By: Farah Afify, Advocacy and Government Relations Fellow, Amnesty International USA
On June 3rd, peaceful protesters in Sudan were preparing to celebrate Eid the next day with friends and family, signaling the end of a month of fasting and religious remembrance.
Instead, they spent the last day of the holy month hiding and running from government security forces, who fired live bullets at and teargassed protesters, sent their tents aflame, subjected them to sexual violence, and dumped their bodies in the Nile River to drown. During the attack, security forces killed over 100 people, injured hundreds more, and raped or sexually assaulted 28 women.
The shocking attack on protesters took place at the site of a sit-in area opposite the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces in Khartoum, where civilians have been calling for regime change since last year. Starting in December 2018, protests in response to rising prices transformed into calls for long-time President Omar Al-Bashir to step down. Despite attempts to intimidate and punish protesters, including mass murders and harsh arbitrary arrests, Al-Bashir, a ruthless leader still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and genocide, was ousted from power in a military coup on 11 April.
Though many of the protesters had hoped for better in a country with a long horrific human rights record, Al-Bashir’s successors, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), appear to be no better as shown by the attack on civilians — a move that the TMC admitted to ordering.
So what will it take to push Sudan in the right direction?
For one, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) must be removed from the streets and confined to their barracks immediately. The RSF, a paramilitary force under the direct command of the Deputy Head of the TMC Mohamed Hamdan Daglo when it raided the sit-in, has wreaked terror upon the people of Sudan before. Under Al-Bashir, the RSF carried out crimes against humanity in North and South Darfur in 2014 and again in the Jebel Marra region from 2015 up until today. They have pursued scorched earth attacks, in which at least 45 villages to date have been either partially or entirely destroyed. The RSF have poisoned the air using chemical weapons and displaced at least a quarter of a million people. They have killed, drowned, and raped the people of Sudan for decades.
The removal of the RSF from all policing activities is long overdue; for productive talks to continue between civilians and the TMC, the RSF’s campaign of utter destruction must end.
And for that to happen, the rest of the world must act. Condemnations at the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and at the UN Security Council are important but must be backed by concrete actions.
Of course, international engagement in Sudan isn’t limited to traditional global powers and institutions — it also includes regional powers that have proven that they are both capable of and willing to interfere. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt are widely considered to play an influential role in the TMC’s political calculations.
On May 24th, only about one week before the attack, the TMC’s Deputy Head Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known by his nickname “Hemeti,” traveled to Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad since Al-Bashir’s removal. The Chairman of the TMC, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, did the same, visiting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. What occurred during these visits was not entirely disclosed, but the official Saudi Press Agency confirmed that a meeting took place between Hemeti and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, whose policies have worsened the state of human rights in the “kingdom of cruelty.” During the meeting, Hemeti reportedly vowed to stand by Saudi Arabia, primarily by continuing to deploy Sudanese troops to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the same coalition that has used US-manufactured weapons to bomb Yemeni funeral halls, hospitals, and school buses. Even worse, the Sudanese forces that will participate in the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” are reportedly survivors (many children), of the war crimes that Al-Bashir ordered in Darfur.
What Mohamed bin Salman offered in exchange is unknown; however, five days before the meeting, Riyadh announced that it had deposited $250 million in Sudan’s central bank. In April, Saudi Arabia and the UAE offered to provide $3 billion in aid to Sudan. On the day of the attack, Emirati-manufactured armored vehicles were spotted on the streets of Khartoum. Indeed, the links between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Horn of Africa are extensive; they stretch nearly two decades and $13 billion.
The role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while unclear, raises concerns as the UN Security Council has been unable to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Sudan and neighboring South Sudan, despite hard evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the governments in Khartoum and Juba. Their role is even more worrying if it is aimed at thwarting the will of the Sudanese people.
The United States and Congress in particular, which has played a historic role trying to end human rights abuses in Sudan, must up their game and enforce fundamental human rights principles even if it means confronting traditional allies from the Middle East. This also means pressuring Saudi Arabia and the UAE into keeping Sudanese forces out of Yemen, given that it both causes insecurity in Sudan and empowers the RSF.
Non-violent protestors, calling for reform and freedom, have managed to challenge a brutal regime that has been in power for over 30 years.
Surely that is an effort that Washington should support.