Sudan's is Africa's longest running civil war. It is controversial not only because the humanitarian community has faced severe problems in securing free and unhindered access to affected populations but also because of persistent reports of the deliberate military targeting of non-combatants.
Some two million people have been killed in the war and the number of Sudanese refugees, most of whom have fled fighting in the south of the country between the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), has swelled to more than half a million.
Sudan also has the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, about 4 million people having been forced from their homes, mostly by war or humanitarian emergencies exacerbated by violent conflict.
Numerous humanitarian, human rights and state parties have, over time, accused the Sudanese government of targeting or failing to protect civilians in the civil war, and for denying or restricting access by aid agencies to vulnerable populations, despite having formally endorsed the principle of unimpeded access.
The government, in particular, has been criticised for the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, restricting or endangering relief operations, and reportedly operating a "scorched earth policy" to clear oil production areas of civilian populations.
The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Sudan, Gerhart Baum, in November 2001 condemned "the constant disregard by both parties to the conflict of their own commitments, and lack of observance of human rights principles and humanitarian law", and drew attention to the appalling conditions of the civilian population resulting therefrom.
But a series of positive developments arising out of peace negotiations being conducted under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has ensued in a relatively improved humanitarian outlook for the populations of most of Sudan's war-affected regions in recent months.
This improvement in the available humanitarian space began with the July 2002 signing of the Machakos Protocol between the government and SPLM/A, which placed the issue of civilian protection high on the agenda of those talks.
A major breakthrough came in October 2002 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cessation of Hostilities, thereby undertaking, among other things, to take all necessary steps to facilitate the immediate voluntary return of the civilian population of western Upper Nile to their villages. Under the same MOU, the parties agreed to allow "unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas and for people in need, in accordance with the Operation Lifeline Sudan [OLS] Agreement."
The OLS agreement, signed in 1989 by the UN, government of Sudan and SPLM/A, was then considered a considerable achievement in the implementation of humanitarian principles towards securing a sound basis on which to deliver humanitarian assistance outside the traditional, bilateral framework.
On 5 February this year, the parties signed an addendum agreement that further strengthened the October 2002 MOU. It also announced the formation of a Verification and Monitoring Team (VMT), which would incorporate elements of the work of existing Civilian Protection Monitoring Teams (CPMTs) already working on the ground to verify reports of civilian violations.
Western Upper Nile
Despite the signing of these agreements, a number of problems have emerged, especially in January, when a fresh wave of attacks by government troops and allied militia were reported in the oil-rich western Upper Nile.
The CPMT team sent to verify the situation laid the blame squarely on the Khartoum government. In its January report, it stated that thousands of civilians had been forcibly displaced from their villages by direct military attack. Most villages are now empty or completely destroyed along the Bentiu-Adok road, according to the CPMT.
It cited eyewitness accounts of military attacks and subsequent actions by soldiers and pro-government militia, in violation of the letter and spirit of the agreement on civilian protection.
Humanitarian observers insist that the militias attack villages with the full backing of the Khartoum government. "Nowhere in the world do militia use helicopter gunships and heavy artillery," one such source told IRIN. "So, by definition, these are groups operating under proxy of the government of Sudan - the government is supporting them. The militia must be seriously addressed in the peace process, and be dealt with as well."
There are clear signs that fighting is continuing in certain areas of western Upper Nile, despite commitment by both parties to the conflict to agreements on cessation of hostilities and civilian protection, according to humanitarian sources.
The oil factor in the region has in particular assumed critical importance in the Sudanese conflict, adding a dynamic that has brought even more severe humanitarian consequences to the region's civilians, who are routinely displaced from their homes to pave the way for oil exploration, a recent research jointly commissioned by the Nairobi based Africa Centre for Technological Studies and the South African-based Institute for Security Studies noted.
