Chaos in Sudan leaves Human Rights Council members divided over next steps

Sudanese refugees who fled the conflict in Sudan gather July 1, 2023 at the Zabout refugee Camp in Goz Beida, Chad. (Keystone/Marie-Helena Laurent/WFP/ AP)

As the conflict in Sudan intensifies, over 110 NGOs have reiterated their call to the Human Rights Council to set up an independent mechanism to investigate rights violations in the country. But after strong resistance at the last session in May, member states are still undecided on how to proceed.

When countries gathered at the last Human Rights Council session in May, only one month had passed since fighting had broken out between Sudan’s two warring military factions, plunging the country into turmoil and sending worrying rumbles across the continent and the world.

Straddling the important Nile River and bordering seven countries, each with their own security issues, Sudan – the third largest country in Africa – sits at the centre of fragile geopolitical crossroads in a region where the interests of many world powers collide. What’s more, a wave of military takeovers has added to concerns about stability and tension between countries on the continent.

Against this backdrop, the council’s special session on Sudan, where members debated over whether to increase monitoring of human rights abuses – or even create an independent commission of inquiry, one of the strongest steps the council can take – had been a heated one.

Some countries felt that further action from the council was premature and that a regional solution could be found. Heavy lobbying against further action behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, which was hosting ceasefire talks at the time, and other Arab League states, including Egypt, had divided the African group.

In the end, a Western-led motion to strengthen the existing mandate of the special rapporteur on Sudan narrowly passed the vote, but without the support of Sudan or other African countries, which either opposed the resolution (Senegal, Somalia and Algeria) or abstained (Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and South Africa).

Four months later, amid a deepening humanitarian crisis and reports of widespread human rights abuses in the country, council members are once again in uncertain territory.

“Humanitarian agencies describe the situation on the ground as being extremely bad; we really need to draw attention to it and find a way of supporting people suffering terribly from this conflict,” Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Jürg Lauber, said in a briefing on Wednesday ahead of the session.

A core group of countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Norway – are exploring the possibilities of a further resolution, but there is a reluctance to go ahead without first garnering more support.

Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the African NGO DefendDefenders, which co-signed a letter sent by civil society groups last week, said it was likely to be a close call.

“If the level of opposition by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others decreases, then I think we have a good chance of seeing a commission of inquiry on Sudan created because many states from Africa and the Middle East, many of which are members of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), will not feel the same pressure opposing an investigative and accountability mechanism,” he told Geneva Solutions.

About 5.1 million people have been displaced within as well as outside of Sudan since mid-April due to the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Read also: Sudan crisis spirals as international attention fades

More than one million have already fled to neighbouring countries, with the UN last week appealing for $1bn to provide more humanitarian support amid scarce food and water supplies, disease outbreaks and a rise in related deaths.

According to Agostini, a number of African bodies and mechanisms have come out in support of further investigations and accountability since May, which has helped to shift the dynamics, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

“Sudan today is one of the most serious human rights and humanitarian situations in the world. There are egregious violations committed against civilians, including sexual violence against women and girls. So it's difficult to deny the gravity of the situation,” he said.

The question, as one diplomat put it, will be how the Africa group – and the Arab states – decide to respond and whether a new investigative mechanism by the Human Rights Council will be the tool chosen to do that.

“If you look across the region, from west Africa to the Red Sea, the challenges on human rights and democracy are growing. So, does that make other African countries retreat, or does it make them more willing to speak out in repudiation of the things that we're witnessing?” the diplomat told Geneva Solutions.

Read also: Africa: Those willing to sacrifice democracy for stability will have neither

A busy session for Africa files

September has become one of the busiest months for Africa issues, with a debate due to be held in the second week on the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Sudan’s southeastern neighbour, has experienced conflict since  November 2020, which has left thousands dead and many more displaced and living in famine conditions.

The mandate of the experts will end this year, but rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called for it to be extended – a move not supported by the Ethiopian government, which tried to bring an early end to the mandate at the previous session.

The human rights situation in Burundi and Somalia will also be in the spotlight during the session, but the stakes in each case are very different. “In Somalia, the government cooperates with the Independent Expert appointed by the Human Rights Council,” Agostini said. “But in Burundi, there's absolutely no cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, so in terms of advocacy, it's really about pushing the Council to be persistent and to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur," Agostini said.

Among the biggest challenges for the Human Rights Council will be the sheer volume of issues on the agenda, which is undermining the effectiveness of the council, Agostini warned.

“We are struggling to ensure an adequate level of attention to the main human rights crises in the world. This means both countries that are already on the agenda of the Human Rights Council – Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Myanmar, Afghanistan and so on – and countries that are not on the agenda of the Human Rights Council but should be, like Egypt or China,” he said.

“These are major human rights crises. I think the Human Rights Council does a disservice to itself if it tries to address too many thematic issues,” Agostini added.