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UN warns of deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sudan

Kossivi Tiassou
May 5, 2023

UN Special Representative Volker Perthes rejects accusations that the West is at fault for the crisis in Sudan and warns of "fortune seekers" joining the conflict, as tens of thousands of refugees flee.

Special Representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes, walks with guards
Special Representative for Sudan, Volker PerthesImage: UNITAMS

The Sudanese army led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has battled Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) for three weeks. According to German UN Special Representative Volker Perthes, most of the fighting is now in the capital, Khartoum, and in the country's western Darfur region. 

DW: American intelligence predicts a drawn-out conflict. Do you agree?

Volker Perthes: We are working together with the United Nations, also with other international partners, and especially with Sudanese society, to make sure that this war does not drag on. The first step must be a firm cease-fire. Not just a declaration of cease-fires, but a cease-fire with a monitoring mechanism. From there, talks must start between the fighting parties to reestablish a functioning  government in a more stable situation. American intelligence has its own assessments, I will not comment on those. But our goal is to prevent a long war likely to bring the country to the precipice.

Sudanese refugees gather for aid distribution in ChadImage: Gueipeur Denis Sassou/AFP

What role do Egypt and Libyan General Haftar play in this conflict? 

I can say very little about the role of General Haftar. He is the supporter of one of the two parties, but he has no decisive role in this war. The right question is about the neighboring states, Egypt, South Sudan, but also others. For a solution that stabilizes the country, we need neighboring states to contribute. South Sudan has already been very active. The current cease-fire — which is not being observed or fully observed — has been negotiated by Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president. Egypt is also pushing for a cease-fire as a first step toward ending the war.

Mercenaries from the Russian Wagner group are allegedly present in this conflict. Do you know about this?

I have no concrete evidence to say there are Wagner mercenaries fighting in this war. I can neither confirm nor deny that.

You were met with frustrated demonstrators in Sudan. What message did you receive? Do you acknowledge the frustrations of the civilians?

We were not greeted by demonstrators when we arrived, but by the governor of Red Sea State, where Port Sudan is located. But you are right: There was a demonstration yesterday by about 150 people from a certain political camp who were protesting the presence of the UN and my presence. That is part of the political confrontation going on between Sudanese parties and forces.

Cease-fires have not stopped violence or even assuaged fears of a humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan. What can be done now?

The United Nations is here to continue providing humanitarian assistance under the limited circumstances. The onset of war has made this difficult, even though more aid is needed, especially where access is difficult. The World Food Program warehouses in Darfur have been looted, and if the warehouses are empty, aid simply cannot be distributed. A number of trucks carrying food aid have been attacked and looted on their way to Darfur. In Khartoum, we have great difficulty in equipping hospitals with medicines, for example. A World Health Organization ship has now docked in Port Sudan, but we are still waiting for permission to unload it. There are limited areas free from fighting where we can work, especially in the east and center of Sudan. There is a lot of pressure on the local population and authorities because a lot of refugees are moving across the country. These are instances where we can effectively help — be it providing goods, money for refugees, medicines, equipping hospitals or providing access to drinking water.

Aid workers have raised concerns about the plight of refugees. Many have fled to nations like the Central African Republic or Chad. What can be done in these two countries to help refugees?

Tens of thousands of Sudanese have indeed fled to neighboring countries. Not as many to the Central African Republic, but some have. Chad, South Sudan, and especially Egypt have taken in refugees. The UNHCR and its partner organizations are actively helping refugees on the other side of the borders. Refugees only become refugees once they have left their home nation. Within the country, we try to provide help through local NGOs, civil society organizations. But in combat zones, this is extremely difficult, especially if the relief supplies have already been stolen or destroyed by the armed forces.

Khartoum has seen running battles between the RSF and the armyImage: -/AFP

Is there a risk of the whole region being destabilized?

War always destabilizes, and of course neighboring states will be affected. The one aspect is the migration of refugees. But there is also migration in the other direction: "Fortune seekers" or mercenaries from the Sahel states like Mali, Chad, and Niger are coming to support the RSF in Sudan. Their number is not insignificant. This is not official policy of these states, but rather people looking for opportunities to steal and enrich themselves.

Some have blamed the international community and the West for the current situation because of their past dealings with the generals. Do Western nations carry a certain responsibility for this war?

Responsibility for this conflict lies at the door of the Sudanese military figures, and by that, I mean leaders on both sides and in both military institutions who are war with each other. Both sides are trying to gain international support. In my position as a UN representative, I cannot comment on the policies of individual member states, but I believe, and my advice to those trying to mediate the conflict, would be to establish responsibility for the war with those actually fighting it. Not with foreign actors who have actually tried to decrease tensions. However, history and journalists will judge if international actors, and I include the United Nations and African Union in this, did enough.

It has been difficult for international organizations to distribute food aid in Sudan, says PerthesImage: ICRC/AFP

Was the democratic movement not supported enough?

I think the international community did try to support all sides in Sudan in finding a way back to democracy after the military coup in 2021. We supported everyone who was willing to talk and work together for a resolution and finding common ground. Whether we did enough of this will be judged in the future. The international community does not necessarily share the same opinion. But there are plenty of actors like the UN, AU, the regional IGAD [whose members are the East African nations of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda], as well as UN member states, all trying to bring about a cease-fire.

The UN Security Council, the AU and others have demanded an end to the fighting. There is, however, a lack of consensus, and I believe within Sudan there is only partial agreement on how to involve international actors, military leaders and civilians. Parts of the civil society are certainly calling for a more active policy in terms of African or international troops, but this also needs international consensus, for example in the Security Council, which we would certainly not have.

This interview was conducted in German by DW's Kossivi Tiassou. It has been translated by Cai Nebe.

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