Populations in Sudan are enduring war crimes and crimes against humanity due to an armed confrontation between the Sudanese military and paramilitary forces. Non-Arab communities in Darfur are at risk of genocide as result of escalating ethnically motivated killings.
On 15 April violent clashes broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). More than 10,400 people have reportedly been killed as result of rocket shells, bombardments and heavy artillery, though the actual figures are likely much higher. In their fight to preserve and expand control, both parties have perpetrated indiscriminate and deliberate attacks against civilians and civilian objects that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There have also been reports of the brutal and widespread use of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, exploitation and sexual slavery. Access to food, medical care and other essential services has been severely disrupted and restricted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 5.1 million people have been internally displaced since 15 April while an additional 1.2 million have fled to neighboring countries.
The conflict has triggered an alarming escalation in ethnically motivated violence in various parts of the country. Since April, large-scale attacks have been perpetrated as part of a systematic campaign targeting non-Arab communities. Dozens of cities, towns and villages have been fully or partially destroyed across Darfur. Evidence suggests that Arab affiliated militias and the RSF are targeting civilians from Massalit and other non-Arab communities on the basis of their ethnic identity and have committed ethnic cleansing. Mass graves have been identified in El Geneina and Misterei, West Darfur.
Strong condemnation and diplomatic efforts by the UN, African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development and various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Sudan and the United States, have not resulted in a permanent end to hostilities.
The conflict was initially sparked by mounting tensions between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the SAF, and General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, commander of the RSF, regarding the integration of the RSF into Sudan’s regular forces as part of a political agreement aiming to establish a new transitional civilian authority. Sudan has undergone significant political changes since former President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown after country-wide protests in 2019. Leadership was handed over to a joint civilian-military transitional Sovereign Council until the military – under the leadership of General Burhan and supported by General Hemedti – seized power on 25 October 2021. Following the coup, millions of protesters demonstrated across the country, demanding the reinstatement of a genuine civilian-led government.
Civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted as both parties attempt to maintain and expand control. Heavy fighting and airstrikes continue unabated in Khartoum, Omdurman, Bahri and Sharg El Nil. On 10 September at least 40 people were killed following an airstrike by the SAF on a market in southern Khartoum. During November fighting drastically escalated in densely populated areas in Omdurman, with aerial bombardments, artillery shelling and heavy ground combat affecting entire neighborhoods and killing dozens of civilians.
During October and November, the RSF gained control over large parts of Western Sudan, including Nyala, Baleela, Zalingei and El Geneina. Reports and videos circulated on social media in early November describing the RSF going door-to-door in Ardamata, rounding up and killing members of the Massalit community and arbitrarily detaining civilians. Local human rights organizations claim that between 1,300 and 2,000 people were killed in three days. At the time of publication, the RSF and SAF were fighting for control of El Fasher.
On 11 October the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to investigate and establish the facts, circumstances and root causes of human rights violations and abuses and atrocities, to collect and preserve evidence, to identify responsibility and to make recommendations to end impunity.
Despite the escalation of fighting, on 16 November Sudan’s military authorities requested the immediate termination of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan. On 17 November the UN Secretary-General appointed a Personal Envoy on Sudan.
Since former President Bashir was ousted, General Burhan and General Hemedti have consistently obstructed Sudan’s political transition to preserve and expand their power and privileges. Both continued to recruit forces along ethnic lines and strengthen relationships with regional powers, including several Gulf states and Egypt, to further consolidate their positions in Sudan. The transition process did not receive the necessary support from civil society groups and experts who felt that involving the military in negotiations legitimized the 2021 coup and rewarded actors involved in grave human rights violations and atrocities.
For decades, the Arab-dominated government imposed its control on ethnic minorities and exploited ethnic divisions and the presence of armed Arab militias, resulting in competition and deadly conflicts over shrinking resources and pastoral land. Local authorities lack the capacity and resources to ensure the protection of civilians. Civilians in Darfur, particularly those from non-Arab communities, are at risk of ethnic cleansing and genocide given the region’s genocidal history, entrenched impunity for past crimes and the ethnically charged nature of the current violence. A ceasefire agreement will not bring an end to the parallel campaign of identity-based mass violence in Darfur. The RSF’s recent military advancement across Western Sudan increases the risk of atrocity crimes and has raised the prospect that the RSF will further advance toward other cities.
Impunity has allowed those responsible for atrocity crimes and grave human rights violations to remain in leadership positions. During his dictatorship, former President Bashir, government officials and militia leaders were allegedly responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide, for which they were indicted by the International Criminal Court following a 2005 UN Security Council (UNSC) referral. As a commander of the Janjaweed, the forerunner of the RSF, General Hemedti was also implicated in atrocities committed during the conflict in the Darfur region and beyond.
General Burhan and General Hemedti must agree to a permanent cessation of hostilities and ensure adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law by all forces under their command. In addition to ceasefire negotiations, the international community must assess the risk of further atrocities, including evaluating which communities are at imminent risk and determining appropriate response.
It is essential that humanitarian organizations are allowed safe and unhindered access. International donors must utilize more innovative ways of delivering aid to vulnerable populations across Sudan, including by supporting civilian-run Resistance Committees and neighborhood communities.
International and regional actors need to ensure that a permanent ceasefire agreement is followed by a credible political process that respects people’s desire for democratic reform. States should urgently consider targeted sanctions against General Burhan and General Hemedti, including freezing personal bank accounts, as well as the accounts of companies to which they are connected. The UNSC must consider expanding the existing sanctions regime, including against those responsible for conflict-related sexual violence and the targeting of communities based on their ethnic identity.