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Complacent Witnesses: How the Global Community Is Failing Sudan

Has the world been doing enough to end the war in Sudan? Unfortunately, the answer is simple: Absolutely not.

On February 7, the United Nations launched an appeal raising awareness on the devastating conflict in Sudan, calling donors to help finance the humanitarian response. This comes after nearly 10 months of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which started in April last year. The news also followed recently released statistics from UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations: 10.7 million people have been uprooted from their homes, 20.3 million face severe hunger, more than 70 percent of hospitals in conflict-affected areas are not functioning, and 19 million children are out of school in Sudan.

Despite all these numbers that show an extremely dire situation, one central question should be addressed: Has the world been doing enough to end the war? And, unfortunately, the answer is simple: absolutely not. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, there are looming risks of more atrocities, and we are no closer to a global or regional response that matches these horrors.

This failure of the global community is neither new nor is it incidental, as it can be traced back prior to the outbreak of the conflict.

Political convenience, often on the account of principled rights-based engagement, has been the main feature of how the global and regional community approached Sudan following the ousting of Omar al-Bashir

Political convenience, often on the account of principled rights-based engagement, has been the main feature of how the global and regional community—including the UN—approached Sudan following the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. For starters, the military-civilian transitional government following its formation quickly showed its unwillingness to renew the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, the UNAMID, that was established in 2007 in the aftermath of the genocide in Darfur. The government at the time stated it could take care and protect its own civilians. The intent to remove the peacekeepers was something Bashir’s regime kept pushing for but without any success, while continuing to challenge its work with threats and restrictions.

Though the UN itself and other rights groups documented an uptick in violence in Darfur, the UN Security Council accepted the transition government’s promise that it would protect civilians in Darfur, and ended the peacekeeping mission’s mandate in 2020. 

The Security Council then rolled out the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission to Sudan (UNITAMS). The mission, as its name suggests, came to support a democratic transition in Sudan. This democratic process, however, sidelined voices of key pro-democracy voices such as protest groups, displaced persons’ committees, and several trade unions, and instead prioritized Khartoum’s political leaders. UNITAMS unfortunately kickstarted embracing political convenience as the new game in post-Bashir’s Sudan. 

The coup not only brutally cracked down on civic democratic voices, but also squandered the small window of opportunity that Sudan had after Bashir’s fall

Many of the civilian groups kept raising the alarm, warning that this approach would only embolden the abusive military leaders in aborting the democratic transition, without fear of any consequences. Their warnings proved prophetic, as these same military leaders staged a coup in 2021, with dire consequences. The coup not only brutally cracked down on civic democratic voices, but also squandered the small window of opportunity that Sudan had after Bashir’s fall. Key donors cut off their financial support to an already struggling economy, with the civilian population becoming the first victims of that move. 

The military power grab was not a surprise for many Sudanese actors, in particular protest groups, yet the UN and others appeared to be caught off guard. Meanwhile, attacks against civilians in Darfur continued, with hundreds reported killed in bouts of violence in that region between 2021 and 2022. The international response remained the same: expressing concerns with the deterioration in the situation, but no substantive intervention to protect civilians or hold military leaders accountable.

Again, protesters in the streets rejected any appeasement of the abusive coup leaders. However, the head of the UN political mission in Sudan, Volker Perthes, commented on a deal in November 2021 that reinstated former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, saying that while the deal was “imperfect,” it “saved Sudan from a civil war.” The comment was made while security forces were brutally cracking down on people protesting the deal. Hamdok eventually resigned weeks after that announcement, the coup continued, the UNITAMS also continued to push for a shortcut political deal, actively downplaying its existing mandate on protecting rights. In the end, the civil war happened. 

The conflict has quickly laid bare the weakness of UN infrastructures in terms of human rights and civilian protection. Instead of protecting the population, the UN, including the Security Council, played a game of wait and see, yet again. Nearly a week after the war started in April, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “the UN is not leaving in Sudan.” In December 2023, the UN Security Council accepted, with little to no pushback, Sudan’s termination of the UN political mission in the country. The UN Secretary General then moved the next day to appoint a “personal envoy,” with unclear abilities to prioritize or handle discussions on civilian protection. 

The conflict has quickly laid bare the weakness of UN infrastructures in terms of human rights and civilian protection

Now the Security Council will be tested again, with the yet to be released report of the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur, which provided damning findings, especially on abuses committed by the RSF and their allied militias in West Darfur. The panel, established in 2005 following the outbreak of Darfur conflict and mandated to provide recommendations to the UN for sanctions, also provided reports on arms embargo violations. It is yet to be seen if the Security Council will act on these findings but so far, there is no sign that it will do so.

The callous failure of the international community is not occurring in a vacuum. It is the consequence of years of lacking a principled engagement, dismissing what the Sudanese people risked their lives and liberty for in these last few years: freedom, peace, and justice. Promises and commitments of world leaders can now join a shelf full of other broken, unheeded pledges made to the Sudanese people.

One can probably provide a to-do list for the international actors, especially the UN Security Council, but first and foremost, it is a question of abandoning existing behaviors: wait and see approaches, business as usual, and appeasement politics do not work. Frankly, these tactics have made these international actors complacent witnesses to the suffering in Sudan. 

  • On its end, the UN Security Council should bring the situation in Sudan to its utmost attention. It must respect its own mandate, to focus on alleviating the civilian populations’ suffering. This should include advocating for civilian protection, an increased political pressure on warring parties to adhere to international law, and unfettered humanitarian access. 
  • The UN Security Council should also discuss rolling out sanctions against those responsible for Darfur atrocities as well as addressing the violations of the arms embargo.
  • Concerned governments and regional organizations, such as the African Union and the European Union, should also engage those voices that have been sidelined all along, the volunteers on the ground and the groups representing refugees and displaced communities: Let their voices be heard and provide adequate support to their activities, especially those who are documenting the atrocities committed all over the country. 
  • International and regional actors alike should not appease the warring parties in their ongoing obstruction of aid, but rather treat this obstruction as what it is: a grave violation of international law, and accordingly punish those involved.

Mohamed Osman is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance, accountability, and justice in Sudan. He has been a Researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division since 2018.


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