Too little, too late for the victims of Darfur
30-08-2004 Article, International Herald Tribune
This article, by ICRC president Jacob Kellenberger, was first published in the International Herald Tribune on 30 August 2004 and is reproduced here with the newspaper's kind permission.
There are two stark realities about the conflict in Darfur, western Sudan. There have been massive violations of international humanitarian law, in particular attacks on civilians, and help has arrived too late and been insufficient, despite its significant impact on hundreds of thousands of people.
Both realities need to be tackled urgently by the government of Sudan, the armed opposition groups, the international community and humanitarian actors. For its part, the objective of the International Committee of the Red Cross is to achieve better protection for the civilian population of Darfur by insisting that all parties to the conflict fully respect the rules and norms of international humanitarian law.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, working with the Sudanese Red Crescent and other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, has steadily built up its response to the crisis, even in remote areas, making particular use of its ability to cross conflict lines and to travel to all parts of Darfur. The core of the ICRC operation is assistance to 300,000 displaced people and medical activities that include rehabilitating hospitals, providing back-up ICRC staff and delivering medical equipment.
All of this is making a real difference to the people of Darfur but it is not enough. Political action is needed if the cycle of violence and displacement is to be broken. The Su danese authorities, opposition armed groups, the United Nations and regional organizations must decide what form that political action should take.
Six months ago there was denial by the Sudanese authorities about conditions in Darfur. There was a largely invisible,'' tribal-based conflict,'' according to Khartoum, which was taking place against a background of peace efforts in the historic north-south conflict in Sudan. Humanitarian needs, it was argued, were being overstated by external propaganda. All that has changed. Darfur has become a huge humanitarian operation, and is now the largest worldwide for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The impact of the war on the population has been devastating. It is impossible to say accurately how many people have died. Figures for how many people have been forced to leave their homes are also unreliable; but there are probably more than a million. Destruction of livelihoods means that many people will continue to depend on outside help to survive. For those who fled their homes and for those who remained in their villages, health and sanitary conditions are very poor and continue to take their human toll every day.
The most basic rules of war have been violated, and continue to be. Little distinction has been made between civilians and combatants. The war has particularly hit t he most vulnerable sections of the civilian population: women, children, the old and the sick. Acts terrorizing the population have been common. Rape is pervasive. This violates international law and must stop. Respect for the rules of international humanitarian law, which aim to protect civilians, is essential if further displacements are to be prevented. It is equally a basic precondition for the safe return of displaced people to their homes.
The primary responsibility for this lies with the Sudanese government. It has a clear duty to protect its own people. To date it has either failed or been unable to do so. The international community on the other hand has an obligation under international law to ensure respect for humanitarian law in all circumstances. Governments must recognize that humanitarian action is no substitute for political action to protect the civilian population.