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Sudan: UN Officials Say Humanitarian Catastrophe Is Unavoidable In West Darfur

Senior UN officials say a humanitarian disaster of catastrophic proportions now appears unavoidable in Sudan's West Darfur region as the government continues to block relief workers and aid from reaching nearly 2 million needy people. In New York, the UN's humanitarian chief is calling for a new UN resolution to prevent future crises from growing into major catastrophes.

Prague, 15 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, is meeting with Sudanese government officials in Khartoum today after a visit to a part of the country where one of the world's worst humanitarian crises is unfolding -- West Darfur.

The UN estimates some 2 million civilians in West Darfur -- including half a million children -- have been affected by civil war. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes.

Senior UN officials say the crisis is the result of what they term ethnic cleansing on the part of Sudan's Islamic government and Arab militias. And they say the government continues to obstruct aid workers trying to deliver relief before the summer rainy season turns overland transport routes into impassible mud roads. Sudan has dismissed charges by the international community of ethnic cleansing in the region, and has promised to facilitate humanitarian relief.

Bellamy has indicated her talks in Khartoum will be influenced by what she saw yesterday when she visited tens of thousands of refugees at camps in West Darfur. "This is really a tragedy that is still growing and probably not fully comprehended in terms of the scale," she said.

The situation was caused by an uprising last year by non-Muslim minority groups that led to fierce retaliation by government forces and allied militia. Last week, leaders from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations urged Sudan's government to immediately disarm the Arab militias and other groups that have been waging a campaign of looting, burning and rape in the remote region.
"It is, indeed, too little too late on all aspects for the people of Darfur -- first and foremost, because we were denied access for so long." -- UN Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland

The G-8 said in a statement that it is looking toward the UN to avert a "major disaster" in West Darfur. Despite the promises by the Sudanese government to take action, the G-8 statement noted continuing reports of human rights violations -- many with an ethnic dimension.

Yesterday, while traveling between two refugee camps in West Darfur, Bellamy passed through abandoned villages destroyed by recent violence. "This was a market that attracted people from all over the area -- from the villages. And we can see one of the villages back here. It's clear that the market is burned. It seems pretty clear that the villages are burned. We have seen virtually no one on the road. And all of this is just recent," Bellamy said.

In New York, the UN's emergency-relief coordinator briefed the UN Security Council about the unfolding crisis. Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland says it is already too late to prevent a massive humanitarian catastrophe in West Darfur. "It is, indeed, too little too late on all aspects for the people of Darfur -- first and foremost, because we were denied access for so long," Egelund said.

Egeland said relief workers in nongovernmental organizations who work as the UN's partners face the worst bureaucratic and procedural obstacles in Sudan. "Our nongovernmental partners are still denied access, some of them, because they are not given visas [by the government of Sudan] like we are [as members of the United Nations]," Egelund said.

Even when UN workers are allowed into Sudan, Egeland said Sudanese customs officials often delay the entry of equipment they need to do their work. "It has taken a long, long time to get many of the vehicles free from customs," he said. "When they finally come out of customs, they have no radios. We cannot send people in with vehicles into Darfur without radios because of the security situation."

Egeland yesterday called on the UN Security Council to pass a new resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. He said the resolution should increase the monitoring powers of UN teams and create an early warning system to prevent small humanitarian crises from developing into what he called "full-blown catastrophes."

"In 20 conflicts around the world, humanitarian access is either denied or obstructed. I believe that there are at least 10 million people in the world in need of food, water, shelter, medical care, and the basic means for survival, and to whom we have no access," Egelund said.

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the occupied Palestinian territories were all named by Egeland as places where the delivery of aid by relief workers is hampered by concerns over security. Egeland said UN workers also need stronger powers to monitor human rights abuses. "In Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, northern Uganda, and other conflict situations, sexual violence and other particularly abhorrent human rights abuses against women and children have been committed on a horrifying scale," he said. "Rape continues to be used as a brutal weapon of war."

Egeland told the UN Security Council that the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide provides a "chilling impetus" to study how vulnerable civilians can be better protected in future armed conflicts. He said that although West Darfur has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today due to ethnic cleansing, the situation is "not genocide yet." But he concluded that the international community must take action immediately to prevent a repeat of a Rwanda-style genocide in western Sudan.