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File photo showing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. © 2016 Andrew Kelly/Reuters

(Nairobi) – The United Nations Security Council should take stronger steps to reverse the rapidly deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Sudan, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the Security Council discussion on June 2, 2023 to renew the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), all council members, including the three African members, should support increased human rights monitoring, targeted sanctions, and an arms embargo against the warring parties.  

“The UN Security Council needs to increase its pressure on the warring parties in Sudan to end violations of international humanitarian law,” said Allan Ngari, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “As a first step, the Security Council’s three African members should demonstrate leadership by calling for expanding the UN arms embargo to cover the entire country and imposing sanctions on military leaders responsible for grave abuses.”

The armed conflict between the country’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an autonomous force, which broke out on April 15, has killed at least 730 people and injured over 5,500. It has displaced more than 1.4 million people according to the UN. The warring sides have damaged or destroyed infrastructure critical to civilians’ survival, including cutting off water and electricity.

So far, the three African members of the Security Council – Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique – have focused on the efforts of the African Union to secure a ceasefire and resume dialogue among the parties. They should recognize that the continuing deterioration of the situation in Sudan means that stronger Security Council measures are needed, Human Rights Watch said.

The Security Council should reaffirm that protecting civilians is a core pillar of UNITAM’s mission, notably in Darfur. It should press the mission and the UN more broadly to ensure extensive monitoring of the situation there, deploy additional staff, and report regularly on violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of human rights by the warring forces. It should also make recommendations for improving civilian protection and respect for human rights.

UN member countries should take swift and concrete actions to prevent further atrocities and promote accountability for grave violations. These steps should include an expanded arms embargo throughout Sudan and individual targeted sanctions on those responsible for violating international human rights and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said. While African countries and bodies have a critical role to play in pressing parties to stop their harmful and abusive actions, certain measures will require a global effort to achieve the necessary impact.

Residents trapped in Khartoum as well as people who have fled into neighboring South Sudan described to Human Rights Watch how civilians have been killed and injured from heavy fighting, airstrikes, and shelling in residential areas. Neither party to the conflict appears to have taken measures to minimize harm to civilians while conducting attacks or deploying their forces, as required by international humanitarian law. None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed heard of or received any warnings of attacks by either warring party, aside from some initial warnings from the military on television during the first week of fighting.

Fighting and attacks on civilians have continued in Khartoum and several key towns in Darfur despite a May 22 cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The fighting in populated areas, as well as attacks on healthcare facilities, has added to loss of civilian life and property. The UN has documented 22 attacks on healthcare facilities since the conflict began. Several residents said that they were not able to take people who had been killed or injured to medical facilities because of fighting. Aid organizations and doctors warn that reports of sexual violence are increasing.

The warring parties have continued to attack and loot aid operations and hamper the access of humanitarian organizations. On May 23, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders or MSF) reported the looting and occupation of an MSF warehouse in Khartoum. International aid agencies have reported obstacles to receiving visas for their foreign staff.

The UN Security Council should make clear to the warring parties that there will be serious consequences for abuses against aid workers, including doctors and other health professionals. And regardless of any ceasefires, it should make clear to the warring parties that they have to meet their international legal obligations to facilitate the rapid, safe, and unimpeded access of humanitarian aid.

The Security Council has released only one public statement on the crisis in Sudan since the conflict broke out. The three African members rejected a statement drafted in mid-April by the United Kingdom, which leads on Sudan at the Security Council.

The council has been discussing the renewal of UNITAMS ahead of its June 3 expiration. The mission, established in June 2020, is largely a political mission but has a mandate to protect and promote human rights and assist in civilian protection, notably in Darfur. The mission had been largely focused on the political process in Khartoum since the October 2021 coup.

The Security Council needs to provide greater scrutiny of the human rights and humanitarian situation in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said. In late 2020, the council had decided to withdraw peacekeeping forces from Darfur, despite clear evidence of mounting violence in the region. Since then, local communities there, notably in West Darfur, have faced repeated large-scale attacks, killings, and massive property destruction.

Since the recent conflict broke out, civilians in West Darfur have experienced new rounds of violence. Armed groups and military forces have attacked civilians and burned civilian infrastructure including hospitals, displaced people’s settlements, and markets, killing hundreds. Civilians in other regional capitals in Darfur have also been attacked in the last two weeks.

“The UN Security Council has repeatedly failed civilians in Darfur,” Ngari said. “The three African council members should refocus attention on protecting civilians there and throughout Sudan. That means ensuring credible investigations into ongoing abuses and scaling up the UN’s human rights monitoring and reporting capacity across the country.”

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