Statement by Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, UNHCR, at the 4th Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the Human Rights Situation in Darfur

The current program of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, intended to extend protection and assistance to displaced persons in Darfur, dates back to June 2004. In January 2005, at the request of the Secretary-General and pursuant to a Letter of Understanding with the Government of Sudan, UNHCR moved to consolidate its activities on behalf of IDPs principally in the West Darfur region. The mandate of the Office is humanitarian and non-political and, in Darfur, is being fulfilled within a framework of close collaboration with Government and NGO entities, as well as international organisation partners.

The figures of internal displacement are alarmingly high. In West Darfur, in the course of the last year [from October 2005 to November 2006], some 87,300 persons are documented as having been displaced as a result of one or other of inter-tribal fighting, armed nomads attacks, SLA or militia activities, or Government of Sudan and rebel clashes. The total of the internally displaced, for Darfur in its entirety and for the same period, is recorded at over 505,000 persons. This brings the displaced population overall up to some 1.9 million people, with 700,000 in West Darfur alone. These are the figures for displacement incidents we know about.

The challenges facing protection and assistance delivery on the ground have dramatically increased over the last number of months. They have negatively impacted both the number of persons reachable by UNHCR and partners, as well as the quality of support able to be provided. Security, or more correctly stated the lack thereof, continues to be the overriding protection issue in Darfur. The hoped-for improvements flowing from the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement have yet to materialise. Political progress hammered out in Abuja, Addis, Geneva and New York, which is not immediately and effectively translated into visible security improvements on the ground is, pending this, of little consequence to the citizens of Darfur.

The security situation is extremely volatile. The negative consequences for the well-being of the civilian population and the mobility of the humanitarian community is well documented and repeatedly publicised in the wake of each individual incident – most recently, for example, the constricting 16.00 hours curfew in El Geneina, effective 26 November, in response to carjackings. Due to insecurity, UNHCR's operation is today confined to El Geneina and the immediate vicinity of our field offices in West Darfur [Mukjar, Zalingei, Habilla and Mornei]. Mobility is seriously circumscribed and UNHCR and its partners have become increasingly dependent on transport by air. Presently UNHCR has access – and this not all the time – to but a little over half the IDPs in West Darfur.

It is not simply the increase in security incidents which is of concern. Rather, the combination of the to-date limited peace dividend, the heightened unpredictability of the situation due not least to the proliferation of rebel factions and the very visible reinforcement of Government forces, as well as the growing threat of a regional conflagration, has proved very unsettling for the local population and has lead to their singular lack of confidence in the prospects for safe and sustainable return.

Against this background, with the passing of the days, the sharpness of the focus on the human consequences is tending to blur. The reality is that the people of Darfur are paying a huge price in terms of shattered families, seriously abused women, traumatised children and destroyed livelihoods. Daily reports of armed men coming into the camps at night and assaulting men and women in their homes have not abated. Each new outbreak of hostilities results in more people being driven off their land, corralled into already overcrowded and ill-serviced camps. It also stretches the capacity of host communities to the limit. While UNHCR continues to try and reach out to as many IDPs and returnees as possible, we are overly dependent on air assets, security escorts and an effective international military presence. In regard to the latter, it is fair to observe, constraints admitted, that resources already on the ground are not being used to their full capacity. AU firewood patrols, for example, which had helped to improve the security of women and girls venturing outside the camps to find fuel, have now been suspended in many locations across Darfur. Contacts with women in women's centres and through medical NGOs attest to the fact that rapes and assaults still occur on a daily basis as females continue to collect firewood and grass to make ends meet.

Without placing our own staff at undue risk, we cannot say we are fulfilling our protection responsibilities to the affected people. To take but one recent, illustrative example, there are reports of new displacement of between 5,000 to 10,000 persons driven from their villages to the bleak and inhospitable hillsides of the Jebel Mara, following intense fighting over the weekend of 17 -19 November. The reports have yet to be properly verified because, some three weeks later, in spite of willingness and capacity to reach and assist the affected people, no humanitarian agency has managed to access the area. So the fact that it is within easy reach of well-stocked aid warehouses is to no avail for those going cold and hungry up on the hillsides.

UNHCR hopes that the Human Rights Council will find consensus on clear recommendations to alleviate the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the conflicts in Darfur. We need the Sudanese Government resolutely to fulfill their responsibilities to provide the kind of stability and security their nationals urgently require and humanitarian workers depend upon to do their job. We also need all armed groups to desist with their attacks on humanitarian workers. All sides have to recognise the neutrality and non-political nature of humanitarian work and let us get on with it. A genuine end to hostilities by all parties involved and the restoration of a sufficiently secure working environment are a sine qua non for the proper fulfillment by UNHCR of its protection and assistance responsibilities for the long suffering and traumatised population of Darfur.

12 December 2006