Feature Medicine and Conflict

Humanitarianism on trial in Sudan

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b1395 (Published 14 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1395
  1. Peter Moszynski, journalist
  1. 1Nairobi, Juba, and London
  1. globewisecom{at}hotmail.com

    Recent events in Sudan have highlighted the difficult balancing act between upholding human rights and supporting vulnerable populations, as Peter Moszynski reports

    The expulsion of 13 international aid groups and dissolution of Sudan’s three largest indigenous organisations at the beginning of March, in retaliation for the international criminal court’s (ICC) indictment of President Omar al Bashir for crimes against humanity, has devastated the world’s largest humanitarian operation. It also raises the question why some of the world’s most respected relief agencies are accused of being agents of neo-colonialism, and poses a dilemma for medical workers attempting to help non-combatants in the middle of civil conflict: should they speak out when they witness the effects of mass rape and ethnic cleansing or should they remain silent in the name of humanitarian neutrality and impartiality?

    Although the international arrest warrant against President al Bashir is the first against a sitting head of state, the indictment had long been expected. The court had been mandated to investigate allegations of crimes in Darfur by the UN security council five years ago, following an international inquiry that found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity and recommended the case should be referred to the international court.

    Human effects

    The expelled charities—whose entire assets were seized by the state—were responsible for over half of Darfur’s aid programme, and their departure could leave millions of refugees without assistance. As the UN and the remaining relief groups (both international and newly established Sudanese organisations) rush to fill the void before the forthcoming rainy season makes access all but impossible, there are growing concerns about the effects.

    Oxfam representative Alun McDonald said: “In Darfur there are already clear signs of impact. In some camps, there is a real danger that mechanised water pumps will stop working due to lack of …

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