In Sudan, Where Is the International Community’s Responsibility to Protect?

It has been more than four months since clashes erupted between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by his former colleague and current nemesis General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (often referred to by his nickname, Hemedti). As the humanitarian situation in Sudan becomes increasingly dire and state institutions near complete collapse, attempts at mediation between the combatants have stopped. It is as if regional states and the international community have decided to abandon the country and its people to an ignominious fate decided by two equally guilty autocrats. What is more concerning is the involvement of self-interested outside actors, especially in support of the RSF and its leader, without paying much regard to the Sudanese people’s need for security, peace, and general well-being.

The current situation necessitates a new look at what can be done to lift the burden of war from the shoulders of the Sudanese people, specifically through a process that employs the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Following horrendous crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans, R2P was established to protect vulnerable communities and peoples from the horrors of war. The principle rests on three equally important pillars: states’ responsibility to protect their populations; the international community’s responsibility to assist states in doing so; and communities’ responsibility to protect populations if states fail in their mission. While the atrocities in Sudan have arguably not reached the technical level of outright genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity that is stipulated in the principle, what has occurred so far should prompt the international community to devise a way to apply some or all parts of R2P, not only against the combatants but also against outside actors exploiting the conflict to serve their own interests.

Sudan’s Humanitarian Situation

Both sides in the Sudan conflict have been accused of committing atrocities and human rights violations around the country, and the conflict is threatening to worsen by expanding into hitherto calm areas. Today, estimates put the number of dead at about 4,000, although because of the difficulty of reporting by still-operating state agencies, the number is likely much higher. There are over four million Sudanese who have been displaced from their homes, more than one million of whom are now refugees in neighboring countries. Roughly 71 percent of internally displaced persons are originally from Khartoum, a reflection of the severity of the war and its conditions in the nation’s capital. Corpses are said to be decomposing in the streets, as morgues lack enough workers to collect the dead. Of the 89 main hospitals in the country, 71 are out of commission, and the rest are operating at limited capacity. Rape has become a widespread weapon of war, committed mostly by the RSF but also by the SAF, and is concentrated in the larger Darfur region where state-sponsored and RSF-committed violence has been a regular fixture for decades.

Rape has become a widespread weapon of war, committed mostly by the RSF but also by the SAF.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that over 20 million people (42 percent of Sudan’s population) face a high level of food insecurity, that “6.3 million are one step away from famine,” and that more than half of the population of West Darfur is “facing acute hunger.” Clean water is in short supply for millions, and rising fuel and food prices are increasing the threat of hunger and malnutrition. Humanitarian organization Save the Children recently stated that as many as 17,000 children are reaching crisis levels of hunger every day, and that the number is expected to rise to 1.5 million by the end of September. Indeed, the Associated Press has reported that about 500 children, including newborns, have died from hunger since the start of the hostilities last April. Furthermore, with the ongoing crisis, the education system is on the verge of complete collapse, with scores of schools now being used as shelters for refugees. Some nine million children are out of school because of the fighting, and some 300,000 teachers have not been paid since March.

Refugees who have fled to neighboring countries face uncertainty, hunger, and disease as host states already find it difficult to support their own people, even without this recent influx. Many of those who fled to Chad and Libya have made it to Tunisia and are attempting to illegally cross to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. What makes the humanitarian situation worse is the uncertainly surrounding operational security for local, regional, and international organizations’ personnel, most of whom are only able to assist the needy outside of the country. Indeed, the response of regional and international communities to current conditions across Sudan has not lived up to the promise and potential of humanitarian responses to disasters, nor to the promises enunciated in the much-vaunted, UN-sponsored principle of the Responsibility to Protect. To be sure, the international response to the Sudan crisis has paled in comparison to that provided to Ukraine—another country experiencing the horrors of war and needing assistance. This discrepancy has even elicited some accusations of double standards and racism.

Malevolent Outside Interference

The current conflict in Sudan has its own domestic origins in the country’s leadership’s autocratic nature, both during the 30-year rule of former President Omar al-Bashir and then following his ouster by popular protests in 2019. The two generals slugging it out today in the streets of Khartoum and elsewhere around the country only joined the popular push for Bashir’s removal after it became clear that his regime had lost all legitimacy to rule. But the governance compromise between the military institution and the protests’ civilian leadership quickly fell victim to Burhan and Dagalo’s machinations when they staged an anti-democratic coup in October 2021 that aborted the 2019 agreement and its promise of a gradual transition to democracy. But two autocrats were not able to share power for long; slightly over a year after their coordinated putsch, they began to disagree on a slew of issues affecting their institutional prerogatives and economic interests, culminating on April 15, 2023 with an all-out war, the end of which is anyone’s guess.

But accompanying these domestic developments are serious and nefarious interventions—some obscured and others obvious—by outside actors and states seeking to control Sudan’s riches and to secure their long-term interests in the country. One such actor is the United Arab Emirates, which since the start of the conflict has sided squarely with RSF leader Dagalo and supplied his forces with weapons through Uganda and Chad, with whose leaders the UAE has reportedly made special arrangements that can be interpreted as attempts to cover up the facilitation of these weapons deliveries. The UAE also has very close relations with renegade General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army, who with the assistance of the mercenary Wagner Group helped ferry weapons, fuel, and other supplies to help the RSF in Sudan. UAE leaders have denied the accusations and declared their neutrality in the current crisis; but their country’s involvement in Dagalo’s gold trade and its interest in building a major port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast could be reasons for supporting a client who will do their bidding in Khartoum. An additional factor is the UAE’s goal of fighting Islamists in Sudan and elsewhere in the region, something which Dagalo has declared himself committed to doing.

