THE conflict that erupted between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Response Forces is entering its fourth week. The bitter battle between the two sides has led to 48 million people being trapped, with few escape routes. Food, water and medicine supplies are dwindling, and people are in an increasingly desperate state as the worsening humanitarian crisis shows no signs of letting up.
The situation in Sudan reveals the international community’s increasing inability to respond to humanitarian crises. UN Secretary General António Guterres travelled in the region last week, with the hope of refocusing the world’s attention on the hapless civilians trapped in conflicts.
More recently, on Monday, the UN chief issued a statement criticising the looting at the premises of the World Food Programme in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
The UN refugee agency can only prepare for a limited number of people fleeing the conflict zone to neighbouring countries, including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan. Added to the trauma and disaster confronted by these refugees is the unforgiving heat.
Officials from the International Rescue Committee have pointed out that the traumatised people are facing temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius in an environment where clean water is not always available. The second humanitarian crisis is the death and desolation that are likely to impact these refugees.
Some of the worst conditions are faced by South Sudanese refugees who had fled to Sudan to escape the conflict that erupted in their country some years ago. Thousands upon thousands of South Sudanese refugees left the region to escape the war and settle in Sudan.
In the interim years, many of these refugees were able to build a life for themselves, finding jobs and places to live. Now, the UN estimates that at least 30,000 refugees have fled back to South Sudan. Those for whom this is a ‘return’ must once again revisit trauma, because of the dire conditions they had escaped earlier. Many of these people have taken refuge in an abandoned university campus.
There, they have built makeshift shelters using sticks and any piece of fabric lying around that they can see. Neither tents nor any kind of sanitary facilities that one usually sees in UN refugee camps can be found here.
The situation in Sudan reveals the international community’s increasing inability to respond to humanitarian crises.
The pressure on resources that the refugees must share can be assessed when one computes the numbers. In South Sudan, already over 2m have been uprooted from their homes and 75pc of the 11m population is in dire need of assistance.
The current conflict in Sudan is between two military men who were overseeing the country’s transition to civilian rule. Instead, the two have begun to battle each other over who will control the country’s military resources.
The successive conflicts faced by the region — both Sudan and South Sudan — mean that the infrastructure that is available to get humanitarian aid to those who are in need of it is very weak. Doctors with the Red Cross and other organisations are warning that the lack of medicines and other medical supplies mean that many more people are going to die in the process of finding safe ground, adding to the total death toll from the conflict.
Earlier this week, groups like Amnesty International issued an urgent alert asking members to take action on behalf of those suffering in Sudan and taking refuge in South Sudan. This is because with all the other humanitarian crises and climate disasters going on in the world, it has been very difficult for the humanitarian effort in Sudan to receive funding.
It is markedly different, for instance, from the conflict in Ukraine, where aid has and continues to pour in from the various EU countries and the United States. Few in the world, least of all in Africa, would be surprised at this situation because the racist politics of humanitarian aid are well known. Recession-hit Europeans are far more likely to contribute to a conflict where those suffering are white, with children that look just like their own. In this sad competition informed by racism, the Sudanese hardly have any chance at all.
It also points to the fact that the liberal consensus that underpinned the funding for humanitarian disasters has eroded. Many of the world’s democracies — India or Hungary, for example — have devolved into proto-authoritarian hellholes fuelled by racism or religious obscurantism.
Their rulers see contributing to the welfare of other human beings as a weakness rather than a moral duty. The lack of trust in international institutions, which are often harassed by authoritarian dictators, has often led to reduced funding for these organisations’ humanitarian efforts. This again means ever fewer resources, despite constantly increasing demands.
In the coming decades, the liberal consensus will go from its current insecurity to becoming mythic and obsolete. It is an open question whether institutions like the UN will survive with any ability at all to lead the humanitarian effort. The presence of countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and India, among others — which appear to have very little interest in liberal humanitarianism beyond that which facilitates the diktat of realpolitik — means that the UN that exists today is already transformed from the liberal organisation of the last century.
In this grim environment, conflicts like the one going on in Sudan are going to be far more disastrous than they used to be. One would think that there is a limit to the extent to which human beings can tolerate the torture and cruelties perpetuated on other human beings. The sad truth is that there is no such limit, and, as successive decades are likely to show, human beings are far more likely to turn away from those who are in most need of assistance.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2023