In-depth: Sudan Peace Process

SUDAN: Peace talks, humanitarian action

Photo: UNICEF
Recent progress in peace talks has helped open aid routes to vulnerable Sudanese communities
NAIROBI, 2 December 2002 (IRIN) - While various attempts have been made in the past to bring an end to the civil war in Sudan, ongoing negotiations being held in Kenya under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have been viewed by many as offering the best chance of bringing peace to Africa's largest country since the current phase of conflict began in 1983.

With real progress in peace talks offering hope of an end to almost 20 years of war, aid agencies are beginning to see improvements in their operating environment on the ground, and many are looking forward to helping the war-torn Sudanese people to finally prosper in a peaceful Sudan.

In this webspecial, IRIN reviews the progress made towards peace in recent months and how this has already had a positive impact on the humanitarian situation on the ground in Sudan. It also attempts to anticipate the obstacles which peace negotiators and humanitarian actors will face in the future, and how they might be overcome.

Breakthroughs made in peace and aid

A framework peace deal signed in July 2002 - the Machakos Protocol - surprised many Sudan watchers, who had become all too used to the depressing cycle of conflict in Sudan, and further steps towards peace were made during a second round of negotiations, held from September to October 2002.

The major humanitarian breakthrough came in October when both the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in which they agreed to allow "unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas and for people in need, in accordance with the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) Agreement."

The humanitarian aspect of the MOU, which was initially to last until the end of 2002, but has been extended while peace talks continue, has been viewed by many as an enormous achievement, bearing in mind the long and troubled history of humanitarian flight denials that has effectively denied aid to many conflict-affected Sudanese.

"In the whole history of OLS, we have never had unfettered access," Ronald Sibanda of OLS said in a statement in October.

The MOU signed by both parties in October at the site of peace talks in Machakos opened the door to a resumption of the all-important negotiations. Crucially, it also included an agreement to implement cessation of hostilities for the duration of talks, paving the way for further agreement on humanitarian access.

OLS, the umbrella operation for UN agencies and NGOs working in Sudan, established in 1989, has been required to routinely submit at the start of each month to the government and the SPLM/A requests for humanitarian flight access to a number of locations in southern Sudan.

In the past, this arrangement has meant that, on average, access would be denied OLS to 25 locations in southern Sudan each month, or about 10 percent of the requests, the UN said in April.

Freedom of access to vulnerable populations - an international humanitarian principle - is guaranteed under a beneficiary protocol of OLS, which established principles for the protection and provision of aid to war-affected populations in Sudan.

Access denied

However, a tightening of restrictions on humanitarian access at the start of April 2002 saw both flight access and general humanitarian access being denied to some 40 locations, cutting off assistance to parts of western Upper Nile, Eastern Equatoria and Bahr al-Ghazal. These heightened difficulties in gaining access continued for several months, and were only resolved with the signing of the October MOU.

The situation appeared to have reached crisis point in September, when Khartoum imposed a ban on the airspace over two huge provinces of southern Sudan. The nine-day ban over both Eastern and Western Equatoria effectively stopped aid missions operating out of the OLS main logistics base at Lokichoggio in northern Kenya.

The move drew sharp criticism from aid agencies, led to heightened fears for the wellbeing of up to three million conflict-affected people across southern Sudan, and prompted speculation that government forces were about to launch a major offensive against the SPLM/A.

"The international community, led by the United States and members of the OLS agreement, have a responsibility to ensure that all victims of this tragic war receive humanitarian assistance, without further interruptions," Ken Hackett, the executive director of the US-based aid agency Catholic Relief Services, said in October, prior to the signing of the MOU. "There must be a universal understanding that any political negotiations toward peace in Sudan must include and address humanitarian concerns."

The crisis in humanitarian access came at a time when peace talks at Machakos were stalled. Government negotiators had walked out on 2 September, saying the rebel seizure of the town of Torit, Eastern Equatoria, had "spoiled the atmosphere" of the talks.

This breakdown in talks was particularly disappointing to many in the humanitarian community, bearing in mind the signing of a framework peace deal signed at Machakos in July, and the subsequent first face-to-face meeting between Sudanese President Umar Hasan al-Bashir and the SPLM/A leader, John Garang.