The research's findings, documented in a book entitled "Scarcity and Surfeit: The Ecology of Africa's Conflicts", revealed that oil had become the most valuable of Sudan's contested resources, rendering civilians in the western Upper Nile region and other oil-producing areas especially vulnerable.
[See IRIN Report: www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=32857
Senior Sudanese diplomats involved in the peace negotiations have admitted that the "skirmishes" in the western Upper Nile region were alarming, but deny any government policy deliberately targeting civilians militarily.
"This is an area where a CPMT is operating," Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry, the charge d'affaires at the Sudanese embassy in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, told IRIN. "I don't think anyone would be justified in saying there is ethnic cleansing, because there is a team which is on the ground to monitor and verify the situation."
Dirdeiry, while admitting some responsibility on the part of pro-government militia, has also attributed the clashes in the region to the "absence of democracy" within areas controlled by the SPLM/A. "Some of the militia have a political agenda; others exist because of some economic factors," he said. "And some of these issues are not properly being addressed by the SPLM/A. This is the reason for the clashes from time to time."
He is, however, hopeful that this problem will be addressed through the verification process that began with the CPMT to ensure that each party became accountable for the militia it controlled. "One party will always be answerable on the issue of militia," he said. "In the meantime, we think this problem should also be addressed. The militia will also have to resign to the reality and accept the fact that they have to change their way of life."
Civilian protection monitoring
The existence of the CPMTs, which are on the ground to monitor alleged abuses against civilians in disputed regions of Sudan, is largely credited to the US special envoy, Senator John Danforth, who negotiated important humanitarian agreements as part of the confidence-building measures towards a comprehensive ceasefire.
The CPMT mechanism has been hailed for addressing one of the most significant components that had been missing in the Sudan peace process: human rights and humanitarian verification and reporting. The March talks held by the IGAD extended its mandate for another year.
Humanitarian observers said the CPMT had bridged a gap that could not have been filled by OLS, the UN-led humanitarian coalition, whose humanitarian nature would have been jeopardised by documenting and reporting on abuses.
Independent human rights organisations, on the other hand, had "had little influence on the policy making process, and their recommendations were easily disregarded by the warring parties," one observer told IRIN.
"To me, the CPMT is an incredible step," this observer said. "It has a reporting mechanism that can directly influence issues at the political level. Now we have a channel everyone can feed into."
However, critics of the CPMTs argue that their mandate remains unclear and its progress has been slow.
According to Jamera Rone, a researcher with the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the CPMT process is short of personnel with knowledge and experience of Sudan, its peoples and history.
The CPMT had also ignored important investigations on civilian abuses in Khartoum, where there are extensive reports of forcible recruitment of southerners living in the city by a government militia leader, Rone told IRIN. "The CPMT has not utilised its capacity fully, particularly in the crucial area of gathering information from the civilian victims it is supposed to protect," Rone said. "Examination of shrapnel alone will never tell us how many civilians were injured or killed by a bomb."
The CPMT's strength, according to the HRW researcher, has been its logistical capacity and military analysis. "It has demonstrated to the government of Sudan and its militias, and to the SPLM/A, that it can gather hard military forensic evidence of what has really happened," Rone said. "It has shown that it has the capacity to cut through the propaganda war and the parties' exaggerations and untruths about what is really going on in remote areas of Sudan."
Peter Adwok, a Sudanese scholar, is also unimpressed with the work of the CPMTs so far. "I don't think they have done anything since the team was established last year," Adwok told IRIN. "The war on civilians continues, and they don't interfere. We are wondering what they are doing. They don't even go to the ground to look for information. They just get second-hand information."
There are also emerging concerns that confusion over the CPMT's mandate has led to increased restrictions on its operations. CPMT Director of Operations, Laney Pankey, told IRIN in April that the work of the two teams based in Rumbek and Khartoum, had been grounded for nearly a month. [See also: www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=33300
The teams had since 7 March had been unable to make any visits to sites to complete investigations or initiate new investigations into fresh reports of abuses, he said. "There is a lack of agreement between the government of Sudan and the team on their responsibilities," Pankey said. "We have only been able to conduct administrative flights to deliver supplies or relocate personnel," he said.
