Populations in Sudan, especially in the Darfur region, continue to face atrocity risks posed by armed groups and inter-communal violence.
Inter-communal violence and militia attacks have escalated in Sudan since the start of 2021, particularly in West and South Darfur. Disputes over land ownership and competition for scarce resources between herder and farming communities have led to violent clashes that are often ethnically motivated, resulting in hundreds of people being killed and thousands displaced.
From 16-17 January violence broke out between individuals from the Massalit and Arab communities around the city of El Geneina, West Darfur, prompting allied militias to mobilize. In the resulting clashes, at least 250 people were killed and an estimated 100,000 displaced. Meanwhile, during a series of attacks by armed groups in East Jebel Marra between 24-31 January, at least 14 people were killed and thousands forced to flee their homes. Armed groups also burned 11 villages and stole 15,000 head of cattle. Following the latest attacks, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the security situation in affected villages remains tense and unpredictable.
In response to the violence, Sudan’s transitional government has deployed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to restore security and mediate an agreement to end hostilities between the Massalit and Arab communities.
The sharp increase in violence in West and South Darfur started less than a month after the mandated end for the African Union (AU)-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). The UN’s newly established Integrated Transition Assistance Mission (UNITAMS), which is mandated to assist the government during the democratic transition, has no uniformed armed personnel to protect civilians.
Following months of mass protests, former President Omar al-Bashir’s government was overthrown on 11 April 2019. Since then, the new joint military-civilian government, the Sovereign Council, has been unable to effectively protect civilians against increased violence in the Darfur region. On 3 October 2020 the transitional government and the leaders of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of armed groups from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, signed a peace agreement aimed at ending almost two decades of conflict and atrocities. The peace agreement also calls for the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms.
While the October 2020 peace agreement was an opportunity to address the root causes of conflict, tensions in the Darfur region remain high. The recent increase in militia attacks puts tens of thousands of civilians at risk of further violence. The Sudanese security forces, who are primarily responsible for the protection of civilians following the withdrawal of UNAMID, have previously committed atrocities against populations in Darfur.
During his 30-year rule, Bashir and other government officials committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide while fighting armed groups in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur and elsewhere. Although Bashir has been convicted of corruption, he has not been held accountable for past atrocity crimes. At least one member of the Sovereign Council – Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagolo – is also implicated in atrocities committed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile as commander of the RSF.
Sustained international support is necessary to assist Sudan’s transitional authorities in upholding their responsibility to protect.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has imposed an arms embargo on Darfur since 2004 and a travel ban and asset freeze against six individuals since 2006. Following a UNSC referral, 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. During October 2020 the ICC Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, traveled to Khartoum to meet with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss cooperation regarding the potential prosecution of ICC indictees.
On 4 June the UNSC established UNITAMS to assist Sudan in its transition to democracy. The UNSC ended UNAMID’s mandate as of 31 December.
On 14 December the United States removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, providing opportunities to access foreign loans.
Despite the withdrawal of UNAMID, the UNSC must continue to closely monitor the precarious security situation in the Darfur region. The Sovereign Council, with the support of the UNSC and the international community, should actively support efforts to bring former President Bashir and other ICC indictees to justice.