The looming humanitarian tragedy in Sudan is well-depicted in Neil Henry's two recent dispatches {Dec. 6 and 7}. Food shortages in the south and now in the north, compounded by civil war, threaten to turn the clock back to 1988, when famine and conflict cost some 250,000 lives. The ''Lifesaving Food Barge Stuck in Sudan Quagmire'' is indeed a vivid symbol of the tragedy.

As a peace activist based in East Africa and one involved in a recent study of relief efforts in Sudan, I can attest to ''the mysterious and maddening world of humanitarian relief.'' The warring parties have indeed treated life-saving relief supplies and the access of aid agencies to people in desperate need as political weapons.

What is needed is for both protagonists to reaffirm the principles of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Last year Lifeline saved many lives thanks to agreement that civilians should be aided wherever they are located in the strife-torn country. The warring parties need to look beyond the political principles they espouse -- Moslem fundamentalism in the case of the Khartoum authorities, a united but secular Sudan in the case of the Sudan people's Liberation Movement -- to the human costs of advancing their goals by military means.

The international community also needs to put machinery into place to respond more effectively to civilians caught in internal wars. Given the waning of the Cold War and an upsurge in ethnic, religious and other internal conflicts, the Sudan experience can point the way toward meeting humanitarian obligations when political authorities complicate access. The imminent opening to relief supplies of the port of Massawa in neighboring Ethiopia suggests that humanitarian considerations, backed by creative diplomacy, can command the respect of warring parties.

Human life is too precious to allow the politics of denial to have the last word.

ABDUL MOHAMMED Director, The Inter-Africa Group Nairobi, Kenya