According to Pankey, normal procedure would involve the CPMT notifying the Sudanese foreign ministry of any planned investigations, which would in turn notify a military intelligence division. However, Sudanese military intelligence had since 7 March stopped processing these notifications.
Pankey emphasised, however, that the teams did not require any permission or authority to travel to conduct their investigations, but they did need "the full support and cooperation" from the military and local militias for reasons of safety and security. "We think the agreement is very simple, concise, clear and precise, in that they will facilitate and support our visits and investigations where required to," he said. "They are supposed to provide security protection and acknowledge what we are going to do," he said.
The January 2002 Nuba Mountains ceasefire between the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A has achieved a good measure of success, especially in allowing humanitarian access to the area, which had long been closed to relief agencies. In January 2003, the ceasefire was extended for another six months.
Brokered by the US and Swiss governments, the Nuba ceasefire was an undertaking by the Sudanese government and SPLM/A to end the abduction of civilians; allow international monitors to investigate attacks on civilians; and establish tranquillity to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid in the Nuba region of Southern Kordofan, south-central Sudan.
The ceasefire is being managed and monitored by a Joint Military Commission, comprising representatives from both the government and the SPLM/A and an international monitoring presence, including military and civilian staff.
The negotiated ceasefire, which came into force on 22 January 2002, curbed large-scale fighting in the Nuba Mountains and paved the way for large humanitarian operations, which helped avert what had been flagged as a potential famine looming in the region.
The region had been blocked to humanitarian access for over a decade by access denials – flying in the face of international humanitarian law - and intensive fighting.
A baseline study on the Nuba Mountains, carried out by the Office of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan in November 2002, said the ceasefire had contributed to an improvement of people's lives and facilitated increased freedom of movement, as well as improved access to assets and resources.
In the words of Dirdeiry, the Nuba ceasefire is a "really remarkable" step towards development in the region. "For over a year, a monitored ceasefire is in place," he said. "In the past, there was concern in that area over humanitarian access. That has completely been addressed."
Dirdeiry said that as a result of the progress in Nuba, the parties were encouraged to move on towards negotiating a final peace deal for the region in the ongoing round of talks, which have also focused on the disputed areas of western Upper Nile and southern Blue Nile.
The Nuba Mountains ceasefire and its implementation may provide a model for the entire Sudanese peace process, particularly due to its historic interaction with both the north and the south, according to one analyst. "The ceasefire has held very well and may be very predictive of what may happen in the context of a final ceasefire," he told IRIN.
Despite the success of the Nuba ceasefire, analysts have stressed that the humanitarian agreements signed could not be implemented without a clear framework for enforcement of the recommendations of the monitoring teams. Some sources have said the success of the agreement depends on sustained pressure being brought to bear by the US on the Sudanese government, which it still lists among the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism.
"Khartoum is still very sensitive about the evil tag it got from the Bush administration as one of the leading state sponsors of international terrorism," one observer told IRIN. "They want to be seen to be cooperating in the peace process."
Access in Blue Nile
Another breakthrough regarding civilian protection in Sudan was achieved in March when the UN's leading humanitarian agencies began sending food relief to Blue Nile State, in the east.
The area was opened to aid agencies following lengthy separate bilateral negotiations between the UN, the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A in mid-January, followed by a joint assessment of the humanitarian situation in the region.
The World Food Programme and United Nations Children's Fund announced on 19 March that they had started the first large-scale operation to deliver essential assistance to 115,000 drought and war-affected persons in the region.
The humanitarian assessment had indicated that over 90 percent of the total population were in need of food assistance, the statement said. The situation was worse for internally displaced persons, 60 percent of whom were children and women, whose survival was challenged by inadequate food and frequent illnesses.
