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Letter to EU Election Observation Mission to Sudan Urging Thorough Review of Rights Climate

Dear Election Observers, 

We write to share our concerns about prospects for a free and fair election in Sudan in April 2010. Human Rights Watch has been actively researching and reporting on the human rights situation in Sudan for 20 years.

We understand that the election mission is mandated to comprehensively assess the Sudan elections process in terms of its compliance with international standards, as these relate to freedoms of expression, association, movement, freedom from discrimination, and the right to an effective remedy.

As you prepare to carry out this important work, we ask your teams to consider the patterns of human rights violations and insecurity Human Rights Watch has documented throughout Sudan and their impact on the elections process in its entirety.

We also ask your teams to appropriately integrate into their work that Sudanese President and current presidential candidate Omar al-Bashir is an alleged war criminal who should be answering to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). We believe the EU mission has both an opportunity and a responsibility to consistently raise with the Sudanese government its need to cooperate with the ICC and for al-Bashir to appear at the court. Silence on these issues during engagement with the Sudanese government, in our view, risks tacit endorsement of the total obstruction of the ICC's work to date. There is precedent of candidates running for election while cooperating with international courts on charges of serious crimes: Ramush Haradinaj was on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia while running in elections in Kosovo.

In addition, we urge the EU mission to refrain, unless absolutely essential, from meeting directly with Sudanese President al-Bashir in view of the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant pending against him. Also in light of the fact that the pending arrest warrant is a critical topic that political parties and civil society should be free to discuss openly, we ask you to include in your monitoring the extent to which Sudanese citizens' right to freedom of expression in this regard is protected during the campaign period.

In a statement released on January 24, 2010 Human Rights Watch reported its recent findings on the pre election environment in Sudan (attached to this letter). Based on extensive field research, we found that national and southern governments have restricted basic rights and freedoms, in violation of the Sudanese Constitution and international law. Over the past month, Human Rights Watch has received reports of increasing restrictions and rights violations, described below. In addition, insecurity from armed clashes continues to threaten lives in Darfur and Southern Sudan and could prevent civilians from accessing the polls. 

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression and Assembly in Northern Sudan

The national government has repeatedly used force to suppress peaceful political demonstrations. On December 7 and 14, security forces in Khartoum and other northern cities violently suppressed demonstrations that the SPLM and other political parties had organized to protest the ruling NCP's failure to enact democratic reforms ahead of the elections. Riot police and security forces arrested hundreds of people, including political leaders and journalists, and injured dozens more while dispersing crowds in Khartoum using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and other weapons. On both days, national security forces and police also assaulted and arrested journalists, in some instances inside their newsrooms.

The government has also refused to grant permission for public rallies and other events, though groups made the required applications. In November and December, the government either cancelled, denied permission for, or interrupted at least two training sessions on election monitoring in Kassala, eastern Sudan; two public meetings in Kosti, White Nile state; a public speech in support of an independent presidential candidate in Khartoum; and dozens of public rallies. More recently, in February government authorities prevented a local group from carrying out elections training in South Darfur.

Other restrictions on freedom of expression include ongoing self-censorship by journalists, following a period of heavy pre-print censorship in 2008-9 that prevented journalists from reporting on any sensitive topic including Darfur and international justice. Editors of newspapers have reported to Human Rights Watch that certain forms of censorship about sensitive topics persist even after it officially ended in September 2009.

Harassment of Activists and Elections Observers in Northern States

During voter registration, police and national security officials restricted movement and speech of political party election observers when they complained of actions by ruling NCP members and members of popular committees, groups of local leaders who certify residency. A common complaint by elections observers was that popular committees were dominated by NCP members and that they inappropriately demanded that people turn over their voter registration cards for safekeeping.

For example, on November 8 at a Khartoum registration center, a police officer beat a female student member of the Communist Party when she refused to surrender her voter registration card to the popular committee. In South Darfur, authorities arrested and detained a Communist Party observer, Tayfour Elamin Abdullah, for 25 days when he told people at a voter registration center they should not give their registration cards to the ruling party. Abdullah told Human Rights Watch that security officials beat him in custody and told him to leave the Communist Party.

