Increased inter-communal violence in Sudan threatens the country’s fragile democratic transition and leaves civilians at risk of recurrence of atrocity crimes.
Inter-communal violence and militia attacks against civilian populations have been increasing in Sudan since the start of 2020. Disputes over land ownership and competition for scarce resources between herder and farmed communities have caused increased tensions which are often ethnically motivated. A series of clashes between Arab and Massalit communities that started in January around El Geneina, West Darfur, has resulted in at least 70 people being killed and 40,000 displaced. Additional clashes broke out on 5 May in South Darfur between cattle herders from the ethnic Fallata and Rizeigat communities, resulting in at least 30 people killed. Fighting also took place between the Nuba and Beni Amer in Kassala city between 7-10 May, resulting in at least eight people being killed and 80 injured. Hundreds of people fled the violence while numerous houses were torched.
Populations in Darfur had already been subjected to violations perpetrated by armed groups prior to the latest inter-communal violence. According to the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan, various human rights violations and abuses continued unabated in the Darfur region during 2019, including rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence, often used as tactics by armed groups to prevent communities from gaining access to their farms and from engaging in other livelihood activities.
Violence has also been rising in South Kordofan, where a faction of the army has clashed with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). On 12 and 13 May clashes that started over cattle between the Bagara and Nuba communities outside of Kadugli, South Kordofan, resulted in a fighting between the army and RSF. At least 19 people were killed, including 10 civilians.
The rise in inter-communal violence started less than six months after the formation of a new joint military-civilian government in Sudan, the Sovereign Council. Following months of mass demonstrations against his government, on 11 April 2019 the Sudanese military overthrew and arrested President Omar al-Bashir. During the mass demonstrations between December 2018 and August 2019, more than 200 people were killed and thousands arrested throughout Sudan, including at least 120 people killed during a violent crackdown by the RSF on protesters in Khartoum on 3 June. Negotiations between the military and civilian leaders of the protest movement resulted in the establishment of the Sovereign Council on 17 August with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok sworn in on 21 August.
During his 30-year rule, Bashir and other government officials allegedly committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide against civilians while fighting armed groups in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur and elsewhere. While many had hoped that the transition to a new government could bring an end to atrocities in Sudan, the failure to address the root causes of inter-communal conflict risks a return to widespread ethnic violence and attacks on populations.
Establishing state authority throughout the country to address existing security vacuums and prevent further violence is a significant challenge for the nascent government, particularly as it struggles to control the actions of factions of the army and RSF. The RSF includes former Janjaweed who have been accused of committing atrocities during the bitter armed conflict in Darfur that started in 2003. The participation of factions of the RSF in attacks on civilians during recent inter-communal violence increases the risk of renewed conflict in Sudan.
Impunity continues for perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes and attacks on populations during the 2019 protests. Although Bashir was convicted on 14 December of corruption and illicit financial gains, he has not been held accountable for atrocity crimes. At least one member of the Sovereign Council – Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagolo – is also implicated in atrocity crimes committed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile since 2003.
Sustained international support and pressure is necessary to support the Sovereign Council in upholding its responsibility to protect.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has imposed an arms embargo on Darfur since 2004 and travel ban and asset freeze against six individuals since 2006. Following a UNSC referral, between 2007-2014 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for three Sudanese government officials, including Bashir, and two anti-government militia leaders, for atrocities perpetrated in Darfur, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) has been deployed since July 2007. Following the adoption of Resolution 2429 in June 2018, UNAMID has been in the process of implementing a phased draw-down. Despite negotiations since March 2020 the UNSC has been unable to reach consensus regarding the final drawdown plans and follow-on presence of the UN in Darfur.
Despite its recent political transition and history of mass atrocity crimes, on 17 October Sudan was voted on to the HRC for the 2020-2022 term.
The newly-established Sovereign Council should fully implement the agreed upon power-sharing agreement and launch credible investigations into the killing of peaceful protesters.
Following the reconfiguration of UNAMID, the UNSC must closely monitor the security situation in Darfur. The drawdown of UNAMID and the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding should be pursued alongside tangible implementation of the peace process in order to avoid a security vacuum.
Former President Bashir should be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The Sovereign Council, with the support of the UNSC and the international community, should actively support efforts to bring Bashir and other ICC indictees to justice.
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