Tomas Archer: The aid agencies must be let free to work in Darfur

The world's largest humanitarian crisis is becoming less and less accessible to life-saving relief

The conflict in Darfur continues to escalate. With four million people in need of protection and emergency relief in the coming months, a substantial build up of the emergency relief capacity is needed urgently along with unrestricted access to the civilian population. The reality, however, is that humanitarian organisations in Darfur are treated with suspicion and hostility, and their security is threatened.

The result is that vital relief operations are being scaled down or folded all together. The international community cannot continue to mince words, pretending that the hostage-taking of humanitarian operations in Darfur is not happening on its watch. The Darfur peace agreement signed earlier this year has failed to bring security and stability to the region. Large areas of Darfur are being declared no-go zones because of the escalating conflict. The UN estimates that one million out of the four million Darfurians in need of protection and emergency relief is inaccessible to humanitarian assistance.

The sharp increase in the number of new displacements from areas cut off to humanitarian organisations reflects the disaster unfolding beyond our reach. Since the beginning of 2006, there has been a notable rise in the number of Sudanese employees of relief organisations who have been killed or harassed. Vehicles and essential equipment have been looted, stolen and confiscated. In addition to the escalating insecurity, humanitarian organisations are subjected to a multitude of official restrictions and bureaucratic procedures. Unsubstantiated allegations have also been levelled against some organisations, accusing them of undermining Sudan's sovereignty and exceeding their humanitarian mandate.

These measures and allegations made by the Sudanese authorities, typically at local level, are clearly intended to obstruct and prevent access to crisis affected Darfurians. National authorities, while claiming to have no hand in these decisions, have done little to rectify the situation, suggesting they have sanctioned these actions.

The clampdown on relief agencies is happening despite Sudan's commitment, as early as mid 2004, to a moratorium on restrictions for humanitarian work in Darfur. The UN-brokered moratorium sought to remove obstacles to relief work by easing visa and travel permit restriction on humanitarian workers to enable full access to the civilian population of Darfur. But the government's commitment was short lived. Arbitrary restrictions remain in place for humanitarian organisations. Many agencies have had permits revoked and personnel barred from Darfur, and a number have had operations interrupted or suspended.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is on the list of suspect agencies. After frequent obstruction and harassment, culminating in five suspensions of NRC operations in two years - lasting 210 days in total - we were finally expelled from Darfur in November 2006. Groundless allegations were made by local authorities accusing the NRC of espionage, reporting on troop movements and going to the media with false information. None of these allegations were officially communicated to the NRC, and therefore could not be challenged.

The closure of our Darfur programme is having a direct impact on the protection and effective relief provision for more than 250,000 internally displaced persons living in camps - of whom 19,000 are children enrolled in an education programme. In addition, 50,000 people who rely on regular food relief from the NRC are affected.

The world's largest humanitarian crisis is becoming less and less accessible to life-saving relief. Apart from the UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Jan Egeland - who has repeatedly highlighted the deteriorating working conditions for humanitarian organisations - the international community has been conspicuously quiet.

It has been preoccupied with UN resolution 1706, negotiating the future composition of the Darfur peacekeeping mission. But as the diplomatic battle rages on, attacks on civilians are increasing, humanitarian assistance to Darfur is held hostage and humanitarian agencies are treated like the enemy by the host government. This is shameful and unacceptable by any standard, and it gambles with the lives of millions of civilians as well as 14,000 humanitarian workers on the ground.

The issue should be clear to the international community. International humanitarian law is unambiguous: all parties to an internal conflict or civil war - rebel groups, militias and government forces - have an obligation to allow and facilitate unhindered and rapid delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance for civilian populations.

Civilians suffering undue hardship as a result of conflict have the right to humanitarian assistance. Intimidation of and assaults on relief workers, attacks on infrastructure and supplies, and deliberate obstructions of relief efforts, constitute grave violations of international law.

The UN and the wider international community must now insist that this law be upheld.

No humanitarian agency is willing to abandon an ongoing humanitarian crisis voluntarily. However, unless immediate steps are taken to ensure the full, safe and unimpeded access of humanitarian organisations in all areas of Darfur, more organisations will face expulsion, on dubious grounds, and more critical relief operations will come to a halt. This will happen only because the international community allows it to happen.

It is time for the international community to break its code of silence, and act.

The author is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which was expelled from Darfur last month