Sudan Conflict: A regional powder Keg

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk is seen on a TV monitor as the ceiling of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room is seen in the background at the opening of the 53rd UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, June 19, 2023. [AFP]

Nearly two-and-a-half months after deadly fighting between rival factions erupted in Sudan, ending tenuous moves toward democracy and shattering the hopes of millions for a brighter future, Sudan has descended into violence and chaos that threaten to engulf the entire region.

"It is heartbreaking to see that hope decimated," said Volker Turk, U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

"This is a human rights and humanitarian crisis that is unfolding at an alarming rate, on a devastating scale and with a complexity not seen before in the country," he said. "This is a crisis reverberating across an entire region. It is a powder keg."

The high commissioner presented a grim assessment of the human rights situation in Sudan to participants of an interactive dialogue held at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.

A child carries bags with bread as he walks in a street in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 20, 2023. A three-day ceasefire that ended on June 21 brought a brief respite to the capital Khartoum that has been gripped by the war that erupted on April 15.

In his oral update on conditions in Sudan, he painted a bleak picture of a country that "has been plunged into chaos" since conflict erupted April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

"The people of Sudan are suffering immeasurably," he said. "The streets of Khartoum and its surrounding cities, of El Geneina and of El Obeid are stained with the blood of civilians.

"And millions are still in need of vital humanitarian assistance, which, in many places, has been all but impossible to deliver," he said.

Sudan's Federal Ministry of Health reports more than 958 civilians have been killed and 6,083 injured, though the actual casualty numbers are believed to be much higher. The U.N. refugee agency says 1.42 million people are internally displaced and more than half-a-million have taken refuge in neighboring countries.

Turk said children were bearing the harrowing consequences of the war, "with more than 13 million across the country in urgent need of lifesaving humanitarian support."

He said he was appalled by allegations of sexual violence, including rape, noting that his office had received credible reports of 18 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence against at least 53 women and girls.

Sudan conflict: 411 civilians killed, 2,023 wounded

"In almost all cases, the RSF has been identified as the perpetrator," he said.

He called on authorities to conduct prompt, impartial investigations into alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

He noted that "failure to pursue accountability for past grave violations has contributed to the current crisis.

"To break the cycle of violence, impunity must end," he said.

Hassan Hamid Hassan, permanent representative of Sudan to the U.N. office in Geneva, blamed the rebel forces of breaching international human rights and humanitarian law.

He took umbrage at the United Nations, which he accused of holding the SAF and RSF equally responsible for the violence and widespread violations and abuse.

"After two months and five days, United Nations entities are still speaking the same grainy language, referring to two warring parties," he said.

"The United Nations was still not calling a spade a spade," he said. "The perpetrators were documenting their atrocities on social media," he said, "while some United Nations entities were hiding behind gray language, instead of calling out the rebel forces to stop their behavior."

Mohamed Belaiche, head of the African Union Liaison Office in Sudan, disagreed with the Sudanese ambassador's criticism of the United Nations, maintaining that the ongoing dialogue "was a demonstration of support for Sudan."

He said, "We are not here to judge; we are here to help."

However, he warned that the "fratricidal clashes between two military entities," resulting in a tragic humanitarian situation and destruction of civilian infrastructure posed "a real threat to peace and security throughout the Horn of Africa region."

The Sudanese Armed Forces overthrew Sudan's long-ruling president, Omar al-Bashir, from power April 11, 2019, following popular protests for his removal.

Belaiche reminded the Sudanese ambassador of the pivotal role played by the African Union as the architect of the transition to democracy in August 2019.

As such, he said the AU "firmly rejects the option of a military solution to this crisis, and advocates the search for a consensual political solution, through an inclusive and transparent political dialogue."

Enass Muzamel is a human rights defender from Sudan and co-founder of Mandaniva, a group that supports the active participation of women and youth in their communities and in policymaking.

She said the war raging in Sudan was not a civil war but a war between two factions fighting to further their own interests.

"The war is a result of generals who put their interests over those of their citizens," she said. "The Sudanese people have nothing to do with this war, except to pay the price. The Sudanese people have been standing up against the oppressive regime," she said, "and now this bitter experience is what they have got."

She called on the international community to apply the strongest pressure, including sanctions on the war generals and "to hold those accountable for their crimes against the Sudanese people."