UN expert on Sudan calls for end to violent crackdown against protesters

A protester holds part of an unfurled old Sudanese blue-yellow-green tricolour flag defaced with silhouettes of a slain protester and the mirrored Arabic word "Thawra" (revolution) during a demonstration against military rule in the Bashdar area of Sudan's capital Khartoum on 16 June, 2022. (Credit: AFP/Keystone)

Adama Dieng, the UN's human rights expert on Sudan, has called for accelerated investigations into human rights abuses, including killings of protesters, since a military coup plunged the country into further crisis last year. He speaks to Geneva Solutions about his most recent visits.

Since the military coup in Sudan on 25 October 2021, social unrest and the country’s economic woes have intensified. The putsch, led by army chief Abdel Fattah, derailed a fragile power-sharing agreement between the army and civilians negotiated after the 2019 ousting of longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir.

On top of the political turmoil, Sudan’s economy has been in a deep crisis and the population severely affected by high inflation and shortages in basic supplies such as bread and fuel.

Demonstrators that have taken to the streets over the last nine months to protest against the army’s rule have faced repression, including the use of lethal force and unlawful detention. On 30 June, at least nine protestors were reported killed in Khartoum during one of the largest anti-military rallies since the coup.

While political unrest simmers in the capital, violent attacks by tribal armed assailants in West Darfur have left hundreds dead or injured and forced thousands to leave their homes, sparking calls by rights groups for the UN to step up its investigations and monitoring presence in the country.

The clashes are also preventing farmers from cultivating their land, which, with the start of the peak rainy season, is likely to lead to further food insecurity in Sudan. A record 15 million people in Sudan – one-third of the population – are currently facing acute food insecurity that has been further compounded by the war in Ukraine, according to recent UN figures.

In November 2021, Adama Dieng, a Senegalese national and member of the UN International Justice Council, was appointed as expert on human rights to monitor the situation in Sudan in the wake of the coup, at the request of the Human Rights Council.

Geneva Solutions spoke to Dieng about his recent visits to the country and the findings of his report, submitted to the Human Rights Council last month.

Geneva Solutions: You have visited Sudan twice since the military coup – in June and in February. During your first trip, you called Sudanese authorities to meet their obligations under international human rights law. Were you heard?

Adama Dieng: I sought – and was given – commitments regarding the release of all persons detained for political reasons and to conduct prompt and independent investigations into human rights violations and hold those responsible accountable. Those arrested were subsequently released, including former government officials. At the time, I saw little progress in judicial investigations into serious human rights violations, including the excessive use of force by the security forces, against protesters, which has resulted in the death of 114 persons to date, and allegations of sexual violence.

What struck you the most?

It was the determination of the Sudanese people not to give up the gains that were made during the two years of the transition [following the ousting of Sudan’s former president,  Omar al-Bashir -ed.], including human rights gains. There had been such a spirit of optimism about the future of Sudan. I hope that the political impasse will be resolved so that the transition can get back on track and the hopes and aspirations of the Sudanese people for peace, justice and human rights will be fulfilled.

Could you tell more about meetings you had with victims of rights abuses?

Prior to my first visit, I had held online meetings with some key members of civil society on human rights concerns, including women activists, lawyers, trades unionists and doctors, which gave me a solid understanding of the human rights situation and challenges they faced.

During both visits to Khartoum, I held several hours of meetings with family members or victims of human rights violations, including victims of sexual violence. I was deeply moved by the testimonies of loss and suffering I heard.

I also visited the main prison in Khartoum, Soba prison, to speak to political detainees. I was concerned at the serious violations of human rights committed since the coup, the lack of accountability, and the fact that the important reform processes initiated under the transitional government were brought to a halt by the coup.

Violence has intensified since the coup, particularly in north and west Darfur. More than 170 people were killed in attacks by armed assailants between 22 and 24 April in Kerenik, West Darfur. Do you know the reason why armed members of the Arab Rzeigat community attacked that village?

On 22 April, hundreds of armed Arab Rezeigat men attacked Kerenik in west Darfur in reprisal for the death of two Arab nomadic tribes’ men, whose bodies were found early on the same day, approximately five kilometres from Kerenik, a town in west Darfur. The Arab Reizeigat accused the African Masalit community of being responsible for the killings and subsequently attacked the town. Around 1,000 returned to attack the town again on 24 April, as well as several villages in the vicinity.

Sudan lifted the state of emergency on 29 May. What are the next expected steps?