Aid deliveries increase

In denying humanitarian access to specific locations in the south, the government and the SPLM/A had often cited security concerns related to the country's 19-year civil war. However, with the October agreement to cease hostilities and effect a military stand-down in place, the case for access denials was weakened, according to analysts.

As a result of the MOU, a scaling up of activities has been possible in parts of the south which had been cut off from aid, in some cases for years. "The frequency and severity of security incidents has fallen dramatically since the October agreement to cease hostilities was signed," UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in December.

For example, the Sobat River Corridor in Upper Nile had been accessed for the first time in three years, OCHA added.

The most significant impact of the agreement, however, had been in the fiercely-contested, oil-rich region of western Upper Nile (Wahdah State), OCHA said.

During mid-2002, when the Sudanese government tightened restrictions on humanitarian access into western Upper Nile, and said that all aid flights should pass through government-controlled territory rather than through the OLS logistics base in Lokichoggio, northern Kenya, fears were raised of a serious escalation in conflict in the area, and aid agencies warned of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

But with the signing of the MOU, the UN's World Food Programme was able to distribute in November over 600 mt of food aid, and some populations in the state received polio immunisations for the first time.

The UN has also been able to make separate, operational arrangements with both the government and the SPLM/A to supply relief assistance to the disputed border territory of southern Blue Nile, and to Kassala State, eastern Sudan, which both fall outside the mandate of the OLS agreement, the OLS spokesman, Martin Dawes, told IRIN recently.

However, increased access would require additional funds, OCHA said, and a supplementary US $26 million would be required in addition to the annual appeal, to assist newly accessible populations for until the end of January 2003.

Hopes of IDP returns

Another important area of humanitarian action which could see important changes in coming months is that concerning Sudan's 4 million internally displaced persons - the largest such population in the world. A real peace agreement could mean that large numbers of people displaced by war, drought, and inter-ethnic conflict could start returning home.

The combined effect of militia attacks, bombing raids and mass evictions in the context of the war, often exacerbated during periods of drought, has been to create a state of chronic insecurity and poverty, particularly among rural communities in the south. Over the years, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, many heading north towards the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

In addition, government forces and their allied militias have frequently attacked civilian targets as part of an effort to weaken support for the SPLM/A, while the SPLM/A had relied on guerrilla tactics against the government, the International Crisis Group, a leading think-tank, said in a 2002 report.

A 2001 confidence-building proposal by US peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, for both sides to cease attacking civilian targets, and for an international monitoring team to be put in place to oversee its implementation, represented progress on the thorny issue. However, real progress on the ground was difficult while fighting persisted, and cycles of displacement continued.

A comprehensive peace deal, however, would mean the humanitarian community would be able to start preparations for a possible large-scale movement of displaced Sudanese back to their homes.

Although the July 2002 Machakos Protocol signed by both the government and SPLM/A outlined the general terms of a peace settlement, and the October MOU allowed for freer humanitarian action, agreement has yet to be reached on the modalities of any programme of resettlement, or on arrangements for a permanent ceasefire - a key requirement if large numbers of IDPs are to be able to return to their homes safely.

Talks resume

After a two-month pause, a third round of negotiations began on 22 January in the Karen suburb of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Top of the agenda for talks would be issues concerning power-sharing and wealth-sharing, the timing of future national elections, and the arrangements for governing Sudan during a six-month transitional period, an SPLM/A spokesman, George Garang, told IRIN recently.

There were also plans for separate talks to be held on the status in a post-conflict Sudan of the disputed border territories of southern Blue Nile, Abyei, and the Nuba Mountains in a post-conflict Sudan, Garang said.

Just prior to the resumption of talks, five major humanitarian agencies working in Sudan urged the Sudanese government, the SPLM/A and the international community to make "substantial progress" towards peace in coming weeks, and for the parties to respect the cessation of hostilities agreement.

"The GOS [government of Sudan] and the SPLM must make every effort to contain military action throughout the country at this critical time," Kees Groenendijk of the International Rescue Committee said in a statement.