The international community’s short attention span, world’s single-minded focus on the war in Ukraine, a hands-off United Nations, and a neighbourhood preoccupied with its own problems.
This is the tragedy of Sudan, once a blossoming civilisation, now engulfed in senseless internal war since April 15 pitting Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
As the battle rages on land, air, city and villages, the world is turning a blind eye. The warring sides are breaking all known records of warfare, destroying property and killing civilians in an absolute display of impunity.
A second international justice symposium in two months was held in Nairobi on Monday to reflect on the happenings in the country. Organised by Wayamo, a German foundation, it brought together human rights monitors, activists and media representatives from the Sudanese diaspora.
Emotions ran high at the forum, as victims who have fled their homes painted awful picture of the scale and intensity of the internal strife afflicting the country.
“Believe you me, I have seen and dealt with a lot of conflicts in my many years; from Iraq to Syria and many others. Nothing, I repeat, nothing that I have seen yet comes close to what is happening in Sudan. It goes very much beyond what I have seen in violence, and destruction, Radhouane Nouicer, the UN Independent Expert on the Sudan Situation told the forum.
A stocky man of commanding presence, Nouicer has seen it all in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Congo, DRC, among others, in the course of humanitarian career spanning 30 plus years. When he spoke at the Wayamo Foundation event in Nairobi on Monday, it was to tell the world to pause for a moment and mind Sudan.
The strife in Sudan could not have come at a worse time with the ICC, in the words of Kenya’s retired President Uhuru Kenyatta, “reduced into a painfully farcical pantomime”, and an equally dysfunctional UN Security Council whose veto power member (Russia) has invaded a neighbour.
The war in Ukraine aside, the Council is notorious for burying its head in the sand on some conflicts, and baring its all whenever interests of the permanent members align. The Council has thus far issued just two statements, one on the day war broke out expressing “deep concern” and another feeble one on June 2 calling on “the parties” to cease hostilities.
At the forum, Nouicer said no one has had the courage to call out in clear and open terms the horrors happening in Sudan.
President William Ruto is perhaps the only regional leader who has taken the bull by its horns, calling on the two generals at the centre of it all “to stop the nonsense” and end the “humanitarian catastrophe” they are presiding over.
“Those generals have no business destroying a country that has been built painstakingly by the people of this continent, and we will hold them accountable,” Ruto warned.
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Nouicer, who has visited Sudan and engaged the two sides, told the forum that generally, the international system has been pussyfooting around the catastrophy where close 2.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, and over 600,000 forced to flee to neighboring countries.
Accounts by victims who fled Sudan and affirmed by human rights agencies with ears on the ground say the conflict is uniquely deadly. Nooucer confirmed this, saying the two sides had broken all known principles of war, and are getting emboldened by the lack of serious deterrent mechanism.
The principle of military necessity demands that combatants engage with legitimate military objective in mind while proportionality calls for balance of force to ensure civilian harm is minimised. Distinction principle requires parties to an armed conflict to distinguish between combatant and civilians.
Another principle around humanity forbids combatants from deploying arms and projectiles in a manner disproportionate to the military advantage they seek. And finally, honour presupposes a certain amount of mutual respect among warring sides.
From the accounts given at the symposium, all these rules have been broken in Sudan. In West Darfur, RSF and allied Arab militia have been undertaking what may be described as ethnic cleansing targeting men from Massalit ethnic group.
“On May 14 in El Geneina, a doctor and his 15 patients were summarily executed by RSF and Arab militia. In the cities, the rocketing of residential areas has left civilians dead and injured. There is widespread looting and destruction of civilian infrastructure from both sides,” Abdullahi Hassan, a researcher at Amnesty International said.
On May 28, five brothers including a thirteen year-old were summarily executed in their own home. On June 14, the governor of Western Darfur Khamis Abakar was captured and killed by RSF combatants after he accused the group of committing genocide in El Geneina.
Abakar himself was leader of another armed group in the conflict, the Sudanese Alliance. Electricity, water and other essentials have been cut off in the cities and satellite imaging of conflict areas has shown evidence of mass graves.
“There is a lot of frustrations in this room. In just three months, we have come off the agenda of both the international community and media. We understand international justice mechanisms take time, but this is no excuse to forget what we must do right now,” Kholood Khair, director of Confluence Advisory, a Khartoum based think-tank, said.
According to Nouicer, the reports that emanate from Sudan to feed the citadels of justice in New York, Hague or to decorate news reports do not, and cannot adequately capture the suffering of the Sudanese people caught up in the war.
Vast swathes of populations are stuck in their own homes, humanitarian efforts are deeply hampered by the rockets and other weaponry flying around and even the cultural elegance of the once mighty civilization has not been spared.
“The criminality is compounded by the release of prisoners and upsurge of small arms from overrun security installations. Whole villages are being burned down in acts echoing the happenings of Darfur over 20 years ago,” he said.
Bettina Ambach, Wayamo’s director, was at pains to relate the happenings in the killing fields of Sudan to the conversations happening in the room in Nairobi. More poignantly was the fact that the discussion was happening on the Day of International Criminal Justice, held to commemorate the adoption of the Rome Statute on July 17, 1998.
“What we are discussing here is not merely academic. It matters to people, right now, on the ground in Sudan who are caught within a spiral of violence,” she said.
Betty Murungi, a human rights lawyer and transitional justice expert, was in Rome in 1998 when the statute was being adopted. In her own words, she was “inside the room”, and “the world was very hopeful that we were going to have better prospects for justice.”
Fast forward 25 years later, and Sudan- an active situation in ICC- is burning as if ICC was never there. Pronouncements by current court prosecutor Karim Khan must be sounding very hollow to RSF and SAF leadership, and to victims of the Darfur atrocities.
“It beats logic that this is going on 25 years after the Rome Statute was adopted,” Murungi regretted, while also asking participants to pray for her country Kenya as it slowly whittles down the Sudan route.
Just like Sudan, Kenya is reeling from the impunity of yesteryears following a stalled ICC intervention. Murungi told the forum that too many hurdles have been placed in the way a universal jurisdiction of the international criminal justice.
African governments have for instance drawn a clear line on immunity of their heads of state and governments, while the issues of territory, nationality, residency and presence hamper arrest and prosecution of perpetrators of international crimes.
At the forum, victims were clearly vexed by the talks of reports filed with the UN, and pronouncements by ICC that they were investigating the crimes. The question on the lips of all who spoke was for how long will these reports and investigations take place.
But Nouicer took them on, reminding them that the UN is a creation of states, and that ultimately sovereign states have the mandate to stop and punish international crimes in their jurisdiction.
Murungi also said the emerging consensus is that states should strengthen their national criminal justice systems because “treating the ICC as the elixir is misguiding.” Besides its existential challenges, there are too many crimes of mass scale for the court to handle.
“The things we want to see won’t materialize any time soon. Perhaps it’s time to focus on what needs to be done now, so that in the future these things do not recur,” Kholood said.
Participants agreed to pull all stops to document the events of the war, including preservation of evidence for future accountability. Others who addressed the forum included Dr. Philipp Ambach, chief, victim’s participation and reparation section of ICC, and Mahasin Dahab of Mnemonic Sudanese Archive.