The protracted conflict in the region has destroyed nearly all infrastructure and created large-scale humanitarian needs, according to recent humanitarian assessments. Until now, the southern Blue Nile region has been inaccessible to large-scale humanitarian operations carried out by OLS, due to objections by the Khartoum government.
Humanitarian programmes in the region have been limited to a few non-OLS relief agencies. Monitoring groups were only able to assess humanitarian needs in the region following the cessation of hostilities agreement reached during last year's Machakos negotiations.
Increased humanitarian access to southern Blue Nile has also been credited to a US government focus on Sudan, and increased US pressure on the Khartoum government, which had argued that southern Blue Nile was outside the area historically considered southern Sudan, and lay outside the OLS humanitarian mandate.
Recent assessments indicate that southern Blue Nile requires sustained emergency assistance, due primarily to prolonged insecurity. Global malnutrition levels have risen to more than 20 percent in the region, according to aid workers. "People are leaving in search of water and food. These people need assistance. It is getting too late," a relief worker told IRIN.
Although agreements for the Nuba Mountains and other disputed areas of Sudan have served to improve humanitarian access, analysts stress that, without efforts to arrive at a genuine settlement to the Sudanese war, this is superficial.
The March round of the IGAD talks focused on the administration of the three disputed areas of southern Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains and Abyei areas of Southern Kordofan. The talks also extended the mandate of the CPMTs to monitor and verify claims of attacks on civilians. IGAD ministers from Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda also agreed that member states should contribute personnel to the VMT, an IGAD statement said.
There have, however, been fears that concessions secured on the protection of civilians would be lost with the US government’s preoccupation with its war on Iraq. Such fears appear to have gained credence with recent lapses in the Cessation of Hostilities, but are dismissed by Kenyan Foreign Minister Kalonzo Musyoka, who said they were based on exaggeration of the US input in the peace process.
"There is no parallel between the peace process and the war [in Iraq]. This is a regional countries' undertaking, which we must see through if we hope to have a stable community," Musyoka told journalists in Nairobi.
With new challenges emerging on the political front – especially in determining the future status of disputed areas of Nuba Mountains, Abyei and southern Blue Nile, which are not considered part of the south by the government, but where much of the population backs the southern rebellion - civilian protection will continue to be a key focus area in the ongoing peace process.
"Through the IGAD process, we have reinvigorated efforts to bring peace to Sudan," Dirdeiry told IRIN. "Civilian protection is one of the areas in which we have made significant progress."
In Sudan, a key problem will be moving from positive rhetoric and signed agreements – often delivered in the past - to establishing a culture of civilian protection and an end to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law.
In that light, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently welcomed the creation by President Umar Hasan al-Bashir in February of a national commission on international humanitarian law, describing it as "a major step toward effective implementation of humanitarian law in Sudan".
The commission's task would be to advise and assist the government in spreading knowledge of and applying international humanitarian law, and thus meeting its international obligations, said the ICRC in Khartoum. The government, it said, "must adopt laws to ensure, for example, that prisoners of war, wounded and sick combatants and civilians benefit from the guarantees to which they are entitled".
Yet, barely a week after the release of the ICRC’s statement, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that, in continuing violation of agreements it had signed, the government and proxy forces were continuing attacks in oilfield areas of western Upper Nile, and that "the primary victims of the violence are civilians".
Calling for the political engagement that would support and copper-fasten peace agreements and improved humanitarian access, ICG Africa Programme Co-Director John Prendergast called on the international community to "immediately condemn the new and continuing attacks".
"The parties must be held accountable for agreements signed in the context of the peace process", he said. "Otherwise, neither the government, the SPLM/A nor the Sudanese people can be expected to take the process seriously."
*[This article is one of a series of reports and interviews that comprise a new Web Special on Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict. In it, IRIN explores International Humanitarian Law and principled humanitarian action, the provisions for civilian protection, the problems encountered in achieving this, and the prospects for the future. See web special at www.irinnews.org