Interview with Roger Guarda, Outgoing UN Humanitarian Coordinator

March 19, 2002 (IRIN)

On 19 March, IRIN interviewed Roger Guarda, outgoing UNDP Resident Representative and Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan.

He speaks about key issues and concerns, at a time when the country is considered to have a rare window of opportunity for peace.

QUESTION: Much of the focus in Sudan at the moment is on the cease-fire and humanitarian needs in the Nuba Mountains area of Southern Kordofan. How do you see the situation there compared to the rest of Sudan?

ANSWER: Well, I think there is a lot of expectation now that the trial in the Nuba Mountains will be some sort of a model for the rest of Sudan, in terms of a ceasefire and a programme to rehabilitate the whole area. And so there is a lot of hope, definitely, with regard to that operation.

Q: With the current emphasis on Nuba, is there a danger of vulnerable people in other conflict- or drought-affected areas being forgotten, or sidelined?

A: No, I think that everywhere the conflict is going on is populated by people who are extremely affected by that conflict - and the Nuba Mountains were, and all the others still are. But the fact that we're going to focus now on the Nuba Mountains does not mean that the other people are going to have their situation either improved or worsened [in the short term]; it's just they will continue in the very sad, same situation as before. But hopefully, what's being tried in the Nuba situation can be replicated in other parts of the country.

Q: Are there any particular parts of Sudan that you consider well suited to replication of this Nuba initiative for a cease-fire and expanded humanitarian access?

A: Well yes, the whole conflict area... of course, Bahr al Ghazal. Another place where it would be really required is western Upper Nile/Unity State, where a lot of fighting is going on right now, and where people are being really affected very badly by this conflict. If the Nuba Mountains model, if I can call it that, could be used in areas like this, this would have a tremendous impact on the possibility of achieving a full peace at some point.

Q: Western Upper Nile is one of the hot spots in the Sudanese war at the moment. Is the oil issue there a critical factor, in your view?

A: Yes I think it is, I think it is. I think all observers will say that. The oil is definitely a focus, a centre of attention for the conflict itself. And, obviously, the parties to the conflict are fighting it out there more and more strongly. And so it is a fact that this [the oil] is certainly an important factor in keeping the war going.

Q: Many people are keenly focused on the undoubted problems of Sudan, while some see progress in recent months. How have you seen the situation evolve in your time in the country?

A: When I arrived two year ago there didn't seem to be any hope for peace. The official peace talks in IGAD [the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, mandated with finding peace] seemed to be stuck at the time, there was no willingness on either side to compromise on any of their positions. This went on for about a year, if not a year and a half, and then suddenly, things started opening up.

Over the last few months - basically, since US Senator Danforth's initiative [to expand humanitarian access and protect civilians as a test of the conflict parties' sincerity about peace] started - and strong pressure has been put by the international community on the parties, I think we've seen a real opening.

The various components of the Danforth initiative [on Nuba, slavery, attacks on civilians and wider humanitarian access for immunisation and other programmes] are basically confidence building measures.

If we manage, altogether, the whole international community, to continue to put pressure on the parties, and to provide support to the parties at the same time in implementing programmes like the Nuba Mountains or other parts of this initiative, I think there is a real chance of peace now. It might take some time before full compromises are made by the parties but I think we're on the road there.

The outlook now, compared to when I came two years ago, is dramatically different - dramatically different - and I have gone from pessimism to optimism.

Q: The US engagement you mention has brought some sense of momentum in Sudan, but what do you make of suggestions that the US may have been better to focus on the big issue - comprehensive peace - instead of the Danforth proposals?

A: I think the parties basically lack confidence in each other. So many years of conflict has hardened positions and, to try and tackle the political differences cold, just going straight into them, would, I think, not have produced the desired results.

I believe the way Senator Danforth has approached the whole problem - identifying particular issues, which are very sensitive areas still but in which one can build confidence between the two parties; where they will have to work together, like in the Nuba Mountains and in very sensitive areas like abduction and slavery - could certainly facilitate an improvement of the relationship if we manage to make progress on these. And if we can improve the confidence levels between the two sides, then we can tackle more successfully the hard-core political differences.

Q: Attacks on civilians have been the headlines recently. How important do you think these are overall, in the humanitarian and political contexts?