Accompanying these domestic developments are serious and nefarious interventions by outside actors and states seeking to control Sudan’s riches.

Russia is another strong actor in the Sudan conflict, represented in the country by the Wagner Group, which has good relations with the UAE. In addition to supplying mercenaries to fight in Sudan, the group secures Russia’s access to the country’s gold, as well as that of its neighbors, which helps it deal with the sanctions imposed on it for its invasion of Ukraine. The group has its own processing operations in Sudan that also include transporting gold to the Central African Republic—whose regime it supports and whose president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, it protects—on its way to the UAE and Syria. Wagner has also supplied the RSF (through Libya and Haftar) with surface-to-air missiles, apparently to challenge the SAF’s air superiority in the current conflict. Incidentally, that superiority may have been challenged when the RSF used drones against SAF bases that were obtained either from Sudanese Army stockpiles or from the UAE. Wagner’s future role in Sudan’s war and elsewhere in Africa will obviously be the subject of debate after the demise of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash near Moscow; but this will remain contingent upon what Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime consider to be in their long-term interest.

Then there are the roles played by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which like the UAE have been involved in what transpires in Sudan since even before the protests that toppled Bashir. Partial to supporting central authorities, Riyadh and Cairo would naturally be on the side of General Burhan as a representative of a unified Sudan and as the leader of an authoritarian state that would be unencumbered by calls for democracy. And in fact, in the current conflict Saudi Arabia is clearly supporting him, not only because he would be, in the kingdom’s view, a better leader for such a state but also because of Riyadh’s large investment in the country, to the tune of $24 billion, as opposed to the UAE’s almost $14 billion. Differences on Sudan between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi build on other disagreements, such as those related to their interventions in Yemen and to the UAE’s ambitions to become a maritime and economic power from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Egypt, on the other hand, lacks the financial wherewithal to effect a specific policy orientation, but supports Burhan because of his position as head of state after Bashir and due to his role as the leader of the Sudanese Army.

Failed Mediation

General Burhan is reported to have begun a tour outside the country to discuss peace and an end to hostilities. Meanwhile, his rival General Dagalo, who is launching an initiative called “Sudan Reborn,” says he is willing to discuss not only a prolonged ceasefire but also plans for a restructured Sudanese state—apparently a federation that would respect multicultural realities in the country, promote democracy, and control a single army. However, it is easy to doubt the sincerity of these two autocrats, who have since 2019 squashed popular calls for a civilian-led state that would enshrine the principles of democratic governance and national unity. To be sure, their current conflict is born of their attempts to monopolize rule by a military regime that would protect their individual and institutional interests, as well as the interests of outside actors.

Sudan is no stranger to attempts at reconciliation, and many have followed the eruption of its current crisis last April. Among the efforts were a series of ceasefires that were called for by South Sudan, but that were hardly respected. The United States and Saudi Arabia hosted rounds of talks that were regularly interrupted when the two factions withdrew their representatives, until they were finally called off altogether. Fearing an expansion of the conflict, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hosted a regional heads-of-state conference including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, and Libya to propose an initiative that included brokering a ceasefire, establishing a humanitarian corridor, and initiating peace talks. But his attempt went nowhere. A proposed deployment of a security force by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa was rejected out of hand by the Sudanese government under Burhan, ostensibly because of doubts about Kenya’s impartiality in the conflict. After more than four months of fighting, killings, and destruction, a more robust international effort is needed, not only to end the war but also to sponsor and execute a plan for building the civilian-led democratic state for which the protest movement of 2019 initially advocated.

Whither the R2P Principle?

The Responsibility to Protect principle has had its challenges since its adoption in 2005, and has fallen victim to the vagaries of differences in various countries’—and specifically great powers’—preferences, interests, and policy directions. After being applied in Libya to prevent the forces of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi from committing massacres in eastern Libya in 2011, its use by anti-Qaddafi factions to change the regime was disparaged as an overreach. But it was nevertheless invoked in some 150 UN Security Council, Human Rights Council, and General Assembly resolutions, although not coercively in many instances. The principle’s inadequacy was perhaps most obvious in Syria when the Assad regime committed horrendous human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Although the Arab and international communities both imposed boycotts of and sanctions on said regime and its leaders, they survived to continue their war against the Syrian people.

There is no doubt that the international community today is more divided than ever before on what to do with an internal war between equally guilty autocrats like Sudan’s Burhan and Dagalo. The Russian war on Ukraine, the current American-Chinese rivalry, uncertainties in the international economy, and a rise in right-wing politics around the world, among other things, have made cooperation difficult and probably impossible on vital peace and security issues, specifically for the most vulnerable, such as the people of Sudan. But there can be no doubt that the continuing strife in the country holds the potential to trigger an explosion of economic, social, tribal, and ethnic warfare across the entire region, and most likely beyond it as well. The international community is thus responsible for applying one or all pillars of R2P, but with the additional requirement that foreign actors fueling the cycle of violence be held accountable for the horrors of the conflict. The Sudanese people, with their desires for democracy and economic prosperity, deserve no less than to be treated fairly and justly by the international community and to receive the support the world has almost unanimously accorded Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Abd Almohimen Sayed