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Sudan Postpones Decision to Expel Oxfam and Save the Children

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Sudan has decided to postpone a decision to expel the heads of two British aid agencies–Oxfam and Save the Children–citing administrative difficulties and humanitarian grounds. We speak with the director of Africa Action, Salih Booker. [includes rush transcript]

Sudan has decided to postpone a decision to expel the heads of two British aid agencies–Oxfam and Save the Children–citing administrative difficulties and humanitarian grounds.

The Sudanese state minister for humanitarian affairs said, “This is an administrative decision which we did not realize all the implications of.” Both organizations are still on notice for what the ministry had said was interfering in political issues, forbidden by Sudanese law governing emergency aid agencies working in the country.

Save the Children–one of the largest food distributors in Darfur–had issued a statement last week that accused the government of dropping a bomb near one of its feeding centers. Oxfam had criticized a UN Security Council resolution issued in Nairobi earlier this month which contained weaker wording on the possibility of sanctions against Sudan than previous resolutions.

The news comes days after the World Food Program announced it was suspending much of its relief operation in the Dafur region because of resumed fighting, leaving an estimated 300,000 refugees without aid.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Salih Booker. He is director of Africa Action. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SALIH BOOKER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening right now in the Sudan?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, the situation, specifically with Oxfam and Save the Children, sort of highlights the impossible dilemma that humanitarian organizations are in. Of course, Oxfam has operated there for twenty years, it’s providing food to 300,000 people, and Save the Children, as you mentioned, is one of the largest food distributors. At a moment when the U.N. is describing the crisis in Darfur as the world’s largest complex humanitarian crisis. What it reveals is that this — this new violence that is occurring, or the continuing violence I should say, you know, threatens the relief efforts and the failure of the U.N. Security Council to take any stronger measure or, for that matter, the African Union or the European Union, you know, none of the regional or international organizations that have the capacity to stop what is happening in Darfur have acted sufficiently. So the humanitarian organizations are in an impossible position where they can’t provide relief to those who need it and they are obviously witness to the violence that’s going on; to the government using war planes to bomb civilian installations; and this is essentially what’s been going on since last year. This crisis is twenty-two months old. There’re two million people internally displaced in Sudan. There’re 200,000 refugees across the boarder in Chad, and an estimated — estimates up to 300,000 people have been killed. Most of them, two thirds of them, due to the violence of the government, the army, the police, its militias in Darfur. And this violence, in the end, constitutes genocide, but the international community has failed to act to provide protection necessary to civilians in Darfur.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker, you were just listening to the conversation with Michael Ratner, as we talk quite often about the issue of war crimes in Iraq and Guantanamo. How does that relate, in terms of holding officials accountable, to what’s happening in the Sudan?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, it relates in several ways. One, very clearly, you have international law. You have the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide going back to 1948. And here you have a situation where the U.S. government has acknowledged that there’s a genocide occurring; it meets the terms of the international convention, and at the same time, turns around and says: 'but no further action is required.' Because they’re not prepared to live up to the obligations of that convention, and the U.N. is still hesitating even on a determination. Then you have the related problem of the fact that the United States, because of its actions in Iraq, in Guantanamo Bay, has no international credibility or legitimacy as a voice for upholding international law, international treaties, and prosecuting war crimes. And so we have a — a horrible situation where it is the innocents who are without recourse to call on any international body or a powerful nation to uphold international law when they, in fact, are the victims of these extreme abuses; and, you know, there’s no greater war crime than the crime of genocide that continues to unfold in Western Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: The African Union has been investigating the whole situation in Darfur, a delegation going. Can you explain the significance of this delegation and what it means?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, the African Union, to its credit, early on played a positive role in trying to negotiate a resolution to the armed conflict between the rebel movements in Darfur and the government of Sudan. Now that dates back to April of this year, the original cease-fire that was signed. They then sent a small delegation of observers, of Rwandans and Nigerians, initially only three hundred observers with no mandate but to just report on violations of the cease fire, which there have been many. Then more recently, the African Union decided to slightly modify the mandate and increase the numbers. They’re trying to reach a number of 3,500 by the end of this year, which looks entirely unlikely that that number would be realized until February of next year. And the African Union simply lacks the capacity to get the troops, equipment, logistic systems, etc. operational in Sudan that are necessary to protect this huge number of civilians who are homeless, who are in these camps (and it’s mostly women and girls and children) you know, some two million people. They don’t have access to food, to medicine, to safe water, and while the leading cause of death has been the continuing violence, there’s an increase in malnutrition-related disease and deaths due to that in which the World Health Organization is estimating that some 10,000 people a month are dying just due to malnutrition, starvation and related illnesses alone.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Sudan. What is the U.S. Congress doing and what are you saying American people should do right now?

