Mounting violence in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, repeated military attacks, arbitrary bombing of villages and the targeting of aid workers threaten to permanently disrupt the fragile lifeline ensuring the survival of millions of people, the United Nations warned today, noting that relief access in December was the worst in nearly three years.
"If this situation continues, the humanitarian operation and welfare of the population it aims to support will be irreversibly jeopardized," 13 UN bodies involved in the relief efforts said in a joint statement, calling for protection for civilians and humanitarian workers and an end to impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses.
"If not, the UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will not be able to hold the fragile line that to date has provided relief and a measure of protection to some 4 million people in Darfur affected by this tragic conflict."
The agencies, joined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), noted that over the last two years humanitarian agencies saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the conflict, in which nearly four years of fighting between Government forces, allied militias and rebel groups seeking greater autonomy have killed at least 200,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others.
Mortality rates have been brought below emergency levels, malnutrition halved from the height of the crisis in mid-2004 and nearly three-quarters of all Darfurians now have access to safe drinking water and in 2006 alone, 400,000 metric tons of food were delivered.
"In the face of growing insecurity and danger to communities and aid workers, the UN and its humanitarian partners have effectively been holding the line for the survival and protection of millions," the statement said. "That line cannot be held much longer.
It stressed that access to those in need in December was the worst since April 2004, citing repeated military attacks, shifting frontlines, and fragmentation of armed groups that compromised safe humanitarian access. In the last six months alone, more than 250,000 people have been displaced by fighting, many fleeing for the second or third time.
"Villages have been burnt, looted and arbitrarily bombed and crops and livestock destroyed. Sexual violence against women is occurring at alarming rates. This situation is unacceptable. Nor can we accept the violence increasingly directed against humanitarian workers," the agencies said, noting that 12 relief workers have been killed in the past six months, more than in the previous two years combined.
More than 400 humanitarian workers have been forced to relocate 31 times. The reduction in services is leading to deteriorating hygiene in displaced persons' camps, reflected by a cholera outbreak that struck 2,768 people and killed 147 in 2006.
Malnutrition rates are edging perilously close to the emergency threshold, while 60 per cent of households in need of food aid cite insecurity as the main barrier to cultivating their lands.
"The humanitarian community cannot indefinitely assure the survival of the population in Darfur if insecurity continues," the agencies said. "Solid guarantees for the safety of civilians and humanitarian workers is urgently needed. At the same time, those who have committed attacks, harassment, abduction, intimidation, robbery and injury to civilians, including IDPs, humanitarian workers and other non-combatants, must be held accountable."
The statement was endorsed by the following members of the UN Country Team in Sudan: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC), UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), World Food Programme (WFP), and World Health Organization (WHO).