On May 11, representatives of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia reached an agreement in Jeddah, brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan committed both parties to respect international humanitarian law and vacate residential areas.
The declaration was welcomed internationally as a good step forward, but many in Sudan were sceptical. A sarcastic Sudanese commentator remarked: “We thought the two belligerents would agree to leave Khartoum; it turned out that they have agreed to let us leave.”
On the same day, the Sudanese foreign ministry, supported by Arab members in the United Nations Human Rights Council, objected to a British motion calling for closer monitoring of the human rights situation in Sudan and urging an unconditional cessation of hostilities. The resolution was passed by 18 (mostly European) votes to 15, with 14 abstentions.
When I expressed surprise on my Facebook page at the position of Sudan, given that the Jeddah Declaration had just been signed, committing the warring sides to humanitarian principles, almost all the responses echoed narratives about the duplicity of the West on international law.
Indeed, there are problems with the international humanitarian regime, and it is in need of serious scrutiny and radical rethinking. However, humanitarian emergencies are not the time for indulgence in the populist rhetoric of mistrust and scepticism. Doing so now would only raise the already high human cost of this conflict.
At the same time, a standard humanitarian response in Sudan’s situation would not be adequate. When addressing the crisis, the international community needs to take into account the specifics of this conflict and its own past humanitarian failures.
The ongoing conflict, which lacks clear territorial boundaries of control, necessitates a different humanitarian response than usual.
The country faces multi-level insecurities due to constant fighting everywhere, the inability of any side to enforce its rule anywhere, and persistent uncertainty about what direction the conflict will take.
The current humanitarian crisis in Sudan is the direct outcome of this uncontrollable level of insecurity, compounded by the desperate quest for havens by the randomly dispersed RSF fighters. The latter have barricaded themselves in hospitals, ministries, private homes and anywhere else they can find, using these as hideouts and sniper positions.
The SAF has used the standard military tactic of attacking RSF camps and positions all over Khartoum. However, rather than resulting in territory acquisition, the dispersal of the enemy and its tactics created a new reality, with the militia adopting a strategy of maximising insecurity and making normal life impossible for everybody.
By spreading terror on the streets and inside homes, the RSF has forced people to flee; its ubiquitous presence has impeded the functioning of public services, including healthcare, food distribution and transportation.
The aim of all this is to put pressure on the SAF, neighbouring countries and the international community to accept RSF demands.
Traditional humanitarian strategies for delivering aid in this situation of heightened insecurity would not work. Without restoring some level of security, aid cannot be delivered.
Thus, the call by the Human Rights Council for an unconditional ceasefire is anti-humanitarian, especially in light of the commitment in the Jeddah Declaration by both parties to vacate hospitals and stop impeding the functioning of essential civilian facilities. A ceasefire that leaves RSF in occupied hospitals, usurped homes and other civilian buildings, would do nothing to help restore normality.
That is why any cession of hostilities must start by releasing abducted civilians, and evacuating hospitals, private homes and essential civilian installations.
A firm message needs to be sent to the militias to implement these requirements and desist from looting, rape, forcible recruitment and other violations, as a condition for a ceasefire. Credible threats of sanctions or even limited intervention should also be deployed to endure compliance.
A different humanitarian response
When security is restored, international aid agencies need to carefully consider the type of aid the Sudanese people would need. In the current situation, half the population of Khartoum needs food aid. Due to the looting of banks, shops, homes and private property (mainly by the RSF, but also unruly mobs), few people can lay their hands on cash.
But if insecurity is reduced, life could return to normal. If fighters withdraw from civilian areas, public transport would be able to resume and necessary facilities and public services would be able to operate again. In this case, food may not be the biggest necessity for people; there is no shortage of food around Khartoum
So the importing by aid agencies of food and aid workers does not make sense, when the job can be done at just a fraction of the cost by employing local resources and labour.
At the same time, public sectors have been hit hard. Take healthcare, for example. Due to the security situation, many medical professionals have left Khartoum, and even the country. The RSF has also been abducting doctors and other health workers to enlist them as part of their informal “medical corps”. They have also occupied and destroyed many hospitals in the capital.
So priority should be given to restoring security in the shortest possible time, in addition to providing emergency field hospitals and emergency housing for health workers to enable them to return to their duties.
In charting the response to the crisis in Sudan, humanitarian agencies should also consider their own past failures.
The ill-fated UNAMID peacekeeping mission in Darfur (2007-2020) is a textbook case of how the structures of UN operations can subvert the very humanitarian purpose of the organisation. It failed to protect civilians despite the deployment of some 26,000 troops.
What UNAMID has shown is that the mere deployment of peacekeeping troops in a complex war zone is no substitute for addressing the causes and consequences of the conflict itself. A fraction of the cost of the mission would have helped resolve the crisis if it had been spent on reconciliation and the resettlement of displaced people.
‘Western double standards’
An interesting side-effect of the crisis in Sudan has been the revival of some of the familiar populist rhetoric of “Western double standards” and ulterior motives with regard to humanitarianism and peace-making. This began with anger at the way foreign countries made such a fuss about evacuating their citizens and international workers, while completely neglecting the affected Sudanese citizens; it continued with the Jeddah declaration and the UNHRC’s resolution.
This is a reflection of Sudan’s own chequered history of responses to humanitarian crises. Over the past five decades, the country has experienced a series of major disasters, mainly famines exacerbated by war and at times droughts and floods.
During the famines of 1973-74 and 1984-85, President Jaafar Nimeiry refused to declare an emergency or even admit hunger was happening. When he was challenged by a journalist on the issue, he claimed that it was “shameful” in Sudanese culture to beg for food. Nimeiry’s regime fell in 1985, partly due to his failure to address the famine.
Another major emergency happened in 1988, when two years of drought were followed by massive floods. The democratically elected government of the time accepted foreign aid, but it was too little, too late, and the delivery was chaotic. The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army refused to allow aid into the south.
As a result, over a quarter of a million people died, causing an international outcry, and forcing the parties to accept in 1989 a pioneering UN initiative, called Operation Lifeline Sudan. The operation delivered aid directly to the south, without government scrutiny. The military regime of Omar al-Bashir repeatedly complained about the abuse of the operation, especially the use of relief planes by rebel commanders, but allowed it to run until the end of the war in 2005.
However, the regime refused to acknowledge a famine in 1990-91 in another part of the country and kept obstructing relief operations in certain areas.
Then when the crisis in Darfur erupted in 2003, al-Bashir put restrictions on aid and increased controls on aid workers, who had trouble obtaining visas or even permits to leave Khartoum. NGOs were regularly expelled.
The regime used the same populist narratives about aid being part of foreign machinations of control, accusing aid workers of being spies; it also criticised aid as a dependency-creating strategy.
There is a danger of a return to that rhetoric of condemning aid in the name of anti-colonialism and national sovereignty. This could be detrimental to the victims of the current conflict.
The arguments about the duplicity of major international powers regarding humanitarianism and human rights should be taken seriously. The economic structure of rewards for international workers indeed remains a corrupting influence on the profession. However, humanitarian organisations still provide much-needed help for the disadvantaged and continue to attract dedicated idealists
Whatever the misgivings about international humanitarianism, the focus should be on delivering aid to those whose life depends on it.
There is a saying by Prophet Muhammad that a woman was sent to hell because she allowed a cat to starve to death. She neither fed it nor set it free to find its own food. If starving a cat can earn eternal damnation, how about starving scores of human beings?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.