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Smoke rises above buildings after an aerial bombardment during clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum, Sudan, May 1, 2023. © 2023 Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

In late 2004, as the war in Darfur raged into its second year, I was working with a humanitarian organization based in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. On our way to one of our more remote project sites, we had stopped at the organization’s clinic in the Kalma Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp while low-flying Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) helicopter gunships buzzed over the clinic. It was a favored tactic to instill fear, and sent the children below scattering for safety. As we left the camp, we saw large groups of “Janjaweed,” government-supported Arab militia, on camels interacting with uniformed Sudanese soldiers disembarking from transport trucks in convoy. I vividly remember feeling a deep sense of dread.

The precarious security situation forced us to turn back the next morning. We stopped back at Kalma, and found dozens of villagers sitting outside or sleeping on the ground, even though it was hours before the clinic was to open. As I got out of the car, a woman approached me and thrust into my arms an infant whose mother had been shot in the back when her village was attacked by soldiers with automatic weapons supported by the Janjaweed. Pointing to her own five children, she implored us to take the baby. One of the IDP residents, a mother herself, lifted the crying baby from my arms and started breastfeeding her – a startling moment of humanity in the face of so much brutality. In the hours and days that followed, dozens of injured villagers and many women and girls who had been raped began to arrive.

Human Rights Watch, where I serve now, found at the time that the horror inflicted on civilians by Sudanese government forces and the allied Janjaweed militias in Darfur amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Following a landmark 2005 referral by the United Nations Security Council, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants over the coming years for five Sudanese, including former President Omar al-Bashir, for alleged genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. But the Sudanese authorities never enforced these warrants, and justice for crimes domestically has been mostly non-existent.

Ignoring the Past, Setting the Stage for the Current Conflict 

Against this backdrop of impunity for atrocities, Sudan’s descent into armed conflict this year and the tactics used are eerily familiar. The two most powerful generals – the armed forces leader, Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan, and the former Janjaweed militia and now leader of its successor, the Rapid Support Forces, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” jointly overthrew a transitional government in a 2021 coup. In April 2023, they began battling each other for power.

Since the onset of the fighting, both sides have repeatedly used explosive weapons in densely populated parts of Khartoum, the country’s capital, killing civilians, damaging property and critical infrastructure, and leaving millions without access to basic necessities. In parallel, fighting between the two forces, joined by ethnic militias in the West Darfur town of El Geneina, has killed and injured hundreds, while hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, sparking a humanitarian disaster.

The brutality Sudanese civilians are enduring today feels like history repeating itself. In the 2010s, the military used indiscriminate aerial bombardments in populated areas in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile areas. The Rapid Support Forces, a government armed force created in 2013 to defeat rebel armed groups in conflict-affected areas, went on to commit atrocities – some of which amount to crimes against humanity – in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. Those responsible for abuses were not held to account and Sudan’s deeply entrenched culture of impunity emboldened Sudan’s top generals to use violence to resolve their struggle for power.

The Lost Opportunity of Al-Bashir’s Ouster 

With Sudan’s long history of violence without punishment, its spiral into conflict was predictable, but it didn’t have to be inevitable. In late 2018, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a coalition of professional and trade organizations, alongside local groups known as “resistance committees” – formed at the neighborhood level in Khartoum and in other cities across the country – took to the streets to demand al-Bashir’s ouster and a democratic future for the country.

Following months of peaceful protests, al-Bashir was removed from office in April 2019 after a 30-year grip on power. But he was replaced with a self-appointed military council led by al-Burhan and Hemedti, for a two-year transitional period. Protesters continued to mobilize, calling for civilian rule. On June 3, 2019, security forces led by the Rapid Support Forces, violently dispersed a large sit-in in Khartoum, opening fire on protesters, killing scores, raping people, and injuring hundreds. Despite a massive outcry at the time, investigations into these events stalled.

In response to the protests and months of negotiations, a power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians was signed in August 2019. While many civilians raised concerns about the agreement, including the likelihood that the military would block badly needed reforms, it also ushered in what would be a short-lived moment of hope. At the helm, on the military side, were al-Burhan, the military leader, and Hemedti as his deputy.