More broadly, the Sudanese government has harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested political activists and human rights activists including Darfuri students who speak out about elections and other sensitive topics such as Darfur and justice. Some recent examples related to elections activism:

  • On November 22, security forces arrested an elderly man in Khartoum when he was at the hospital for diabetes treatment because he had fliers from an activist group, "girifna", calling for peaceful change and urging people to register to vote.
  • On December 6, national security forces assaulted two student activists from the same group in a public park in Khartoum. The security officers beat them and detained them for several hours.
  • In February, security officers raided the home of activists from the same group, arrested one for several hours and beat him while in custody, and confiscated pamphlets calling for political change.
  • On February 22, national security officers arrested the Sudanese representative of Justice Africa in Nyala, South Darfur, and confiscated elections training materials. They also searched the offices of another organization and seized materials.
  • Also in February, two opposition parties reported their members were arrested for distributing leaflets in South Darfur.

Repression of Political Freedoms in Southern Sudan

During voter registration, Human Rights Watch found that Southern Sudanese authorities arrested and detained dozens of members of the northern ruling NCP and political parties seen to be in alliance with it, accusing them of various irregularities without bringing charges.

In Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Tong Awal Ayat, head of the newly formed United Democratic Party, reported to Human Rights Watch that state authorities ordered his arrest on October 22, alleging his party was not properly registered. Southern police held him in a safe house in town for two weeks, then transferred him to a military prison at Wunyiit.

SPLM-DC, a party established in June 2009 by former Sudanese foreign minister, Lam Akol, has reported dozens of arrests and detentions of its members across Southern Sudan. Southern politicians have publicly accused Akol, a candidate for president, of allegiance to the NCP and of fueling inter-ethnic fighting in Upper Nile state. In early November, the South Sudan government issued a letter ordering state governors to cooperate with all political parties except SPLM-DC.

The NCP also reported numerous arrests and detentions in towns across Southern Sudan, often on accusations of improperly registering their members. In Central Equatoria, a member in Morobo told Human Rights Watch that he was detained and beaten in early December for registering members. Another member reported to Human Rights Watch that he had been arrested with a group of 14 others in Yei town and detained on accusations of paying people to register as NCP, a charge he denies.

A related concern is the severity with which Southern Sudanese security authorities exercise their repression in the absence of functioning rule of law institutions. Assaults on civilians by soldiers and police, detention of civilians in military prisons, and the prolonged detention of suspects without bringing charges are all commonplace and point to systemic flaws in the administration of justice that Human Rights Watch has previously documented.

Risk of Violence in Darfur and Southern Sudan

In Darfur, government elections officials did not access areas that are not under government control, and rebel groups boycotted the elections process. Consequently many communities may not have access to voting. In addition to these political concerns, ongoing violence is another obstacle to voting in Darfur.

In February, even as the Sudanese government and rebel groups negotiate a possible peace agreement at Doha, rebel factions with divergent opinions about the peace process have been fighting each other in Jebel Mara, while Justice and Equality Movement rebels have reportedly clashed with government-aligned forces in Jebel Moon. The fighting resulted in an unknown number of casualties and thousands of people displaced to town and nearby IDP camps. The UN has still not accessed the areas to assess the impact of violence on civilians.

In Southern Sudan, inter-ethnic violence interrupted or delayed voter registration in some remote locations, and in at least one example in mid-November inter-communal fighting broke out over a dispute about a county boundary. Inter-ethnic violence January and February in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Lakes states could impair freedom of movement necessary for people to access the polls. 

Neither the government authorities nor the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) appears to be sufficiently prepared for the increase in violence that the elections process may bring. As of December, government authorities were just starting to plan to train extra forces to provide security at polling places. The UN mission has been training the nascent Southern Sudan police force, but has no plans to deploy its own forces to hot spots during elections.

Our statement of January 24 contains detailed recommendations to the national and southern governments and UNMIS that could strengthen respect for fundamental freedoms and political rights in the pre-elections environment. We urge you to consider these as well as our research findings as you comprehensively assess the election process in Sudan. Thank you.


Georgette Gagnon                                        
Africa Director                                               
Human Rights Watch                                    

Lotte Leicht
EU Director
Human Rights Watch

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