A year ago, on September 25th, 2013, as the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) was listening to the report and recommendations of its Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Sudan, the Sudanese security forces in Khartoum were violently suppressing a popular revolt that was spreading quickly in major urban towns including Khartoum, the capital. Those protests were triggered by the announcement of austerity measures and the dropping of the subsidy on fuel, but the calls in the street quickly turned to demands for regime change and chants of “freedom, peace and justice”. Rights groups reported almost 200 deaths of peaceful protestors in the first three days of protests.
Nonetheless the council’s resolution on Sudan that passed later that week was feeble - to say the least. It didn’t acknowledge the ongoing violations all over the country, or pressure Khartoum to respect human rights and seek justice for civilian deaths. What we got instead was, for the third year in a row, a resolution on Sudan that fell short of enabling the country’s UN Independent Expert (that the council itself appointed) to gain better access to conflict regions, independent civil society groups and impacted citizens. Although the Independent Expert mentions in his recent report that he did gain access to conflict zones, that access was limited to meetings with the authorities who dictated every move and interaction.
This week, on September 23rd, the UN Human Rights Council will meet to consider the human rights situation in Sudan, and pass a new resolution on Sudan later in the week. Hopefully, it will also select a new Independent Expert for the country.
The language of last year’s resolution merely expressed “concern” for the humanitarian situation in Darfur, Blue Nile State and South Kordofan, where the government is fighting rebel movements; and ignored the massive death toll of civilians in these regions as a result of government bombardment. It also failed to mention the excessive use of force toward protesters, the torture of political detainees and the immunity Sudan’s National Security Act (2010) gives to police and national security agents--a major barrier to accountability and justice for crimes committed by state actors.
Although 2014 was a year that saw unprecedented targeting and displacement of civilians in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, the Independent Expert’s report recently submitted to the HRC for its 27th session, does not reflect the severity of the massive bombardment of civilian areas; as well as the scale of displacement in these regions and in Darfur, where displacement figures compare to those in the early years of the conflict.
According to the independent media group, Nuba Reports, the number of bombs dropped on civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in 2014 was 756 - more than any year since the conflict began three years ago. The targeting included the only hospital in South Kordofan as well as a number of clinics run by international organizations; in addition to schools, markets, churches and mosques.
In Darfur a half million civilians were displaced in the early months of 2014 as a result of aerial bombardments of populated villages and ground attacks by the Sudanese government, which deployed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) composed of paramilitary armed groups funded and supported by the government in Khartoum.
While the regime in Khartoum has called for multiple national dialogues, it curtails the fundamental freedoms that can be conducive to such a dialogue. It harasses pro-democracy civil society groups and shuts them down with little explanation. And it censors independent media and journalists in print and online.
The expert’s report, to be debated formally at the Human Rights Council this week, has a strong tone of frustration at the Sudan government’s lack of cooperation, with references to “non-responsiveness” to official correspondence that included “urgent appeals”. It says the government hasn’t implemented previous recommendations to amend the National Security Act (2010), stop attacking independent civil society groups, or end “press censorship and arbitrary arrests and detentions”.
The report also clearly states that the regime in Khartoum has failed to adequately investigate and bring justice for protesters killed during the September 2013 revolt, claiming a lack of “eyewitnesses” and difficulty in identifying forces operating in specific locations. The expert says that the Sudanese government’s report on the September protests “does not provide evidence of a thorough and independent investigation of human rights violations that occurred,” adding that the claim that those who shot protesters “in broad daylight” could not be identified is: “unacceptable both morally and legally.” These concerns echo repeated calls from human rights groups for an independent and thorough investigation into allegations of human rights violations by security forces during the protests.
From the vantage point of a human rights activist, the political manoeuvring and negotiations that take place at the UN Human Rights Council - especially by most African member States who are friendly to the Sudanese government, such as Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya - reduces the leverage the Council has to hard-core realpolitik that prioritises political agendas and avoids human rights altogether.
The UN Human Rights Council is a place that can demoralize the toughest of activists; unless they come with very low expectations and balanced idealism. In fact there is nothing ideal about a process where states are talking to each other and making decisions in a non-transparent manner. And civil society is at the periphery trying to gain access and pressure via “friendly” states. It feels exactly like being in one of the more repressive countries on the globe.
African countries should stop backing up the overly repressive government in Khartoum in the name of regional solidarity, and should take the responsibility of naming names. Western states should demonstrate political resolve and listen to the calls for help coming from civil society. Other democratic nations should not continue to see the debates on human rights in Sudan as a remote battlefield between the west and the rest.
Will member states condemn the targeted attacks on civilians and mass forced displacement caused by Sudanese forces? Will member states condemn the torture of detainees and the laws that explicitly protect state agents from prosecution for acts of torture? Or will they keep sending a strong signal that Sudan can, and will, continue to get away with murder as it has in the past?