CENTER FOR ETHICS AND THE RULE OF LAW​

Sudan: The Largest Humanitarian Crisis in the World No One is Discussing 

The civil war in Sudan has recently passed its one-year anniversary mark, having commenced on April 15, 2023. Frequently cited as “the forgotten war,”  the conflict in Sudan has slipped through the cracks of international attention while the world has been focused on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. From the rising death toll of 14,600 people, to the astounding rates of internal displacement pegged at 10 million people so far, a full-blown humanitarian crisis has emerged, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Yet while the world’s attention has been focused on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, no one is discussing the unfathomable tragedy playing out in Sudan from yet another regional armed conflict. 

In tracing the background of this conflict, its impact, and the efforts made to attain a ceasefire, this post primarily calls for more deliberate and combined peace talks led by the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), due to their regional proximity to the conflict. This is to avoid a duplication of efforts and to ensure that all other international stakeholders, including the United States, support one holistic peace process. As a secondary point, this post calls for the AU to utilize its existing mechanisms within its peace and security architecture in bringing the parties to peace. Furthermore, countries providing material support to the warring factions should be included in peace talks so that they can be leveraged to attain a ceasefire, and Sudanese civil society actors should participate in the peace process as well. Lastly, this post calls for international stakeholders such as the U.S. to maintain targeted sanctions against the warring parties and the affiliated businesses funding them, and for increased coverage of the conflict to ensure its visibility. 

The SAF vs. the RSF  

The present civil war is a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti–each side seeking control of Sudan. This conflict has ascended to the level of a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in terms of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. This Article governs conflicts between the armed forces of High Contracting parties, and non-state armed groups, in this case being the SAF and the RSF, respectively. In categorizing a conflict as a NIAC,  hostilities must reach a certain level of intensity looking at factors such as its duration, the number of casualties, the type of weapons used and the extent of destruction, among others. In the case of a non-state armed group engaged in the fighting, this group must be sufficiently organized to characterize violence as a NIAC, looking at factors such as the existence of a command structure, headquarters, and disciplinary rules.  

Whereas the SAF is Sudan’s national military, the RSF derives from the Janjaweed militia, predominately Arab and Muslim, which was funded by former President Omar al-Bashir to violently suppress rebels in the south of the country. This culminated in the well-documented genocide in Darfur and in 2013, the Janjaweed was reorganized into the RSF with Bashir’s assistance.  

Ironically, both Generals came together to oust Bashir in 2019, establish the country’s transitional government and lead the development of Sudan’s new constitution. Burhan also led the Transitional Sovereignty Council with Hemedti as deputy and it was this council that elected Abdalla Hamdok to be Sudan’s Prime Minister. However, he too was ousted from power by another military coup led by SAF and RSF in 2021, leaving Burhan to lead as the default head of state, with Hemedti being the second highest in command. In the course of the two Generals coming together with other political leaders to create a new transition plan to civilian rule, in December 2022, questions began to emerge on how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF as part of security sector reforms, what the respective timelines would be, and who would ultimately lead the reformed military. The two Generals’ unwillingness to let go of their leadership has resulted in the present conflict. 

Impact of the Conflict 

Though the conflict started in Khartoum and continues to date, it has also spread to other parts of the country, particularly in western Darfur where the RSF is accused of ethnically motivated killings of minority groups, reminiscent of the Bashir era and the previous Darfur genocide. Since April 2023, a total of 14,600 casualties and 26,000 injuries have been flagged by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and the International Medical Corps, respectively. Additionally, more than 8 million people have been internally displaced and 1.8 million people have fled the country. 1.6 million of this number have fled to the neighboring countries of Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia according to OCHA. The World Food Programme further reports that the conflict runs the risk of triggering “the world’s largest food crisis.” Access to food has been weaponized by both the RSF and the SAF by looting humanitarian supplies and refusing to authorize aid access in areas that are controlled by the other.  

There are currently 25 million people that are in need of humanitarian assistance.  

Sudan’s continued cycles of violence have had a tremendous impact on the realization of the right to health. This right is recognized under instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHRP) and soft law documents such as United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Sudan ratified the ICESCR and the ACHPR in 1986, respectively. After almost four decades, Sudan should have been able to center health into its developmental agenda.  

Acknowledging the right of health yet failing to address the continuous cycles of conflict in Sudan caused by its leadership is a stark contradiction. Health outcomes are also influenced by non-medical factors, such as the social determinants of health, which are hindered in wartime. Wars dismantle health systems, destroy health infrastructure, impede the operations of disease control programs, and expose populations to health risks, including infectious disease. In Sudan’s current context, warfare activities have included attacks on healthcare facilities and health workers, the closure and occupation of hospitals by the warring parties, the suspension of health services, including barriers to accessing immunization, and shortage of medical supplies, among others. As a result, there are approximately 10,500 suspected cases of cholera in addition to the outbreak of several other diseases such as measles, malaria and dengue fever. 

