?  

I returned to Sudan in February, mainly to see how conditions had changed since my last visit in 2004. The purpose of my visit was to gain a first-hand, on-the-spot idea of the current humanitarian and security situation in Darfur. I met representatives of local authorities, rebel commanders and tribal and community leaders. I was greatly disturbed by how volatile the security situation had become in many areas. I was even more concerned by the terrible suffering of the civilian population throughout the region. And I was frustrated to see the difficulties the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies are facing while trying to provid e help. These were concerns I shared with all those I met on the spot and with government ministers and others upon my return to Khartoum.

 6. The ICRC is providing assistance to more than 300,000 people, and there appear to be more than a million internally displaced persons. What pressure can you bring to bear to ensure better protection for Darfur’s civilian population?  

It is true that the situation of both displaced persons and other civilians affected by the current crisis is disturbing. Without the necessary security conditions, there is little hope that these people will one day return to their villages. That can only be achieved if all parties to the conflict fully respect the rules of international humanitarian law.

To ease the plight of the civilian population, the ICRC maintains confidential dialogue with all parties at all levels to remind them of their obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure that civilians are protected. The ICRC continues closely to monitor violations of the law and to bring to them to the attention of the authorities and parties concerned, according to the organisation’s normal methods of operation. Where there are problems, we demand that they be resolved. It is the parties’ responsibility to respect international humanitarian law, which is designed to protect the lives and dignity of civilians.

 8. What do you consider to be the international community’s responsibility?  

According to the Geneva Conventions, States are under an obligation both to respect the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) and to ensure that they are respected by others. Greater respect for IHL by all the parties involved in the Darfur conflic t will immediately have a positive impact on people living in the region. 

 9. What information are you receiving from the ground at present?  

Confrontations and poor security conditions in many areas are making the civilian population even more vulnerable. Living conditions are becoming increasingly difficult for the millions of people forced from their homes since the beginning of the conflict. Access to victims is becoming increasingly problematic. In some areas, the distribution of humanitarian aid has been interrupted as a result of security incidents. As you can see, it is difficult to work in a situation where even aid workers – in violation of the rules of international humanitarian law – often become targets.

 10. In your view, why isn’t the Sudanese conflict stirring western countries to action in the same way as the wars in the Middle East?  


The conflict and humanitarian situation in Darfur are continuing to attract international attention nevertheless. The level of funding for the ICRC shows that there is interest in helping the victims of this conflict.

 11. Despite the presence of humanitarian agencies in Sudan, the situation does not appear to have improved. What is your assessment of what could be regarded as a failure for humanitarian intervention?  


I wouldn’t describe it as a failure, but it is true that the increasingly perilous security conditions for aid workers have seriously impaired their ability to operate. Several staff members of humanitarian agencies have been killed or wo unded in attacks. With no sign of the conflict abating, the ICRC and the Sudanese Red Crescent are set for the long haul. But humanitarian action alone will not suffice. The situation can be resolved only by means of political measures.

 12. What action is the ICRC taking in Sudan?  


Since early 2004, the crucial needs of the Darfur region have made the action taken in Sudan the ICRC’s biggest operation worldwide. A structured response has been developed since 2004, based on a variety of measures and sound logistics, with programmes ranging from protection to several forms of assistance: food aid, water supplies and provision of health care.

In 2006, on average, the organisation distributed 19,000 tonnes of food each month to approximately 177,000 people in Darfur, one third of whom were internally displaced. Most of the food went to vulnerable people in remote rural areas, in the hope of preventing them from swelling the ranks of displaced persons living in already overcrowded camps. ICRC engineers supplied water to several camps for internally displaced persons and various urban areas, and repaired water supply networks in four towns. In 2006, hundreds of water pumps were repaired, and more than 50 wells dug or cleaned. The ICRC also modernised four hospitals and 12 primary health care clinics, providing medical assistance and staff. The ICRC’s surgical team was deployed 60 times in 2006, performing nearly 500 operations. Hundreds of thousands of camels and cattle were vaccinated, and farming equipment distributed to thousands of people.

The conflict in Darfur has scattered many families in its wake. Searching for missing persons and helping dispersed family members to exchange news – and where possible to be reunited – is a long-term undertaking ably assisted by th e Sudanese Red Crescent.

 13. Does the ICRC run the camps for displaced persons?  

The ICRC does not run the camps for displaced persons. This is done by the authorities on the spot. Nevertheless, the ICRC has taken steps to provide displaced populations with the means of survival where the authorities are unable to do so.

At the start of the crisis in 2004, the ICRC began working in the Darfur camps for displaced persons; as other agencies arrived to help the displaced, however, we gradually turned our attention to rural areas where there are very few humanitarian agencies, so as to provide assistance to people still living in their villages. We regard it as a priority to help people stay in their homes rather than joining the camps. We support residents and displaced persons in rural areas, in particular by providing them with seeds, tools and appropriate relief geared to their needs. Water-supply and medical programmes are equally vital.

At the end of January, we took the unusual step at the camp for displaced persons in Gereida of resuming responsibility for the provision of water and food, the supervision of health services, waste management, the provision of primary health care and the management of a nutrition programme in conjunction with the British and Australian Red Cross societies. This decision was taken following the departure of other humanitarian agencies, which had to leave the town in the wake of a serious security incident.

 14. What kinds of political measures might put an end to the conflict?  


The measures to be taken must reconcile the political and economic aspirations of the central government with those of opposition groups in Darfur. Any political solution mus t be consistent with human rights and international humanitarian law.

 15. In your view, what does the future hold?  


There is little sign of a stable political solution as yet, and the fragmentation of armed groups is further complicating an already dangerous situation. Increasing levels of banditry, the fragmentation of armed groups, confrontations between government forces and non-signatory rebel groups and tribal battles all form the backdrop to an ever more politicised local conflict and a growing state of anarchy. Competition for land and water resources continues to fuel violence and armed confrontations in the three provinces.

 16. You have been President of the International Committee of the Red Cross since 2000. What is your assessment of these last seven years spent in the four corners of the world?  

I have realized that it is possible, notwithstanding all the difficulties and obstacles, to improve the lives of millions of particularly vulnerable people through determined humanitarian action. 

 17. On a personal level, what have you learned about yourself and the world around you?  


As far as the world is concerned, the close proximity of its worst and best elements. About myself: it helps to have a strong resolve based on sound convictions, including in this job.