A: From a humanitarian point of view, these attacks are, of course, totally unacceptable and shocking, and extremely sad. Each time they happen, we protest them emphatically because it is just not acceptable for things like this to happen. They've been happening so long and, for them to happen now, during this particular initiative, is even more unfortunate. So I hope that people who are carrying out these attacks will not succeed in derailing this process that is started now: this process of confidence-building...

And I think the attacks are important, very important, not only because of the humanitarian aspects: the human tragedy that they produce, but also because there is a danger that they come to derail the whole process. So, we will continue to protest emphatically every time these things happen. They are just totally unacceptable.

Q: Many people are speaking at the moment of a new window of opportunity for peace in Sudan. What can the international community and, more specifically, the United Nations do to take advantage?

A: I think one of the things that has to be done, as I mentioned earlier, is to help build confidence between the two sides. There is none now, but hopefully the initiative that is now being carried out will start the process of confidence building. I think the UN has a major role to play there because these confidence building measures will also have to be supported by outside assistance, outside support.

Just as has been demonstrated in the Nuba Mountains, the United Nations is in a position to provide the support: the humanitarian, rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance, that will be at the core of the initiative. So I think the UN has a major role to play.

I think also that the UN has to start helping the two sides see what the future Sudan might look like. As it stands now, both sides are bent on their own positions and don't look at the long term, don't see the benefits that peace might bring - except for the immediate end to the suffering and the political gains they could make.

I think if the United Nations were able to demonstrate to both sides that there is a bright future ahead if this war came to an end - from an economic point of view and a longer term vision of what Sudan would look like if peace came - then maybe people would find this is something to fight for, but not with weapons: to fight for with hard work, and combining efforts and joining hands.

Q: A crucial issue in the big picture on Sudan is how, and whether, the different IGAD and Egyptian-Libyan peace initiatives can be reconciled. Do you think there is a role for the international community, or should it be left for countries in the region to resolve?

A: I think the problem is sufficiently complex that as many people as can help should help, so IGAD member countries [Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, along with Sudan] definitely have a role to play, but I think the international community as a whole also has a duty to help.

I would think that a bringing together of the two initiatives, joining them into one single effort, is essential because the parties should be confronted with one set of approaches to the problem - and not two, with the possibility of playing one set against the other. It is very important that the integration of the two initiatives takes place, and I think pressure should be put on the parties for this to happen, and the pressure should come from the whole international community - not only the IGAD countries.

Q: In terms of bringing pressure to bear, what types of 'carrots and sticks' are available to the international community, and suitable for use in Sudan?

A: Well, I think that one of problems Sudan has had over the last few years - especially the government in Khartoum - has been political isolation. And this has progressively been changed, up to a limit. I think the normalisation of relations, combined with possible development assistance which has been denied to Sudan [the country gets only humanitarian assistance from most donors] is one way of putting pressure here.

There are ways and means of demonstrating to the parties to the conflict that peace has benefits. The SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement] side has basically been receiving humanitarian assistance - just as the north has - but I think the international community has a weapon in its hands in terms of pressure, and that is the assistance it can provide to building a real Sudan, a developed Sudan. This would equally apply to north and south - and eventually to both sides at the same time, if they manage to get to a peaceful solution of their problems.

Q: And lastly, is there anything in particular you would like to have seen during your time in Sudan that has not come to pass? Or anything that has happened that you really wish had not?

A: The thing I would have preferred not to happen is these attacks against civilians. These are something absolutely abominable which should never have happened, and that is certainly something whose occurrence I regret immensely.

What I would have liked to see happen - and did not - is some movement on resolution of internally displaced persons (IDPs). As you know, Sudan has the largest IDP population in the world - and these people are just left to their own devices, basically, with some assistance provided by the international community. Only a limited number of them are living in camps where they can receive that assistance: most of them are just out there, on their own, without any support... I would have liked to see a real approach - a real policy approach - to resolving that issue, either by helping them to return where they were coming from, or helping them to settle for good where they have decided to stay. And that, unfortunately, has not happened.

There are now signs that there is an increasing willingness to deal with the issue, and we in the UN are trying to help in that regard: Francis Deng, Special Representative of the Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] for Displacement, has been here. He will organise a workshop aimed at defining a policy for Sudan - both north and south - on how to deal with the issue. I regret that this will happen after I leave, because I would have liked to see a beginning of a resolution of that problem.