the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: cross-border operations and famine relief in sudan

This is the first post in a series on the lexicon of intervention’s slippery slope. The series is intended to educate human rights advocates about the opportunities, costs, and opportunity costs of coercive responses to mass atrocities.

In mid-January, U.S. special envoy Princeton Lyman warned of a “looming humanitarian disaster” in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. In March, a devastating famine is poised to hit the conflict-ridden border states, sparked by an ugly convergence of political violence and government-imposed restrictions on humanitarian relief operations. The famine will likely affect half a million Sudanese, according to USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET).

Recognizing the potential for humanitarian catastrophe, the U.S. State Department has launched an aggressive diplomatic campaign, urging the Sudanese government to allow international humanitarian operations to return to South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum hasn’t budged, and the prospect of interstate conflict between Sudan and South Sudan will only increase the NCP’s inertia towards international humanitarian engagement within its borders. For a regime concerned about its internal political stability, the presence of international organizations–that is, more non-Sudanese personnel, more transparency, and, subsequently, more accountability–is an unpalatable possibility.

Noting the preliminary failure of unilateral and multilateral diplomatic outreach, Amb. Lyman’s office offered a brief consideration of stronger measures, including the unilateral distribution of food supplies and humanitarian assistance. In a multi-organization letter, the Sudan advocacy community has endorsed the policy approach, calling for “concrete steps outside the diplomatic realm” to facilitate humanitarian access, aid distribution, and unfettered population flows. The multi-organization letter cites a variety of humanitarian aid interventions throughout the 1980s and ’90s, including the ’85 Ethiopia airdrops and Operation Lifeline Sudan, as potential models for escalated action. The letter utilizes the catch-all term, “cross-border operations,” to describe the internationally-facilitated, non-consensual distribution of aid throughout South Kordofan and Blue Nile. An affiliated blog post called for the implementation of multiple “humanitarian corridors” throughout South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Despite dismissing “logistical and political concerns,” the multi-organizational letter does not articulate the mechanics of a cross-border humanitarian aid operation. The procedural ambiguities are understandable–the goal of the letter is to build consensus, political will, and a framework for mobilization, rather than to guide administrative policy implementation. However, given the complex, multi-faceted nature of relief aid distribution in conflict-affected zones, the cross-border operation’s mechanics, political challenges, and potential hazards are worth considering.

Humanitarian aid operations range widely in their implementation, based on the degree of consensual participation by the state authority, the enormity of the humanitarian crisis, and the existing aid infrastructure within the crisis-affected area. In general, approaches to humanitarian crises in conflict zones bear greater similarity to each other than to those in disaster-affected, but otherwise stable crisis areas. Violent conflict compounds humanitarian aid delivery’s existing political complications, as allegedly neutral aid actors engage with and rely on less-than-savory insurgencies, government forces, and paramilitary operatives for logistical support and protection. If humanitarian actors, including third-party facilitators, fail to implement appropriate supply chain accountability measures, aid materials and food resources may sustain local military actors, as occurred during Ethiopia’s 1984-5 famine.

In the midst of political violence, cross-border, non-consensual aid operations frequently morph, shifting from a supply distribution initiative towards a militarized stability operation. To begin with, the politics of humanitarian assistance provide aid organizations with an unresolvable moral dilemma: accede to the central polity’s coercive, anti-humanitarian restrictions, or withdraw. Cross-border aid interventions seek to mitigate existing instability, providing a coercive cover for the distribution of assistance and supplies. For a conflict environment, the establishment of reinforced humanitarian corridors remains the only mechanism to secure the continued protection of humanitarian actors and crisis-affected populations. Airdrops and clandestine support to humanitarian organizations are, at best, piecemeal approaches to systemic crises.

