March 27, 2009
Shortly after the International Criminal Court delivered an indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese government expelled more than a dozen international humanitarian aid organizations from Darfur, including two sections of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières who were forced to leave in the midst of a meningitis outbreak.
With attacks on remaining aid workers increasing, the Sudanese president then declared that all international humanitarian aid organizations must leave the country within the year, further endangering the delivery of food, water and medical care to millions of people in the war-scarred region.
These expulsions are a direct reprisal against groups suspected of being involved with the I.C.C. as well as against governments that support the indictment of President al-Bashir.
With no way of sending investigators to Sudan (which refuses to grant them visas), the international court’s prosecutor said in 2005 that it would count on cooperation from nongovernmental organizations, among other institutions.
For their part, aid groups have not always been clear with respect to requests from the court for cooperation or testimony. Many groups supported the creation of the I.C.C., thinking it would contribute to the prevention of war crimes and reconciliation of war-torn societies, and some went so far as to claim they could be “an important source of information.”
At the time, few organizations fully grasped how international judicial processes could come in direct conflict with providing humanitarian aid. Delivering lifesaving assistance to civilians and noncombatants requires constant negotiation with local authorities as well as warring parties, who might be responsible for war crimes. The moment aid workers are perceived as collecting information for possible prosecutions, our ability to reach victims in need is undermined.
An organization simply cannot provide humanitarian aid and at the same time fight against impunity. Our teams spend a good amount of their time in Darfur negotiating the movement of ambulances through checkpoints manned by commanders of various factions, some of whom were directly responsible for the displacement of people we are assisting or the wounded we are evacuating.
Though inspired by the same objective — containing the violence of war — humanitarian assistance is not necessarily compatible with punishing war criminals or, for that matter, the armed protection of civilians. The crisis in Darfur highlights the need for aid organizations to acknowledge these contradictions and dispel any doubts about what their priority is and what they will or will not do. While Doctors Without Borders respects the I.C.C., we have not cooperated and will not cooperate with the court or relay any information to it, a position we have publicly and privately affirmed both to the I.C.C. and to the Sudanese authorities since 2004. Making clear the role of humanitarian aid and demonstrating a commitment to impartiality and neutrality allows groups to work on both sides of the frontline not only in Darfur but in other conflicts as well.
Of course, independence from the I.C.C. is not enough to avoid being blocked from providing lifesaving humanitarian aid. Recent events demonstrate that whatever position international groups have taken with regard to the I.C.C., emergency assistance in Darfur is being held hostage to political wrangling between the international community and the Sudanese government.
The current standoff illustrates how the different components of international crisis management must be carefully arbitrated, taking into account the impact on the people most affected by a conflict.
In 2004, intensive diplomatic pressure on Sudan (including the threat of armed intervention) forced the Sudanese government to open the door to international humanitarian assistance, hence averting famine following the massacres of 2003-4. Now, five years later, international pressure seeking to punish indicted Sudanese officials has led to relief efforts being cut in half, threatening the lives of millions of people.
It is not for humanitarian workers to decide on a hierarchy among humanitarian, judicial and political or military forms of action. While Doctors Without Borders reflexively tends to make aid our first priority, we are aware that other legitimate approaches are possible. But contrary to what the I.C.C. prosecutor stated to the U.N. Security Council in July 2008, the camps for displaced people in Darfur were not the ultimate instrument of “genocide by attrition.” Despite the persistence of insecurity and localized episodes of great violence, international humanitarian aid has succeeded since 2005 in avoiding famine and lowering mortality and malnutrition rates to pre-war levels.
These gains are now threatened by the response of the Sudanese government to a politics of judicial punishment that still needs to demonstrate it can serve the interests of victims.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)