IRIN interview with Dennis McNamara

Question: You have just returned from northern Uganda. What were your general impressions of what is going on, the conflict and its humanitarian implications?

Answer: I think the first one, for any visitor, is tragic, tragic. Especially the atrocities that are being carried out against the women and the children, in particular. The abductions and the brutality - 18 years of this is horrendous. The complete destabilisation of the area. I think 96 percent of the land in that area has been abandoned. The Acholi people are really all dependant on international aid now. And that is the tragedy that strikes you. When you see the children coming out of the LRA [Lord's Resistance Army], out of this mad movement, you realise how desperate the situation is - and what a terrible impact. But that is one side of it.

The other side is that there has been progress recently. Security has improved in some areas, in Lira for example. The UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Forces] has made progress. They told us many children, mainly from the LRA, are giving themselves up under the amnesty law. So there is some optimism that this could be settled. Of course, this is a cult movement and they need to find the leader - this [Joseph] Kony who is not yet visible. But there is some cautious optimism.

The humanitarian situation is desperate - 1.6 million [displaced people] is bigger than Darfur. The government officials told us these are the poorest people they have in the area. And they are not getting enough assistance, of course. We need to do more. The UN and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] need to do more. There are not that many NGOs in the far north. We focused on protection, we are concerned about sexual abuse of the girls.

Q: Before you go into protection - you said 96 percent of the land is abandoned. Do you see this as an issue that will have implications beyond the conflict period?

A: Yes, when they lose that land and abandon their houses, when the schools collapse and health systems don't function in the countryside and the people have to come into the towns, you have to rebuild the whole infrastructure for people to return. That is a long-term process.

Q: There is some cautious optimism - you say. Do you think the time has come to start thinking about a post-conflict period in northern Uganda?

A: I think we should be thinking about it now, even planning. We talked to the government about planning for return and post-conflict recovery. It takes a long time to plan. Let us be optimistic and hope it is going to be settled. Who knows when - in the near future rather than in the distant future. We need to start to do some ground planning with the agencies and the government. And that is what we talked to the deputy prime minister about.

Q: How serious is the problem of protection of the displaced in the region?

A: Massive. One of the figures we got was 15,000 children that have been returned in the last two years from the LRA. I don't know whether the figure is exactly true, but we saw many children at the reception centres who had come out from the LRA. They are brutalised, traumatised, victims of sexual violence - they have been through hell. Then you have thousands of children going into the centres at night for protection, the so-called night commuters. Maybe it has reduced, but there are still 18,000, far too many coming because they are terrified. There is a terror, psychological fear - which is the LRA tactic. They have terrorised the population, which is intentional. That takes a long time to undo.

We are very concerned about the protection of women and girls, in particular, from sexual abuse and violence. There is no rule of law system up there - soldiers are on the move, the girls very poor, social structures have broken down. We are very concerned about doing more on monitoring, reporting and trying to stop it, and asking the government to have their courts functioning. We are also very concerned about treatment. There are not enough psychosocial counselling services on the ground for these women and girls.

Q: Apart from expressing concern, advocacy and asking the government to do more, what else is your division doing about protection in situations like this?

A: Concretely, we will have more staff in Kampala to coordinate the protection activities for the whole country. We will have an IDP [internally displaced person]protection advisor attached to the OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] office in Kampala. UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] will have three child protection officers deployed in the field, we hope UNHCR [Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] will also participate. So, we will try to strengthen the UN network on protection, both in Kampala but very importantly up in that area. We will also encourage the NGOs to be on the ground in the north - the national ones to work with us, the internationals. Uganda has a lot of national NGOs and they need to be helped, supported and protected by us.

Q: Do you get the feeling the Ugandan government is making some significant input into all these? What is the government doing exactly?

A: They have just issued their policy paper on IDPs, which is a big step.They have been working on that for years and gave us a copy, which we welcome. And they say they are very serious about implementing this policy, which is rights-based, if you read the paper. But they need more resources. Their civilian structures in the north are under-resourced or without resources, human or financial in some cases. So they need to strengthen that.

They need to lead the whole process. The humanitarian management of the centres should be led by the government. They must also lead the recovery process with support from the donors and the agencies. But it should be led by the government, which means they have to invest in the process more - not just the military which has been a big investment, but on the civilian side. That is rule of law, justice, police, health services, education, getting the teachers back, etc. That is the major challenge.

Q: Are you happy with the way donors have responded to appeals and requests for help in this particular situation?

A: Donors have been very happy with the Ugandan government. They fund 53 percent of the budget, which is probably one of the highest in Africa. It is a very popular government for donors. But they are not funding the humanitarian appeals properly. We only have just over 40 percent of what we appealed for.

Q: Do you know if they are telling the government to put some of the money into this crisis?

A: That is what we have suggested. If they have, we need more of that. And we need more funding for UN agencies in the CAP [Consolidated Appeal Process] and the NGOs. UNICEF, for example, is almost going beyond its mandate to do protection in the north now. It would like more people in the field after the visits of Jan Egeland [UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs] and Carol Bellamy [UNICEF Executive Director] last year. But they don't have the funds to put those people into the field now. It is not very much money but they need that money.

Q: What exactly are you going to do about Uganda when you return to Geneva, as a result of your visit?

