AWOON is a group of mostly female lawyers which works to promote women's and children's rights, and provides free legal assistance to women in the city of Port Sudan. In their proposal to the EU last summer, the organization sought funding for an advocacy campaign to promote the right of access to justice for women in Sudan, including a training course on the subject for twenty-five lawyers and activists. The request was granted and the project got underway in March 2006, only to be brought abruptly to an end a month later. AWOON Chairperson, Ghada Shawgi, believes that the government of Sudan is trying to prevent AWOON from campaigning for women's rights, and said that it was the organization's outspoken efforts to have women's and children's rights properly recognized in the Sudanese Interim National Constitution last year that first brought them under the scrutiny of the authorities. She believes that the Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act has now given the HAC the tools it needs to pursue a campaign of harassment of NGOs, even if that means applying the law to events that precede its enactment.
This reading of the HAC's actions against AWOON is consistent with a larger pattern of harassment of NGOs and humanitarian aid agencies by the HAC since the passage of the Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act in March. The act grants the HAC a range of broad and vaguely defined powers, which it has already used on a number of occasions to control the activities of NGOs. On May 3, during a visit to Sudan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour expressed her concerns to the Sudanese government about the restrictive new law.
In March 2006, the HAC in Al Ginnena (West Darfur state) ordered the closure of two field offices of the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO), and the freezing of the SUDO's bank accounts for those offices. In early April, the HAC served notice to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) that its agreement on coordination of the Kalma camp for internally displaced persons in South Darfur state would not be renewed. Although no reason was given, the NRC was told to end all humanitarian operations in Darfur and leave the region.
The Sudanese government demonstrated its support for the policy of harassment of NGOs when it denied permission for a plane carrying Jan Egeland, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to land in either Khartoum or Darfur. Egeland later said he believed the reason for the prohibition was to prevent him from witnessing the dire conditions being endured by the people of the Darfur region, and the violence being perpetrated against them by their own government.
The obstruction of AWOON's operations is just the latest episode in Sudan's long record of persecution of human rights defenders. Other incidents in recent years have included the detention of individuals who have described atrocities they have witnessed to international organizations, as well as the detention of human rights lawyers and defenders. The Chairman of the Sudan Social Development Organization, Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, was arrested three times in the eighteen months between December 2003 and May 2004, each time on unfounded charges. Dr. Mudawi and SUDO have been very active in the Darfur region ever since 2003, both in providing humanitarian assistance and in documenting human rights violations, and the arrests, as well as the recent closure of their offices, seem solely intended to hinder their work.
Through the Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act and other measures, the government of Sudan is attempting to inhibit the ability of both national and international organizations to document and publicize human rights violations, as well as preventing humanitarian aid workers from bringing relief to the country's large internally displaced population.
The Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act requires "non-interference by foreign and international organizations in the internal affairs of the Sudan, to the extent that these infringe upon the sovereignty of the country." "International interference in internal affairs" has long been used by the government of Sudan as an excuse for targeting NGOs, particularly those working in sensitive regions and attempting to speak out about human rights violations. That this pretext has been formalized in the new law is worrying, and is one of many ways in which the HAC can use the Organization of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act to obstruct the work of NGOs in Sudan. Most Sudanese NGOs depend heavily on funding from foreign donors, so government restrictions on these sources of support is of great concern.
AWOON filed an appeal with the Humanitarian Aid Commission shortly after the freezing of its operations, and, having received no response, has now addressed their case to the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs for Red Sea state. The organization has received no response from the ministry, and continues to be the target of official harassment - Port Sudan police last week denied AWOON access to a meeting of 250 NGOs to which they had been invited by the United Nations Development Program.
Help us put pressure on the Sudanese government to stop persecuting human rights defenders by demanding that the case of AWOON be fairly reviewed in light of the apparent inaccuracy of the charges against them, that their assets be released and that they be allowed to resume operations immediately.
To take action please visit the website of Human Rights First http://action.humanrightsfirst.org/campaign/AWOON