The fortunes of at least 2.5 million Sudanese may be at added risk due to yesterday's expulsion order by the Khartoum government of major foreign-based aid agencies. UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said that between six and ten nongovernmental groups (NGOs), who conduct some of their rescue operations in the western Darfur region, received notice just hours after an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Executive director for development Liz McLaughlin spent the past four years as CARE's assistant country director in Sudan. She says the agency's only objective is to continue giving the 460-thousand beneficiaries of its agriculture, health, education and life-saving projects access to the help they so desperately need.
"We hope that the situation is reversed so that we can continue to operate there because our main objective, of course, is to reach the beneficiaries, and our concern, apart from our staff, is to make sure our beneficiaries continue receiving help from CARE and other NGOs," she said.
CARE has operated in several regions of Sudan, Africa's largest country, for 28 years, for the past six years alone with a staff of 350 in Darfur and neighboring Chad. Altogether, 650 CARE employees fulfill humanitarian needs of Sudanese who live in North and South Kordofan states in the center of the country and in the capital, Khartoum, in addition to Darfur and in eastern Chad where emergency relief is being carried out. McLaughlin says that CARE is excercizing sound security policies to protect its workers, most of whom are Sudanese civilians.
"We have excellent staff security measures in place, and like every other NGO, it's our prime concern to make sure staffers are all okay, and today they are. We can say that all of our staff are safe. They are following all our procedures," she noted.
But no final decision has yet been reached on what needs to be done, whether to evacuate or bolster protective services in the hope that UN or other outside mediation can convince the Bashir government to rescind its expulsion order from northern Sudan. CARE's Liz McLaughlin says the country director's office has the discretion to make the final call, both in authorizing last-ditch efforts to change government officials mind or enlist UN negotiators' to weigh in with Khartoum, or to abandon the country.
"They have full authority. Staff safety comes first, and they are on the ground," she points out.
McLaughlin describes her aid group's relations with Khartoum as "reasonably good," with CARE never having to abandon any aid programs it had initiated throughout the country. She rejects reports of aid agency involvement with political fight being waged against President Bashir and says that CARE only speaks out on the humanitarian concerns involving the civilian population. Sudanese officials have in the past accused Darfur aid groups of giving evidence to the international court's special prosecutor to further the case against Bashir. The NGOs deny the charge.
The UN and aid agencies oversee the world's largest humanitarian operation in Darfur for its 2.5 million people displaced by the six-year conflict. Within minutes of Wednesday's ruling by the ICC that found Sudan's 20-year leader guilty on two counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity, Sudanese officials revoked aid groups' operating licenses, told them to list their assets, which they designated as subject to seizure, and ordered them to leave northern Sudan immediately. The action prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to declare it a "serious setback," and he urged Khartoum to restore full operating capacity to all NGOs.
In the lead-up to Wednesday's indictment, Khartoum, as well as several Arab nations and countries in the African Union warned that a warrant against Bashir, which is expected to limit his international travel and possibly curb Sudan's participation in world and regional conferences and activities, would do more to destabilize Sudan than the conflicts that are already crippling the country. Liz McLaughlin says that in the absence of NGOs, the UN may be the institution tasked with picking up the pieces.
"We hope that there's a plan in the country with UN and with the government themselves, somehow, maybe to reverse these positions, or they have a plan to continue the work, especially the work in Darfur, working in the IDP camps (internally displaced persons) and delivering food, ensuring health services continuing. We hope that the UN and the government have a plan in place but we can only hope at this stage," McLaughlin maintained.
The ten NGOs ordered to leave include
CARE, the British charity OXFAM, MSF-Holland (Doctors without Borders), Mercy
Corps, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International
Rescue Committee, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarites, and CHF International.