Some small, albeit important steps, were taken on accountability during the transition — notably through a handful of prosecutions for  killing protesters, embryonic legal reforms, and improved cooperation with the International Criminal Court. For the first time, the ICC prosecutor traveled to Khartoum and the new authorities committed to cooperate with the court’s investigation. An ICC suspect and former leader of the Janjaweed militias, Ali Kosheib, voluntarily surrendered to the court from the Central African Republic.

Sudan’s partners should have taken that opportunity to help bolster the reforms that would determine the success or failure of the transition toward civilian rule.

Without Justice, History Repeats Itself 

Justice for grave crimes – one of the resistance committees’ persistent demands over the last four years – remained elusive, as did security for civilians. In Darfur, the situation for civilians was made even more precarious when, in late 2020, the UN Security Council terminated the mandate of the joint United Nations/African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), a peacekeeping mission, despite evidence of mounting violence there and warnings from displaced communities that they would be left unprotected.  This followed years of downsizing due to pressure from the al-Bashir government and from Western governments eager to reduce costs. The Council instead called on the then-transitional government to take responsibility for civilian protection.

After UNAMID’s withdrawal, fighting between armed groups, which included state security forces, spiraled, with civilians once again paying the highest price. Darfur has been the site of repeated brutal attacks by heavily armed Arab militia, supported by Rapid Support Forces members. The assailants killed hundreds of people, burned sections of towns, including El Geneina, to the ground and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

When al-Burhan and Hemedti staged their coup on October 2021 and returned to power, they brought with them their tactics to violently repress protesters. With civilian leadership eclipsed, so too were hopes for the transfer of al-Bashir and the other ICC suspects in Sudanese custody to the ICC. In late 2022, the civilian component of the former transitional government, the military leadership, and other political parties reached a tentative political framework, but once again, failed to spell out a clear path for justice or security sector reform.

Sudan’s long and dark history of violence keeps underlining the same lesson: it is essential to hold those responsible for past crimes to account to deliver a better future for Sudan. Yet Sudan’s international and regional partners have repeatedly neglected to give justice the priority it deserves.

This was all too starkly visible at the UN Human Rights Council, when just a few weeks after the conflict broke out, it only narrowly voted to enhance human rights monitoring and reporting by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a far cry from the robust accountability mechanism called for by more than 100 civil society organizationsNot one African country voted in favor, though several abstained, and the initiative met strong resistance from the Arab group. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council recently rejected “any external interference that could complicate the situation in Sudan,” yet the AU has so far focused primarily on pressing for a ceasefire and is yet to offer any solutions that address the root causes of the current crisis.

The current regular session of the Human Rights Council that began on June 19 and runs through July 14 offers a fresh opportunity to stand with the Sudanese people, and notably communities in Darfur whose pleas for protection have repeatedly been ignored, to give them the firm commitment to accountability that they are entitled to. At present, however, there is no such proposal on the table. In the meantime, the UN’s designated expert on Sudan and the high commissioner for human rights should ensure strong public reporting on the situation, including in Darfur.

Putting Civilians Ahead of Political Interests 

There are other critical steps that Sudan’s partners could take to alleviate the suffering of Sudan’s civilians. The three African members of the Security Council – Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique – hold enormous power to bring the body’s pressure to bear on Sudan’s generals by extending the existing arms embargo on Darfur to cover the entire country. In the short term, countries should press those governments known to have provided weapons to the warring parties to immediately halt weapons sales and transfers.

The Security Council also is long overdue in making a clear, forceful call for Sudan to cooperate with the ICC’s Darfur investigation, particularly with respect to turning over the ICC suspects. But this would require support or abstention by the council’s five permanent members, including Russia and China. The political divisions have thus far left the council paralyzed.

The commanders responsible for so many decades of killing in Sudan have steadily used violence to consolidate their power, status, and international standing at the expense of thousands of civilian lives. So-called political solutions based on expediency have failed Darfur and failed Sudan. The rest of the world should finally put the Sudanese people first.

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