SALIH BOOKER: Well the United States Congress, in an exceptional move in the summer, both the House and Senate passed these resolutions unanimously which was unprecedented, declaring that in their view what was occurring in Darfur constituted genocide according to the convention. They’re now considering legislation to increase the minor sanctions on the Sudanese government. These restrictions, looking at assets, things of that nature. They’ve failed to go as far as calling for a ban on companies that are raising capital here in U.S. markets that are invested in the Sudanese economy, particularly the oil industry. But these — these tools, sanctions, etc., these are long-term measures. These don’t provide the kind of immediate protection to this large number of civilians who are completely vulnerable right now. I mean, that is the key critical missing ingredient, and there indeed the African Union does have the lead role. It’s not adequate, and it sort of represents the international community dumping this responsibility on this nascent organization, this very young in trying to be an improvement upon the old Organization of African Unity. But you’ve had troops that have even had to take commercial flights to get to Sudan. The U.S. government has provided air transport, at least for several flights of Rwandans and Nigerians, but there’s an unwillingness on the part of the U.S., other U.N. actors, or the European Union to commit the kind of support necessary. And it’s necessary for three reasons. One is to stop this massive number of rapes that have been going on around these camps and killing, continued killing, and, you know, so to provide protection. Secondly, that facilitates the relief effort, the provision of food, of safe water, etc. These humanitarian organizations can’t get the aid in unless there’s security provided to these camps and you can’t count on the Sudanese government, army, or police to provide that security because they’re the perpetrators of these — these crimes against humanity. Thirdly, if you have that kind of protection for facilitating relief, then you have a climate where you can have political negotiations between the government and the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, the two rebel organizations in Darfur that have been involved in talks hosted by Nigeria and the African Union.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re just about to go to Nairobi to talk about the anti-land mine conference that’s taking place there. The U.S. has refused to sign on. Ethiopa was the latest country yesterday, hundred fourty-fourth to sign on to that. Can you talk about land mines in Sudan?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, Sudan is one of the top ten countries, in terms of countries that have the highest concentration of land mines. In fact, four of the top ten are in Africa. Sudan along with Angola, Mozambique, and Somalia. They’re not only in southern Sudan, where that —- they’re particularly concentrated there, and deadly there; but there are also some in Darfur. In fact, a Scottish and Sudanese staff members of Save the Children were killed in recent months due to land mines. Of the 200 million land mines around the world today, they’re continuing to kill some 26,000—-kill or injure—26,000 people a year. And this international movement to ban land mines is, you know, one of the most successful and creative and important international movements of solidarity in recent years resulting in the Ottawa Treaty and the 1997 Convention to Ban Land Mines. Of course, the United States is the only industrialized country to refuse to sign or cede to the treaty. But in the Sudan it’s going to require, as elsewhere in the world, the same major elements. Funding for destroying, you know, searching, finding and destroying existing land mines, assistance to victims of land mines, and continuing education efforts for communities that are most affected by these land mines. Now, ironically, the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of south Sudan have, you know, again, recently signed an agreement that should result in a comprehensive settlement by the end of this year. And that would provide, if successful, theoretically, the peaceful environment necessary for a major effort in southern Sudan to remove and destroy the hundreds and thousands of remaining mines in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Senator Danforth, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had a special role in Sudan, not specifically to do with Darfur. Does that weigh in here in any way?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, certainly, you know, he was the special envoy on Sudan for the past several years for the Bush administration. He made some contributions in helping to negotiate the protocols between the Khartoum government and the SPLA. Of course African negotiators are the major leaders of that effort. So he certainly has knowledge and involvement. I think sometimes the U.S. role in promoting that process is a bit exaggerated. But, nevertheless, one hopes that that peace settlement could be accomplished. He appears to be less knowledgeable, perhaps, on the details of what’s going on in Darfur based on his recent media appearances. But certainly in his role within the Security Council, he has been one of the rare forceful voices on the need for the international community to be more willing to take action in Darfur. Ironically, the principle obstacles in the Security Council, of course (well, not ironically, I mean simply as a matter of fact) have been China and Russia. China being the major investor in Sudan’s growing oil industry and Russia being a major arms supplier to the government in Khartoum.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Salih Booker is head of Africa Action. Thanks for joining us.

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