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Ending Starvation as a Weapon of War in Sudan


Warring parties and international aid providers in Sudan have an historic opportunity to bring to an end what is perhaps the most extreme and long-running example in the world of using access to humanitarian aid as an instrument of war. A mid-December meeting between the UN and Sudan’s warring parties – the Technical Committee for Humanitarian Assistance (TCHA) – provides an unparalleled vehicle to build on recent short-term agreements and to once and for all remove the institutional barriers to unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies. Such an opportunity may not arise again, so it is imperative that mediators, the UN Security Council, and interested governments provide concentrated and immediate support for this objective.

Resolving this issue will have more than just humanitarian significance. Sudan is presently poised between making peace and intensifying war. The next months are a crucial period for the peace initiative being managed by the regional body IGAD (Inter-governmental Authority on Development), supported on-site by four official observers (Italy, Norway, UK and U.S.), and backed by governments in the IGAD Partners Forum such as Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands. This process offers by far the best hope yet for an end to the country’s devastating nineteen-year civil conflict. Manipulation of humanitarian assistance has been throughout the conflict an integral part of the strategies of both warring parties – but especially the government, relying on its sovereign right to deny access to its territory. To end permanently restrictions on access to humanitarian aid would provide a major additional foundation for further efforts by the mediators to broker a comprehensive peace.

The months that followed the provisional protocol on important elements of a settlement signed at Machakos, Kenya in July 2002 saw heavy fighting on multiple fronts. On 15 October, however, Khartoum and the SPLA insurgents signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) providing for the resumption of negotiations (after a six-week suspension that had been caused by a government walk-out), cessation of hostilities through the end of December, and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid during that same period. On 26 October, the parties signed with the UN (under whose wing the main humanitarian operation is carried out) a further technical agreement allowing unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies for the months of November and December. The lead IGAD negotiator, Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, expects to achieve an extension of the MOU – both the cessation of hostilities and the removal of access restrictions – until 31 March 2003. This is a crucial building block for continued progress, understandably slow given the complexity of the issues, in the peace process itself.

The pledge to permit unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance included in the 15 October MOU and the more detailed implementation agreement concluded on 26 October is well timed. The humanitarian situation in Sudan’s many war-torn areas deteriorated badly in recent months, as civilians continued to suffer the brunt in particular of Khartoum’s management of access in furtherance of its strategic aims. The agreement will help reverse the damage done over the past months, but only if the necessary resources are mobilised to respond to the newly accessible locations.

However, there is every reason to be sceptical that the new humanitarian agreement will either produce a lasting improvement in accessing needy populations or contribute positively to the crucial negotiations in Machakos. The parties have reached and broken such agreements a number of times in the past, dating back to the original tripartite arrangement that created Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) under the UN umbrella in 1989. Each time, the international community has failed to apply corrective pressure. It is vital to avoid such a mistake this time, both because many lives are immediately at stake and because allowing the parties to slip away from this written commitment would create an atmosphere of cynicism and business as usual at Machakos unlikely to lead to a lasting peace agreement. A major effort is needed at the TCHA meeting next month to end the parties’ veto power over when and where aid is delivered.

More medium term strategies which will reduce the obstruction of aid over time would be to strengthen the capacity of Sudanese organisations and non-OLS agencies to be prepared to assume greater responsibilities, and to enhance the network of roads to expand ground deliveries of aid throughout the South. It is also appropriate to begin to explore the difficult issues that the international community would face if war resumed in its full ferocity early in 2003 and there was need to threaten or use military force to get life-saving aid into the country.

The basic message of this report is that it is time for the international community to take a strong, coordinated stand to institutionalise the concept of unimpeded humanitarian access. Whether the 26 October agreement for blanket access is purely tactical or represents a shift toward prioritising humanitarian concerns, this opening has to be seized and pushed until this temporary exception becomes the rule. These next few weeks leading up to the TCHA meeting will truly be a test of international resolve in support of life-saving humanitarian access. The dry season will return with a temptation to utilise tried and true tactics for manipulating aid, particularly if fighting resumes. The use of starvation as a central war tactic through the obstruction of aid access should no longer be greeted by international acquiescence.


To the government of Sudan and the SPLA:

1. Implement fully the 26 October agreement and any follow-up agreements on unimpeded humanitarian access and in so doing build the mutual confidence that improves the climate for reaching a comprehensive peace agreement in a timely manner.

2. Work together with the UN at the forthcoming TCHA meeting to permanently remove all restrictions on access and geographic scope for OLS operations.

To the IGAD mediation team, governments of the observer countries and Sudan’s friends in North Africa and the Middle East

3. Maintain pressure on the parties to provide unimpeded humanitarian access in order to demonstrate that agreements signed by the parties are taken seriously and supported by the international community.

4. Urge the Sudanese government and SPLA to accept once and for all an end to their veto power over aid access operations at the forthcoming TCHA meeting.

5. Request the UN Security Council, in the event of non-implementation of the agreements to support the Machakos negotiations by considering the situation urgently and pressing the offending party or parties to comply with their commitments and in particular to renounce any claim to be able to veto humanitarian access within the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) framework.

To international donors:

6. Provide diplomatic support to bring about a successful result of the forthcoming TCHA meeting, and provide additional humanitarian resources in order to respond to increased relief demands resulting from expanded access.

7. Begin immediately to prepare and institute measures to make humanitarian operations more effective including:

(a) improving the capacity of indigenous Sudanese organisations to provide and manage humanitarian assistance; and

(b) expanding road construction projects that will facilitate land access to the South;.

8. Prepare for worst case, full-scale resumption of war and renewed efforts to deny humanitarian access by:

(a) building the capacity of non-governmental organisations to respond to a humanitarian crisis in areas inaccessible to OLS and developing a bureaucratic “quick release” mechanism capable of handing international efforts and resources over to such organisations if OLS is denied access; and

(b) initiating study of the practical modalities and political, military and logistical obstacles that would be involved in forcing access, perhaps by declaring areas of Sudan “no fly” zones except for aircraft bringing in humanitarian aid.

To the UN Security Council:

9. Pass a resolution in support of the forthcoming TCHA meeting and the objective of removing all restrictions on humanitarian access.

Nairobi/Brussels, 14 November 2002

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