Nearly five months on, Sudan’s war between its army and largest paramilitary force has destroyed much of the country’s capital Khartoum and the adjacent cities of Bahri and Omdurman, as well as key towns in Darfur. The warring forces have killed thousands of civilians, destroyed critical infrastructure, and forced a staggering 4.9 million people to flee their homes, nearly a million of whom are now refugees in neighboring countries. Of those remaining, over 6 million are on the brink of famine.
The U.N., with long experience in Sudan including multiple peacekeeping missions and its current political mission to assist the country’s transition to democracy, is providing important humanitarian assistance. But it should be doing far more, especially to advance accountability and improve coordination in the messy diplomatic arena. Both the high-level week in New York and the Human Rights Council session in Geneva present opportunities that it should not squander.
Legacy of impunity
Sudan’s war, which started on April 15 in Khartoum, pits the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, against the sprawling paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka “Hemedti.” As others have argued, years of impunity directly fueled it.
Neither of the two men has been held to account for crimes they committed in the past, or those they are currently overseeing. Former President Omar al-Bashir formed the paramilitary RSF in 2013, to help the SAF fight rebels in war zones — part of a pre-existing strategy of arming rural Arabs to fight dirty wars and counterinsurgencies. Bashir had done the same in the early 2000s when he created the Janjaweed (“devils on horseback” as some translate the term).
The International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into existence in 2002, charged Bashir, along with four others, with serious crimes for government-led atrocities in Darfur. At the time Burhan was a regional commander in Darfur and Hemedti fought with the Janjaweed, but neither has been charged or investigated in relation to the atrocities that took place there.
After Bashir was ousted in April 2019, Hemedti seized his chance. He became deputy to Burhan, head of the country’s military council, and although he distanced himself from the old regime and championed the revolutionary spirit, he deployed the RSF for whatever the junta needed — including cracking down on protesters and a massacre on June 3, 2019, that killed at least 120 in Khartoum.
In the weeks that followed that bloody crackdown, civilian politicians and the military agreed to a power-sharing formula whereby the military would rule for 21 months before handing power to the civilians for the next 18, followed by elections. Though far from perfect, the international community supported the transition and the U.N. fielded a special political mission to support it, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS).
Thus, Hemedti and Burhan — two generals with blood on their hands — came to rule the country, sharing sufficient interests to keep up their alliance. They maintained a monopoly over significant parts of Sudan’s economy as the army had always done. The RSF, the newcomer, accumulated wealth through gold, mercenary operations, and migration management. Meanwhile, despite the transitional government’s promises to prioritize justice, they made sure none of the nascent efforts to cooperate with the ICC or investigate human rights abuses against protesters would bear fruit.
Ultimately, their alliance fell apart and they resorted to war. After staging a coup against the civilians in the transitional government in October 2021, their interests diverged. Hemedti, ever shrewd, supported a shaky new agreement to set the transition back on course. Burhan played along but the two disagreed vehemently over plans to reform the security sector, specifically how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF.
By early April, the men were publicly feuding and forces were mobilizing, creating a tinderbox in Khartoum that eventually sparked the war.
Since the fighting started on April 15, both sides have committed horrific crimes, as international and Sudanese human rights groups are documenting in real time. The RSF tore across Khartoum, looting markets, hospitals, homes, and churches, raping women and girls, allegedly holding some in sexual slavery, and committing other horrific crimes that middle class Khartoum residents had never experienced.
In West Darfur, wracked by years of violence already, the RSF joined local militias in campaigns of ethnic cleansing, destroying whole towns, raping women, and assassinating and mutilating the body of the governor of West Darfur in June. A number of organizations have documented the atrocities, which the ICC has also said it would investigate.
The SAF, meanwhile, continues to indiscriminately bomb and shell crowded areas, including hospitals and markets, leading to countless civilian deaths. Both sides have held civilians in detention arbitrarily and in horrible conditions, subjecting some to torture, a group of Sudanese lawyers recently reported. Both sides and their supporters have engaged in hate speech against the other or their supposed allies, deeply polarizing Sudanese society.
Most analysts say there is no military solution to the conflict. Sudan is simply too big for either to win by force. At most, one side could seize the capital and force the other to retreat to rule other territories; some have suggested the SAF would control a semi-triangle to the northeast, while the RSF could control its rear-base in Darfur. Clearly, a mediated solution presents the best chance of saving the country.
But so far, international efforts do not appear to be coordinated. The United States and Saudi Arabia have focused on brokering a lasting ceasefire in Jeddah, but have so far failed, while the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and neighboring countries, including Egypt and South Sudan, have created separate platforms for brokering a political deal.
Unfortunately, the two sides do not appear willing to stop fighting, convinced this is an existential battle and spurred on by external support — the SAF has support from Egypt and Turkey while the RSF reportedly received support from its patron and gold client, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Libya’s Khalifa Hifter and Russia’s Wagner Group.
UN missing in action
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the situation in Sudan “catastrophic,” but to date the U.N. has not responded in any other serious way, aside from providing and coordinating humanitarian assistance.
There is far more that the U.N. can do to help Sudan and the stakes are too high to fail. Beyond the pressure of ever-more refugees crossing borders, continuous war and potential disintegration brings enormous risks. “Without strong international support, Sudan could quickly become a locus of lawlessness, radiating insecurity across the region,” Guterres said.
In the forthcoming high-level meetings, the U.N. should figure out how to provide that support. Guterres could, for example, appoint an effective special envoy (the current head of UNITAMS, Volker Perthes, was declared persona non grata by Sudan’s military) to coordinate mediation efforts and ensure parties do not forum-shop. The U.N. should also call a meeting to explore how to protect civilians from ongoing violence and how to create avenues for accountability, including through the ICC.
Second, the Human Rights Council in Geneva, in its session this month, should heed the call of civil society groups that, in a letter signed by 117 organizations, urged it to establish an independent investigation mechanism for Sudan. Unlike its current expert on Sudan, this mechanism must have capacity to investigate and preserve evidence of crimes across the country for future accountability.
Even if these steps don't stop the fighting immediately, they could help protect lives and end the cycle of impunity that continues to destabilize the country.
Jehanne Henry is a human rights lawyer and researcher with a particular focus on Sudan and South Sudan. She is also a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Egypt and the Horn of Africa Program.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images
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