As Sudan forms a new transitional government, the international community must not repeat its mistakes

April has become a significant month for the nation of Sudan. This year, after more than 18 months under the leadership of a military junta that seized power in October 2021, the month will hopefully see the formation of a new transitional government, and the possible dawn of a new chapter for the country.

But we have been here before. On 11 April 2019, after months of unprecedented nationwide protests, Sudan’s president of nearly 30 years, Omar al Bashir, was ousted.

It was hoped that his removal would bring an end to three decades of oppressive rule characterised by widespread violations of human rights, including of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) – and to some extent it did.

Subsequent years saw limited but positive developments in the country, including pledges to hand over those indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocity crimes, the decriminalisation of apostasy, the removal of flogging as a punishment for blasphemy, and even an agreement to create  an independent national commission for religious freedom and a Ministry for Peace and Human Rights (although sadly neither were ultimately formed).

However, even during this period, concerns persisted. As reports of violence and violations of FoRB continued, CSW and others warned that slow progress, particularly in the area of legal reform,  could risk derailing the vision of an inclusive Sudan its people had fought so hard for, and cautioned the international community against reducing scrutiny on the situation of human rights in the country too quickly. However, these entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Then on 25 October 2021, just weeks after Sudan had been removed from the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council, the military seized power once again and plunged the country back into widespread repression and instability.

One month later, in November 2021, the military leader, Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah al Burhan, signed an agreement with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok which saw him released from house arrest to continue as prime minister. But this too was short-lived as it became apparent that the military remained very much the dominant force in the partnership, and Hamdok resigned in January 2022.

Under military rule, Sudan has regressed further and further into the days of the repressive al Bashir regime. Many civil servants known to have links with the former government have been appointed to key positions, and in December 2021 al Burhan granted extensive policing powers – including the powers to search, detain, interrogate, and confiscate property – to the intelligence services, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the army, many of whose members stand accused of committing egregious violations against protesters during the initial wave of demonstrations which swept the country in 2019. Al Burhan also granted immunity to members of these forces which only he can lift, thereby rendering promises to investigate such attacks meaningless.

Interference in religious affairs has increased once again under the military. In January 2023, the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) discovered that parts of a farm it owned in the capital, Khartoum, had been sold after Sudan’s Minister of Guidance and Endowments, Mr Abdul Ati Ahmed Abass, re-appointed an illegitimate committee that was created during the al Bashir presidency to control the church’s affairs.

Property belonging to the SPEC has also been taken over by illegitimate committees in Kosti in White Nile State, and Kadugli in South Kordofan State, and a SPEC church leader based in the latter is currently facing criminal charges initiated by members of another illegally constituted committee. 

Elsewhere, in Darfur authorities charged four men with apostasy in July 2022, despite the fact that the ‘crime’ had been removed from the statute books under the previous transitional government. The charges were rightfully dismissed by the local prosecutor in September, but not before the men experienced torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and were threatened with the death penalty whilst under criminal investigation. Worse still, one of them has been missing since December. One of these men had been missing since December, but was eventually released by the General Intelligence Service and transported to his uncle’s village in Central Darfur, where he is being coerced to renounce Christianity.

Meanwhile, violence against peaceful protesters persists. On 28 February 2023, Ibrahim Majzoub, 15, was shot and killed by security personnel while participating in a peaceful demonstration in Khartoum. According to Al Jazeera, he was the 125th protester to be killed in weekly protests launched in the wake of the coup. Arbitrary arrests and detention and the use of torture are also widespread.

Moreover, the timetable has already slipped slightly, due to the difficulties inherent in the process of integrating the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a refurbished Janjaweed militia led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti), with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), headed by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan. Their rivalry and competing alliances, with Hemeti close to Russia and Eritrea and al Burhan favouring Egypt and the United States, could still prove to be a potential spoiler. 

All of this presents serious challenges for any incoming transitional government. First and foremost, it must ensure that any integrated military does not remain in de facto control of the nation, and urgently implement accountability mechanisms not only for violations and deaths that have occurred since 25 October 2021, but for earlier incidents, including attacks on protestors in June 2019.

The international community has a part to play too. Having now seen the failures of Sudan’s last attempt at transitioning to peaceful democracy and noted its own errors during this process, it must ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. Intense scrutiny of the situation of human rights in the country must remain a priority, including specifically by the Human Rights Council and the African Union, as well as during any bilateral or multilateral dialogues held with Sudan.

States must also do all they can to ensure that the transitional authorities move swiftly towards the establishment of a fully-civilian-led government, ensuring the process is inclusive and Sudanese-led, with a clear procedure and timeline for establishing a legislative body and independent judiciary, creating accountability mechanisms, and conducting inclusive, fair, and transparent elections. 

France, Germany, Norway, the UK, the US, and the EU have pledged to ‘stand united in promoting accountability for those who attempt to undermine or delay Sudan’s transition to democracy’. It is vital that such sentiments expressed in the abstract are borne out in reality, and that in the interests of ensuring a just and lasting peace, these and other nations also unite to promote and ensure accountability for violations committed against protestors and religious minorities.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley