On Monday, 3 June, the Sudanese security forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) opened fire on unarmed protestors in Khartoum. According to the Sudanese Doctors Syndicate, more than 35 people were killed and over 650 injured when the security forces and RSF moved to forcibly end a mass sit-in that has been the focus of Sudan’s popular uprising against 30 years of military rule. A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he “strongly condemns the violence” and “the use of force to disperse the protestors at the sit-in site.” The Secretary-General was also alarmed at reports that “security forces have opened fire inside medical facilities.”
The massacre occurred three days after the Transitional Military Council (TMC) warned that the sit-in outside army headquarters was a security threat and that action would be taken against “unruly elements.” Since an 11 April coup removed President Omar al-Bashir from power, the TMC and the protesters, represented by the Alliance for Freedom and Change, have been negotiating the terms of a proposed joint civilian-military power-sharing government. Following Monday’s events, the TMC announced the cancellation of previous agreements regarding the composition of a transitional government and a timetable for elections.
At the time of publication, the RSF and other elements of the security forces were continuing to clear protest sites, and to use live ammunition against civilians. According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, an estimated 100 people have been killed in Khartoum and Omdurman since the crackdown began on Monday, with approximately 40 bodies reportedly recovered from the Nile River in Khartoum on Tuesday.
The security forces in Sudan have a long history of perpetrating atrocity crimes. The RSF is a successor to the notorious Janjaweed militia, who have been implicated in numerous atrocities committed during the long conflict in Darfur. This includes the killing of thousands of civilians, the systematic burning of villages, forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the widespread rape of women. On the basis of evidence collected over many years, in 2009 and 2010 the International Criminal Court indicted former President Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by the Janjaweed and the Sudanese military in Darfur.
On Monday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, joined the Secretary-General in condemning the killings in Khartoum, stressing that “those exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression must be protected, not targeted or detained. This is a fundamental tenet of international human rights law.” Meanwhile the African Union has called for “an immediate and transparent investigation” of the killings.
The TMC must immediately end the use of disproportionate and deadly force against peaceful protesters and should uphold the universal right to freedom of assembly, association and expression. Countries that have strong bilateral ties with Sudan should demand that the TMC immediately demobilize the RSF and hold those responsible for the unlawful killing of protestors accountable. Targeted sanctions should also be imposed on members of the TMC who have command and control over the RSF.
Later this month the UN Security Council will decide to renew the mandate of UNAMID – the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur. The current instability and violence in Khartoum has grave implications for other regions of Sudan where longstanding armed conflicts remain unresolved, including South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. The UN Security Council should pause any further drawdown of UNAMID, pending a demonstrable commitment from the TMC to uphold its responsibility to protect all Sudanese civilians from potential atrocity crimes, and to hold accountable those responsible for Monday’s massacre.
From 27 to 29 May Spain hosted the Third International Conference on Safe Schools, commemorating four years since the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration calls for international political commitment to end all attacks on students, teachers, schools, and universities during armed conflict.
Despite 90 countries endorsing the declaration since 2015, attacks on educational facilities are pervasive in conflicts where mass atrocities are occurring. On 20 May the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack released a report documenting the widespread rape and abduction of female students in the Kasaï region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo when the Kamuina Nsapu militia attacked their schools. The militia and the army have also both utilized schools for military purposes.
Meanwhile growing insecurity and identity-based violence in Burkina Faso has forced approximately 1,000 schools to close, preventing 146,000 children from attending school this year. At least 2,000 schools have also been destroyed or rendered unusable in Yemen due to airstrikes and other attacks committed by both sides during the ongoing war.
Citing the deteriorating security situation and escalating armed conflict, on 28 May Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), also declared that, “education is under fire in Afghanistan.” UNICEF documented 192 attacks on schools in Afghanistan during 2018, three times the number recorded during 2017. By the end of 2018 more than 1,000 schools had closed, leaving half a million Afghan children without access to education. Approximately 3.7 million school-aged children in Afghanistan are now out of school, with girls accounting for 60 percent of that number.
The right to education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller said in her 28 May briefing to the UN Security Council on the situation in Syria: “Sparing hospitals and schools is not optional. It is a fundamental legal obligation.”
The Safe Schools Declaration reflects a broad and enduring international commitment to the protection of education in armed conflict. But in order to uphold that commitment, all state forces and non-state armed groups who target schools must be held accountable for their actions in keeping with international law. This includes invoking the Arms Trade Treaty to deny arms, ammunition and other military hardware to governments who continue to attack educational infrastructure in Yemen, Syria, DRC and elsewhere.