News that the Government of South Sudan expelled the United Nations’ top humanitarian official in the country on May 29 has sparked outrage.
The UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council, the U.S. government, the alliance of U.S.-based NGOs InterAction, the South Sudanese NGO Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, the European Union and many other governments voiced condemnation of the action to expel Toby Lanzer.
Why are so many so frustrated?
Because South Sudan’s leaders and warring parties have put their struggle for power before the needs of their own people.
After nearly 18 months of fighting, the man-made crisis is only worsening. Renewed fighting, displacement and economic hardships have left the country on the brink of collapse.
And now they are punishing the brave humanitarians whose mission is to help the people of South Sudan.
All humanitarian staff — from the top UN official to truck drivers who deliver lifesaving food in highly insecure conditions — must be free to carry out their work and speak openly without fear of attack or retribution from the government, opposition forces or any other party.
Punishing those who are shining a light on the catastrophe in South Sudan creates a chilling effect and an atmosphere of fear for aid workers at a time when people need them most.
South Sudan — the world’s youngest country — is one of the most food-insecure countries in the world. Up to 4.6 million people — almost half of the population — will face life-threatening hunger by next month.
Parts of the country are at risk of famine for the second year in a row. Desperate to feed their families, many South Sudanese have sold or slaughtered valuable cattle — and now have nothing left.
Conflict has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes, half a million of them as refugees in neighboring countries. Tragically, many who fled have nothing to return to. Their homes, markets, schools and hospitals have been wiped out.
The number of severely malnourished children has doubled since the start of the crisis, and many people are at risk of deadly, but preventable, diseases.
The humanitarian community has done everything possible to alleviate the suffering amid widespread violence. USAID has been working in Sudan, including present-day South Sudan, for 35 years.
The U.S. government has long been the largest donor to South Sudan, providing $1.1 billion in emergency assistance alone to affected populations in South Sudan and neighboring countries since the start of the crisis.
USAID has also provided more than $1.3 billion in long-term assistance since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, directly helping the South Sudanese people withstand the catastrophic effects of conflict and build foundations for a peaceful future through education, health, agriculture and livelihoods assistance, as well as support for media, civil society and conflict mitigation.
Last year, the U.S. government, other donors and humanitarian actors helped avert the worst-case scenario of famine — only to see the same dynamics driving communities into extreme life-threatening hunger again this year. Time and again, we have had to resort to costly air operations to deliver food and relief items.
Aid workers, particularly South Sudanese, risk their lives daily delivering lifesaving assistance to people in need throughout South Sudan. Several South Sudanese aid workers have disappeared while carrying out their humanitarian work. They remain unaccounted for. Others have been killed on the spot.
Renewed fighting since mid-April, including direct attacks on humanitarian workers and supplies, has severely reduced the ability of aid organizations to reach people in need.
At a time when multiple humanitarian emergencies worldwide demand international action, speaking candidly about the situation in South Sudan is critical to garner the vast support needed to keep people alive and ease suffering caused by this crisis.
Toby Lanzer advocated tirelessly on behalf of the people of South Sudan. Expelling him or silencing anyone who speaks about the dire situation in South Sudan is misguided and a grave disservice to the South Sudanese people.
The government should act responsibly, end the suffering, and move the country past this senseless cycle of violence.