A: We will first support the strengthening of the staff that I mentioned. Next week, we will brief the donor group in Geneva on the funding to get the support that I talked about. We will brief the NGO umbrella organisation, asking them to try and get more presence on the ground. And we will help the country team under the humanitarian coordinator with expert advise, if they need it. For example, we offered to do, if they want, a random profile of the camp populations in Uganda to see where people came from and what they need if they go back. We will try to get UNDP [UN Development Programme] to be more involved in the planning of the recovery process, which they have started. There is an opportunity here to move it forward.

Q: On Sudan. Where did you go and what were you looking for?

A: The week before, we went to Khartoum and then to Nyala in the south of Darfur. My colleagues went to Al-Geneina [capital of West Darfur] and El-Fasher [in North Darfur]. We were looking very much at the protection of displaced populations there. We did not go to the south, but we talked a lot about the situation in the south in Khartoum. We are very concerned to strengthen the UN, agency support and to get donor support, which is very low, for the south.

Q: What is going on in the south?

A: We were told the ceasefire is holding, although the political agreement has not been signed. By and large, it is holding. And 100,000 displaced people have already gone back. The estimate of our colleagues is that another 100,000 will go back, even without the peace agreement, in the coming months. If there is a peace agreement, it is estimated that 500,000 will go back. We are not ready for that. The agencies do not have enough people on the ground or infrastructure for that. The SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement] is very worried that they can't handle these numbers. They don't have the resources or the structures. If you have seen the south - Rumbek and elsewhere, there is nothing there. It is like northern Uganda in a different way - they need resources to set up basic services. They need protection. There are some reports already of people being harassed or may be abused on the way back.

Q: Is that by government troops or the SPLM or other armed groups?

A: These reports are in the government areas. We are going to put people through that route to try and find out what exactly is happening. Possibly at the checkpoints there has been trouble. We want to investigate this thoroughly, and we want to have an active presence there to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

Q: You went down to Darfur. What were your general impressions? Is the government living up to its commitments of 3 July [to immediately disarm the Janjawid militias and other outlaws]?

A: On the protection of civilians, not enough has been done at all.

Q: What exactly do you mean?

A: Women are being raped when they go out of the camps. The men are terrified to leave the camps because they tell us they will be killed. There is lot of abuse. The policing is not effective yet. There is no rule of law, no accountability in Darfur. No one has been prosecuted for this. And we also got reports from the displaced and the agencies that there is pressure on the displaced people to go back to dangerous areas.

Q: Who is exerting the pressure?

A: Local authorities have pressed the displaced to go back to their villages, which they do not want to do yet. And the sexual abuse is a major concern. There are not enough agencies to treat the victims, so they don't get treatment. A raped woman in Sudan must report to the police before she can go to hospital. And most of them don't want to go the police.

Q: What is your sense of the way the Darfur situation is evolving, given the massive pressure on the Sudan government at the Security Council and elsewhere, and the massive international presence in Darfur?

A: The massive presence in Darfur is humanitarian - 500 international and 3,500 nationals. There is no massive international presence otherwise. I think humanitarians should not become a substitute for political security presence. We have seen that too often.

Now we had this trouble last week, with the kidnappings of humanitarian workers [eight who were later released]. I said, of course, it will happen. Where there is a lawless situation, unprotected civilians are vulnerable. That is the local people first, but also our people. And the national staff who work for us. That is a real concern. I think as the SRSG [UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk] called for in New York, and has been talked about, there needs to be a strengthened international monitoring, verification process in the whole area.

Q: How do the protection issues that you have talked about in Darfur impact on the overall situation, and what kind of challenge does this create for everybody?

A: It is obvious in this situation that much of the attention is on aid - you have got to feed people, have housing and health. There is often less attention on the abuses. They are harder to find, less visible and harder to deal with. Our concern is that it has been a humanitarian relief crisis. It may now be a human rights or protection crisis that we are facing. That certainly could be what we have and has certainly not been addressed.

Q: One could argue that your office as well has a big challenge in this case?

A: Our office is a facilitator. But certainly the UN and the NGOs need to do more, and we are part of that. The NGOs, some of them have more people in Darfur than we do. MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] has 10 times more people than we have in Nyala, doing a good job. It is a shared responsibility - government authorities, the UN, the NGOs and donors. Yes, donors, because we have that donor support but still need US $188 million for Darfur's immediate needs this year.

Q: Do you think there has been too much focus on Darfur. Has this taken the limelight away from other crisis in the region?

A: You can't avoid it when there is a crisis like that. It was very dramatic, big and the needs were huge. You get distracted. But our concern is that as a result there has been a neglect of southern Sudan - which is by far a bigger displacement but less dramatic, and northern Uganda which is bigger than Darfur but less dramatic. So the long-term ones are in danger of neglect when you get the new dramatic ones like Darfur. It is very important that we keep a balance because Darfur will also go off the screen some day. Then where are we?

Dramatic coverage driving these issues is also good but it is not the whole answer. The abuse of the women at night is not going to be easily captured on the screen. That is why we need a more subtle balance.

Q: One could argue, again, that the challenge to increase the visibility of these situations partly lies with your office.

A: Yes, our office is involved. That is why we are going to Sudan and Uganda. In November we will go to Somalia, then Burundi and in the near future, southern Sudan. All these are neglected crises. Part of our job is advocacy, supporting the less covered and more neglected areas.

Q: To what extent do you hope to encourage donors to treat these crises equally?

A: We want to influence their actions. We are not talking about colossal sums of money, but more effective use of whatever is available. We try to keep the donors aware of those needs that are not being adequately addressed.