Sexual violence in the form of rape has also been used as a weapon of war in the present conflict, mostly directed against women and girls. Other forms have included trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced prostitution. According to a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 58 reported incidents of conflict related sexual violence have been received, involving 118 people, with 81% of perpetrators being identified as part of the RSF.  

Efforts To Bring Sudan Towards Peace 

Countries such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia are utilizing the conflict in Sudan as grounds for proxy wars and to secure influence over the Red Sea as a strategic location for trade and security. These proxy wars continue to feed hostilities with support in the form of arms, financing and diplomacy being given to both warring parties, respectively. 

Formal peace talks spearheaded by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in Jeddah commenced May 6, 2023. Though the parties did sign the Declaration to Protect the Civilians of Sudan (the Jeddah Declaration) and the Agreement on a Short-Term Ceasefire and Humanitarian Arrangements, not much progress has been made towards the overall settlement of the conflict. Sanctions have been brought by the U.S., the United Kingdom and the European Union against companies that are providing support to the SAF and the RSF. Though IGAD has also attempted to hold peace talks between the parties, Sudan  suspended its membership in January 2024.  

With respect to the AU, it has equally condemned the actions of the SAF and the RSF and has already suspended Sudan’s membership on June 6, 2019. The AU Commission Chairperson also established an Expanded Mechanism for the Resolution of the Sudan Crisis and its Core Group. It further adopted the AU Roadmap for the Resolution of the Conflict in Sudan, which seeks to establish a coordinated mechanism to harmonize the efforts of all actors involved in bringing the parties towards peace; to attain a permanent ceasefire; to facilitate effective humanitarian response and to ensure the protection of civilians and infrastructure, among other goals. The AU also established a High-Level Panel for Sudan which met the Expanded Mechanism to talk about the implementation of the Roadmap and to plot consultative visits to gain the support of stakeholders in making it a reality. 

On March 8, 2024, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2724 calling for an immediate cease fire, for the parties to allow for unobstructed humanitarian access, to protect civilians in line with the Jeddah Declaration, and to encourage the parties to use the good offices of the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy in settling hostilities. This was complemented by calls from the U.N. Secretary General for the parties to cease hostilities during the Ramadan period. 

What Can Be Done? 

As the central call of this post, to attain a ceasefire agreement, it is critical to avoid the duplication of efforts, which has fragmented this process. Instead there must be a more purposefully combined effort between the AU, IGAD, the U.N., the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. This must be pursued aggressively with a visible and active commitment displayed by these actors. The U.S. is called to defer to the leadership of the AU and IGAD in bringing the parties to peace, noting their proximity to the conflict, and to rigorously support this process diplomatically through the provision of technical advice and capacity building. Additionally, these mediation efforts must involve civil society actors in Sudan which can represent the voice of the people of Sudan, particularly the women and youth who serve communities actively on the ground. This is also a good opportunity for the AU to utilize the mechanisms in its peace and security architecture, such as the Panel of the Wise and the Continental Early Warning System, to avoid the creation of new mechanisms and to complement the specific platforms that have been established. 

It is vital to have more coverage of the conflict, to highlight the impact it has had on the people of Sudan, using Sudan’s civil society. This can be through different mediums, be it through social media, broadcasting, documentaries, and other forms of storytelling to draw the world’s attention to the dire circumstances in the country. The U.S.’ support in the provision of funding to assist Sudan’s civil society space will be critical in light of the many roles that organizations must now assume, from providing humanitarian assistance to monitoring and documenting human rights violations. 

Moreover, it is important to involve the countries providing material support to the warring parties, such as Egypt (SAF) and the UAE (RSF). If they are specifically lobbied and involved in negotiations, they can be leveraged to get the parties to cease hostilities. Finally, it is essential for the U.S. together with other international stakeholders to maintain a targeted sanction campaign against the parties and affiliated businesses they receive assistance from, to ensure that they feel pressured to end the conflict, without crippling Sudan’s civilian population. This has come in the form of arms embargoes, travel bans imposed on the two warring parties, and sanctions which restrict commodities and financing, imposed on companies such as Defense Industries Systems, Sudan Master Technology and Algunade. Once the cessation of hostilities is reached, the real work can then begin of developing a credible roadmap which steers Sudan’s transition towards civilian rule and sustainable peace, centering the voices and involvement of the Sudanese people.


About Authors 

Ramatoulie Isatou Jallow is a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law. She holds an L.L.M in National Security Law from Georgetown University Law Center and an L.L.M in Human Rights and Democratization in Africa from the Center for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. Get in touch: LinkedIn 

Eunice Naffie Mustapha is a Senior Public Health Law Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She holds an L.L.M in National and Global Health Law and a Certificate in International Human Rights Law from Georgetown University Law Center. Get in touch:  LinkedIn or Twitter.  

The views expressed are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the United States Government. 

Image: alexmx/stock.adobe.com

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Sudan: The Largest Humanitarian Crisis in the World No One is Discussing