Representatives of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia recently reached an agreement in Jeddah, brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan committed both parties to respect international humanitarian law and vacate residential areas. While the declaration was welcomed internationally, many in Sudan were sceptical. However, humanitarian emergencies are not the time for indulgence in the populist rhetoric of mistrust and scepticism. Doing so now would only raise the already high human cost of this conflict.
The ongoing conflict in Sudan necessitates a different humanitarian response than usual. The country faces multi-level insecurities due to constant fighting everywhere, the inability of any side to enforce its rule anywhere, and persistent uncertainty about what direction the conflict will take. The current humanitarian crisis in Sudan is the direct outcome of this uncontrollable level of insecurity, compounded by the desperate quest for havens by the randomly dispersed RSF fighters.
Traditional humanitarian strategies for delivering aid in this situation of heightened insecurity would not work. Without restoring some level of security, aid cannot be delivered. Thus, the call by the Human Rights Council for an unconditional ceasefire is anti-humanitarian, especially in light of the commitment in the Jeddah Declaration by both parties to vacate hospitals and stop impeding the functioning of essential civilian facilities.
When security is restored, international aid agencies need to carefully consider the type of aid the Sudanese people would need. In the current situation, half the population of Khartoum needs food aid. Due to the looting of banks, shops, homes and private property (mainly by the RSF, but also unruly mobs), few people can lay their hands on cash.
However, if insecurity is reduced, life could return to normal. If fighters withdraw from civilian areas, public transport would be able to resume and necessary facilities and public services would be able to operate again. In this case, food may not be the biggest necessity for people; there is no shortage of food around Khartoum. So the importing by aid agencies of food and aid workers does not make sense, when the job can be done at just a fraction of the cost by employing local resources and labour.
In charting the response to the crisis in Sudan, humanitarian agencies should also consider their own past failures. The ill-fated UNAMID peacekeeping mission in Darfur (2007-2020) is a textbook case of how the structures of UN operations can subvert the very humanitarian purpose of the organisation. It failed to protect civilians despite the deployment of some 26,000 troops.
Whatever the misgivings about international humanitarianism, the focus should be on delivering aid to those whose life depends on it. There is a saying by Prophet Muhammad that a woman was sent to hell because she allowed a cat to starve to death. She neither fed it nor set it free to find its own food. If starving a cat can earn eternal damnation, how about starving scores of human beings?