The Sudanese government has banned at least four foreign humanitarian agencies from working in the eastern region of the country. The decision last week by the Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Commission, or HAC, to suspend projects in the deeply impoverished East is yet another example of Khartoum’s continued pattern of obstruction and neglect of peripheral areas. In addition to the recent developments in the East, humanitarian access remains severely hampered in Darfur and has been completed blocked in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Among the groups told to suspend activities were Save the Children Sweden, an Irish organization GOAL, as well as a Japanese humanitarian group, and another unnamed Irish group. Eric Astron, the spokesman for Save the Children Sweden expressed confusion over Khartoum’s decision. “We didn't get any indication before. We are trying to find out the reasons [for the suspension],” he said.
HAC’s announcement comes on the heels of the decision by the international medical organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, to reduce its operations in North Darfur. MSF’s facilities provided the only medical care for 100,000 civilians in the Jebel Si area. MSF was forced to suspend medical activities due to increasing restrictions placed on the organization by the Sudanese government. Khartoum impeded the work of MSF in North Darfur by blocking shipments of drugs and medical supplies, obstructing work and travel permits for staff, and cutting off transportation options.
HAC frequently attempts to justify its draconian restrictions by accusing international humanitarian organizations of subversive behavior, mismanagement, and even operating as spies. Yet, Sudan often uses humanitarian access as a bartering chips with the international community, threatening to expel groups in response to decisions they dislike, such as the expulsion of Western aid groups from Darfur after the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir in 2009.
Though rarely in the international news headlines, the East has been plagued by similar patterns of discrimination and disenfranchisement as the other peripheral areas of Sudan. The East has shockingly poor humanitarian indicators, largely the result of Khartoum’s sustained neglect. Despite pledges of aid, the region remains underdeveloped, even after a 2006 peace deal was supposed to bring greater investment and political representation to the area. This has led to simmering discontent in the restive region.
Denial of humanitarian aid to impoverished communities is a hallmark of Khartoum’s domestic policy. While the East is not home to full-blown war like Blue Nile and South Kordofan or plagued by chronic violence and mass displacement like Darfur, these areas must be understood as suffering from the same set of grievances: longstanding neglect, disenfranchisement, and political exclusion of communities on Sudan’s periphery.
These crises can only be addressed holistically. Until a comprehensive strategy to promote inclusive constitutional reform and democratic transformation for all communities within Sudan is adopted Khartoum will continue to use humanitarian aid, and the lives of those dependent on it, as a political tool.
Photo: A Beja man stands among his cattle in the eastern Sudanese town of Sinkat (AP)
June 7, 2012: This post was revised to correct the statement that MSF had suspended operations in North Darfur. MSF reduced activities in Jebel Si but continues to work in other areas of North Darfur.