If fluctuating government and rebel authorities had not previously facilitated the militarization of aid distribution operations, the establishment of a humanitarian corridor likely will. In 1992, the US-led United Task Force deployed to Somalia to secure the protection of humanitarian aid organizations, transporting thousands of tons of aid materials across the Kenyan border. Far from eliminating the security threat, Operation Restore Hope ensured the continuation of attacks against humanitarian workers and operations. With Farrah Haidid’s forces plundering, exploiting, and manipulating humanitarian actors, UNITAF established a civilian-military joint unit, responsible for overseeing aid distribution and civilian protection. However, standard operating procedures, civilian protection priorities, and logistical dynamics clashed, ensuring the continued dominance of military priorities, which failed to create sustained space for civilian, non-coercive humanitarian operations.

Of course, Somalia represents a worst-case scenario: the scale of sectarian conflict, terrain, waning political will, and the local dynamics of humanitarian mobilization throughout Operation Restore Hope are by no means illustrative of the standard, day-to-day challenges of aid distribution. Indeed, the multi-organizational letter makes no reference to the botched, internationally humiliating Somalia intervention. So, let’s take a look at a cross-border operation that the letter references: Operation Lifeline Sudan, the three-phase, UN-coordinated cross-border relief operation. Beginning in 1988, OLS occurred at the apex of Sudan’s (second) north/south civil war, preceding emerging SPLM schisms and the sudden collapse of the al-Mahdi regime in Khartoum. OLS’ initial phases occurred in the context of tenuous, negotiated consensus between the central Sudanese government, the SPLM, and the international community. The first two phases of the operation, prior to Omar al-Bashir’s 1989 coup, represented a distinct, if replicated approach to complex emergency response, where the conflict actors functioned as the primary arbiters of security in crisis-affected areas.

Sudan’s current security situation bear little resemblance to OLS’ permissive environment. As I mentioned above, the NCP is increasingly wary of Western-, UN-, and NGO-affiliated actors, particularly in its unstable, insurgency-ridden border provinces. A negotiated, consensual relief operation is an unlikely, perhaps impossible prospect. Coercive force would be a necessary element of a cross-border operation, which third-party actors would likely launch from South Sudan. The UNITAF operation, which deployed in response to a famine of similar magnitude, included 37,000 personnel, 25,000 of whom were American. AFRICOM’s Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military’s only base in the region, supports 3,500 military and civilian personnel, rendering a unilateral intervention an unlikely task. From a multilateral perspective, it’s difficult to imagine the composition of an intervening force. UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan, possesses no operational mandate in South Kordofan or Blue Nile, and would need UN Security Council approval to expand its reach to Sudan’s border regions. After last weekend’s Syria fiasco, as well as the SPLM-N’s recent kerfuffle with China’s construction operations in South Kordofan, the miraculous emergence of a non-consensual peacekeeping operation within Sudan’s territorial boundaries seems unlikely. The South Sudanese are hardly worth mentioning–between Bashir’s saber-rattling and the recent oil production freeze, the last thing Juba wants is a large-scale ground invasion.

For the moment, let’s side-step the practicality questions; is a cross-border operation a good idea? That is, would a cross-border operation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile facilitate marked improvements in the lives of Sudanese? It’s not an easy question. At a first glance, the absence of humanitarian aid delivery will be disastrous, amounting to the willful negligence of half a million civilian lives. But, seen from a larger perspective, the consequences of decisive intervention would be far, far worse. According to colleagues in the aid community, non-consensual aid delivery operations often jeopardize the integrity of humanitarian assistance, particularly given OLS’ complex legacy. Aid workers and local populations would become vulnerable to accusations of sheltering the SPLM-N insurgency, further aggravating the human security environment in the border regions. The international humanitarian aid community maintains a broad infrastructure throughout Sudan, particularly in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of IDPs remain dependent on UN and NGO assistance. Food insecurity affects a much broader swath of the country’s population–in 2011, more than five million people throughout Sudan received World Food Program assistance. As the ICC indictment controversy indicated, the NCP regime needs few excuses the initiate retaliatory attacks and restrictive measures against aid operations in Darfur.

As in most cases, the appropriate approach to Sudan’s humanitarian crisis must be comprehensive. On its face, a cross-border intervention is a compelling notion, but offers few mechanisms for the country-wide redress of Sudanese instability and food insecurity.

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