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 ethnically motivated killings.
On 15 April 2023 violent clashes broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In their fight to preserve and expand control, both parties have perpetrated indiscriminate and deliberate attacks against civilians and civilian objects, often with rocket shells, bombardments and heavy artillery, 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 International Organization for Migration, over 6.1 million people have been internally displaced since 15 April while an additional 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries.
The RSF has utilized the conflict to also launch a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing and large-scale attacks targeting non-Arab communities, particularly the Massalit, in various parts of the country. Dozens of cities, towns and villages have been fully or partially destroyed across Darfur. Mass graves have been identified in El Geneina and Misterei, West Darfur. The UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 civilians were killed by the RSF and allied militia in El Geneina from April to June.
Strong condemnation and diplomatic efforts by the UN, African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Sudan and the United States, have yielded limited results. On 17 November the UN Secretary-General appointed a Personal Envoy on Sudan.
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.
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 20 January Sudan suspended its membership with IGAD.
Between October and November the RSF secured control of four out of the five states in Darfur. During early January the RSF launched heavy attacks on El Fasher, North Darfur, killing an unconfirmed number of civilians and resulting in significant damage to civilian infrastructure. Throughout December and January the RSF also continued to strengthen its presence and expand control over territories in Al Jazeera State and areas of the Kordofan states. Fighting characterized by widespread and grave human rights violations and atrocity crimes, including sexual violence and the looting of humanitarian supplies, in and around the capital of Al Jazeera State, Wad Medani, prompted more than 500,000 people to flee during December alone.
In a briefing to the UNSC on 30 January the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed that there are grounds to believe that atrocity crimes are being committed in Darfur by both the SAF and RSF and affiliated groups. During January the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission and the AU High Level Panel on Sudan commenced their work.
Fighting between the SAF and RSF continues in Khartoum. At least 33 civilians were killed in the city on 11 January as a result of aerial bombardments and artillery fire. Following an RSF attack with mortar shells in SAF-controlled areas of Khartoum during early January, the SAF in turn intensified its attacks against RSF targets using aerial bombardments and heavy artillery. As attacks continued throughout February, civilians remained caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted.
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. 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 – including the Janjaweed, the forerunner of the RSF – resulted in competition and deadly conflicts over shrinking resources and pastoral land. Local authorities have lacked the capacity and resources to ensure the protection of civilians. Amidst the current conflict, 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 between the SAF and RSF will not bring an end to this parallel campaign of identity-based mass violence.
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 ICC following a 2005 UNSC referral. As a commander of the Janjaweed, General Hemedti was also implicated in atrocities committed during the conflict in Darfur 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 determine 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 and disbursing cash grants.
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.