Letter: UN's failure to distribute food relief

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your note concerning the United Nations airlift to Juba (21 August) fails to explain why the UN and the Sudan People's Liberation Army are in disagreement over the renewal of this airlift. The reason lies in the UN's past failure to follow its own terms of reference in distributing relief in Sudan's war zone. The UN Operation Lifeline Sudan was pledged to an impartial distribution of relief supplies to civilians on both sides of the civil war. Unfortunately, in my experience as a consultant for the World Food Programme in southern Sudan in 1990 and 1991, WFP rarely met those standards of impartiality.

Assessments made throughout 1990 identified the relief needs of much of the civilian population in guerrilla-held rural areas. Unfortunately, the WFP office in Khartoum, responding to objections from the government of Sudan, failed to follow the recommendations of its own field staff. Throughout the early part of 1991, the WFP office in Khartoum placed restrictions not only on convoys going into southern Sudan, but on the distribution of food already positioned in areas of need. During this time the emergency airlift to the government town of Juba continued.

There were two results of the WFP's failure to implement its own relief projects in southern Sudan: 1) The government of Sudan learnt that the UN would not insist on delivering food to guerrilla-held areas as the price for continuing aid to government- held towns; and 2) The SPLA ceased to believe in the UN's impartiality in relief matters.

Today WFP shipments of food to civilians still living in SPLA- controlled zones have either been completely cancelled or suspended, yet plans for an airlift to Juba are to go ahead. As a former resident of Juba I sympathise with the plight of all civilians there; yet I have also seen at first hand the needs of those living in the rural areas, and have despaired at the UN's unwillingness to take their needs as seriously.

If the UN truly wishes to help Sudanese civilians caught in this war, surely the time has come for it to apply rigorously its own principle of impartiality? And surely that is a lesson to be learnt for the other emergencies it now faces?

Yours sincerely,