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Groups Assess Impact of Foreign Exodus from Sudan

One week after a criminal indictment was lodged against Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the US embassy in Khartoum has told non-essential staffers they can leave the country. With foreign humanitarian aid groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also poised to depart under an expulsion order issued by Mr. Bashir last week, the vice president for policy at the US-based policy group Refugees International, Joel Charny, observes that Khartoum can only be convinced to modify its order if it comes to realize that more is at stake than just bargaining over the terms of President Bashir's arrest warrant. He says that he hopes Sudan will recognize that it also faces a catastrophic disappearance of medical services, sanitation, and basic food and shelter for more than a million of its citizens.

"I don't think the Sudanese government really fully understands the impact of this decision, and I'm not willing to say that the Sudanese government cares nothing about the people of Darfur. They need the humanitarian operation to function somewhat effectively, and they may realize that this decision ultimately is counterproductive," he notes.

Assessing the impact of the expulsion and the likelihood it would be carried out fully, Charny said the dimensions of such a tragedy should be avoided if at all possible.

"For better or for worse, when a country is in a difficult situation facing some kind of humanitarian emergency, or they can't meet the basic needs of the population, they have created a kind of structure in the case of Darfur, where the humanitarian agencies are delivering essential services – basic medical services, providing water and sanitation, in some cases, doing emergency feeding for malnourished children. These are essential services to the health and survival of the population. So naturally, expelling these organizations has a devastating impact. Now, I can't sit here right now and say that x-number of people are going to die because of this decision. But we anticipate that the consequences will be very negative for about a million people in Darfur," he said.

Charny says he's pessimistic, but not fully convinced that some last-minute bargaining might not enable the sides to reach a compromise.

"The indictment and the latest developments, I think, underscore the need for some kind of high-level diplomatic action just to get this whole thing back on track. We're now in year six of the catastrophe in Darfur, and I think it's discouraging to all of us that so little progress has been made. Politically, the one thing that was semi-working was the humanitarian operation, and now, even that is in jeopardy," he pointed out.

Although a mass exodus of aid organizations remains likely, many of the parties affected are trying to negotiate a way out of the current standoff.

"The organizations are basically trying to contest it, and it varies from organization to organization. They are under a lot of pressure. I've read that the government is going into offices and harassing staff. But the organizations collectively are looking for UN support and then individually are trying to say to the Sudanese government, 'Look, we had nothing to do with the ICC decision. We're providing humanitarian assistance. That's been our main role in Darfur…' and basically trying to convince the Sudanese government to go back on the decision if they possibly can," observes Charny.

He notes that the Obama presidential campaign invested a lot of political capital with American voters in standing up to Khartoum's fueling of a genocidal war against its own citizens, but he acknowledges that US officials may have a tough diplomatic road ahead.

"The State Department made a statement that was actually, under the circumstances, rather tepid. They, of course, used standard diplomatic language of deploring and hoping that it (the NGO recall) would be reversed, and so on. I think the real question that is unanswered, which, of course, you don't answer in an official statement at a State Department briefing, is, what now? Are we going to up the ante?" he asked.

Refugees International Vice President Joel Charny says Washington needs a firm hand to bring pressure to bear in this crisis, but achieving a resolution will also depend on convincing powers in Sudan to lower escalating tensions.

"You could say that on the one hand, we need to immediately find a back channel way to talk to Bashir to see if we can walk back this decision. Another direction to go would be to say, okay, Bashir has been indicted. We think it's important that the whole process go through, and maybe we need to squeeze the Sudanese even further. And there was no question that in the presidential campaign, it was obvious that Barack Obama had leading people on his foreign policy team who had been talking very tough about Darfur for a long time -- Susan Rice, now the UN ambassador, being the first person I think of in that regards. So I'm sure Bashir was thinking once Obama was elected 'that I may be facing a rocky time with the new administration,' and this decision isn't going to help matters," said Charny.

Regarding Sudan's release from prison this week of hard-line opposition figure Hassan al-Turabi, Charny says he believes it was intended less as a signal of flexibility to the outside world than as an instrument of rebuilding unity and support among Islamic groups within northern Sudan to help President Bashir strengthen his own hold on power. The move at first glance seems to have backfired however, with Turabi, who had previously called for President Bashir to yield to the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant, continuing to maintain following his release that he accepts prosecution of the Sudanese leader.