I welcomed the lifting of the state of emergency and release of detainees arrested under the emergency legislation, but clearly this is not enough to restore confidence. More concrete steps need to be taken. In my meetings with the authorities during my visit to the Sudan in June, I insisted on the non-extension of the emergency decree issued in December and a halt to the practice of arbitrary arrest of protesters and protest leaders; a definitive end to the use of excessive force by security forces; and visible progress on accountability for human rights violations, among other issues. I also stressed my concern over the retrogressions in the enjoyment of economic and social rights since the coup, due to the deterioration in the economy, political instability, increased prices – and the threat of poor harvests this year, which will dramatically increase the number of people living in poverty.

On a related note, you have seen a copy of the decree lifting the state of emergency but, you urged the Sudanese authorities to state clearly whether a particular emergency order issued on 24 December 2021 is still in force. Why is that?

This order, which granted exceptional law enforcement powers to the regular forces and the General Intelligence Service and temporary immunity from prosecution, was widely used to arrest people organising or taking part in protests and hold them in incommunicado detention. I am also concerned that a sweeping paragraph that keeps orders and decisions taken during the state of emergency intact until further notice could be problematic. This would mean, among other things, the continued suspension of trade unions and professional associations - no justification for their suspension or the freezing of their bank accounts.

During her oral update to the Human Rights Council last month on the rights situation in Sudan,  UN deputy high commissioner Nada Al- Nashif, that the Juba Peace Agreement and National Plan for the Protection of Civilians be implemented without delay. Could you tell us more about it?

The signing of the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) in October 2020 [signed between Sudan’s power-sharing government and rebel groups -ed.] led to hopes that Darfur could move to more peaceful times. Unfortunately, there have been considerable delays to the implementation of the Peace Agreement, especially the security arrangements, which relate to reform and integration of signatory parties. [One of the articles] of the agreement provides for the creation of a 12,000 strong security keeping force in Darfur. Half would be troops from government forces and half would come from the Juba signatory armed groups. However, 19 months after the signature of the Peace Agreement and despite the urgent need to protect civilians, this security keeping force has still not been deployed.

The war in Ukraine is dominating media attention and pushing other wars into the shadows. Don’t you fear that Darfur is slowly sinking into conflict?

The situation in Darfur is concerning for several reasons. There has been a consistent wave of violence in Darfur over the past two years. The withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMID, in June 2020, left major protection gaps, which may have contributed to the resurgence of violence given the inability of the authorities to assume responsibility for the civilian protection functions carried out by UNAMID. It is Sudan’s responsibility to protect its populations.

What makes it different from the past?

In previous years, violence was largely localised, with communities lacking the capacity to mobilise weapons and personnel beyond the immediate boundaries of their localities. This has fundamentally changed over the past two years. While the crisis in Kerenik erupted after the killing of two Arab men, what followed is far from inter-communal. The speed and organised nature of the mobilisation of armed men from different areas, the weaponry and assets used implies external resourcing and support.

I am also concerned at the outbreak of violence targeting the Hausa people in Blue Nile state this past week. More than 100 Hausa have been killed and thousands displaced. This violence has been fueled by hate speech, and at its root are unresolved tensions over access to land and resources. It could easily spread to the many other areas with a Hausa population. Security forces have been deployed to restore calm, but action should also be taken to condemn and counter the hate speech that is inciting violence against the Hausa, and resolve the disputes at the root of these attacks.

Are you in favour of UN and African Union mediation efforts,   or do you think that a more efficient way should be found to avoid a bloodbath?

The first round of national consultations was launched in January by the special representative of the secretary general and head of the UN  Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in the Sudan (UNITAMS) and collected perspectives from a wide range of Sudanese stakeholders on the political future of Sudan. Of note, many participants stressed that any political settlement must be grounded in respect for human rights and ensure accountability for past human rights violations.  It is important to remember that the AU was instrumental in the negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the constitutional document in August 2019 and the formation of the transitional government.

The second round of consultations was facilitated jointly by the UN, AU and IGAD Trilateral Mechanism, aimed at building consensus on a path towards the reinstatement of a civilian-led government. This process was suspended following the announcement on 4 July by Lt. General Burhan of the withdrawal of the military from consultations.  Certainly, there is a link between the protracted political impasse and the governance and protection crisis in Darfur. The sooner the political crisis is resolved, the more likely it is that resources could be mobilised to address the situation in Darfur and other areas affected by conflict.

What kind of support could be provided by the international community?

The international community should continue to support the work of the OHCHR country office and the mandate I have assumed to help improve the human rights situation on the ground.  An increase of humanitarian assistance to Sudan should also be decided considering the retrogressions in the enjoyment of economic and social rights.