In mid-September 2023, Refugees International hosted a private roundtable discussion under Chatham House Rule with a group of experts on U.S. policy on Sudan. The group included representatives of human rights and humanitarian groups, members of the Sudanese diaspora, think tanks, philanthropic groups, and former U.S. government officials covering Sudan and Eastern Africa. The discussion covered several aspects of the ongoing crisis in Sudan since the outbreak of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15. This follows an earlier roundtable discussion on May 11.
The discussion largely focused on two main points, the urgency of prioritizing the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, and the need for significantly elevated engagement by the United States amid stalled and competing peace mediation efforts. Participants widely felt global diplomacy must prioritize atrocity prevention as the most urgent and immediate objective given both the devastating situation in Darfur and the pessimism about prospects for progress on resolving the overall national conflict.
Raising the Alarm on Atrocities in Darfur
A significant part of the discussion focused on raising the alarm over developments in Darfur. The discussion took place amid increasing reports of atrocities out of Darfur and a visit to refugee camps in Chad by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield in which she referred to abuses reminiscent of the genocide from 20 years before.
One participant described hearing firsthand reports from close contacts in Darfur about checkpoints, ethnically targeted violence, and sexual abuse and warned that “this is worse than 2003”. The RSF is now destroying or controlling not only villages (as in 2003) but cities, including hospitals. It was further pointed out that the RSF seen giving out food in Khartoum to burnish its reputation is not the same RSF in Darfur; what is happening in Khartoum must be read differently from Darfur.
The current humanitarian crisis is also different today. Unlike in the previous Darfur crisis, the severity of the conflict is such that humanitarians are not able to access communities in need to deliver assistance, nor provide “protection by presence”. One participant noted that the humanitarian situation is more severe in this situation with all parties ignoring international humanitarian law.
Another participant noted that the absence of a protection presence is also heightening security risks for local actors reporting on human rights violations. They emphasized the need to support and protect human rights defenders to more safely record atrocities and receive humanitarian assistance.
To address these dire conditions, the United States and other countries with influence must prioritize stopping mass atrocities in Darfur, as distinct from the broader power struggle dynamics across Sudan. Diplomatic efforts to date have focused primarily on reaching an agreement between the RSF and SAF to stop fighting and allow humanitarian access at the national level. But this approach has put less of a spotlight on RSF atrocities in Darfur.
Some discussants raised concerns that a separate approach on Darfur, particularly if there were to be separate political tracks, would lead to two de facto states and undermine efforts towards a lasting ceasefire and political agreement in Khartoum. But with ceasefire talks continuing to stall, the urgency of ongoing atrocities begs a different approach.
One way forward, is to recognize the crucial role played by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in backing the RSF, including through diplomacy, funding, and weapons. The UAE should be pressured by the United States and other countries to use its influence with the RSF to halt abuses.
Diplomatic Challenges and the Need for Higher-level U.S. Engagement
Discussants agreed that higher-level U.S. engagement is needed to help move political, humanitarian, and accountability efforts forward. The recent visit to Chad by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN was welcome, but must be used to further mobilize attention, including by President Biden himself. Participants also renewed calls for the appointment of presidential envoy on Sudan. As one participant stated, the technical and tactical approaches are irrelevant if there is no higher-level attention and political will.
The U.S. government remains focused on getting talks started again in Jeddah, while Sudan’s neighbors offer up alternative tracks through the African Union, regional IGAD body, and talks sponsored in Egypt. The group saw the lack of a coherent diplomatic vision by the United States and the perceived lack of political will at the highest levels of the U.S. government as enabling this fragmentation by making it easier for other parties to all pursue their own divergent interest. One point of emphasis was the need to better integrate and reflect the views of Sudanese civil society, including women, in talks whether in Jeddah or elsewhere.
The Biden administration’s lack of higher-level attention was seen to be due, in part, to a focus on great power competition and domestic interests. However, the administration has also stated interests in championing human rights and preventing atrocities as well as avoiding humanitarian and political fallout that could affect the entire region of East Africa.
Discussants noted a lack of political cost felt by the administration for not doing more on Sudan and the need for the advocacy community to urge the U.S. administration to lay out a vision of where Sudan dynamics should go and to clearly define the stakes. Participants also raised the role of Congress in raising attention and providing resources on Sudan, noting the level of mobilization on Darfur in previous years.
On atrocity prevention and accountability, a point of focus was the lack of an atrocity determination from the U.S. State Department. While the United States has denounced the atrocities and supported evidence collection efforts through the Sudan Conflict Observatory, it is yet to publicly announce its own investigation and any atrocity determination. Discussants pointed out the discrepancy between $2.7 million announced to support accountability efforts over three years in Sudan with what was being provided in Ukraine. An earlier reason given for delaying any atrocity determination was that it might throw off diplomatic efforts in Jeddah. But, as one discussant pointed out, with those talks stalled, that is no longer an excuse. Still, participants sensed ongoing reluctance on Darfur tied to an ongoing desire to get Jeddah talks back on track.
Participants urged that the U.S. assist in setting up a justice mechanism that covers all of Sudan and expanding cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) even as recognizing that its current mandate is limited to crimes committed in Darfur.
Recommendations for the U.S. government:
- Prioritize atrocity prevention as the most urgent and immediate diplomatic priority for Sudan engagement, given the devastating situation in Darfur and poor prospects for a political solution in the near term.
- Increase high-level engagement by the United States in both immediate atrocity prevention efforts and broader Sudan mediation efforts, including by President Biden and through the appointment of a Presidential envoy.
- Press the UAE to urge the RSF to end atrocities in Darfur and engage other countries to do the same.
- Make an atrocity determination based on State Department investigation as was done previously in Darfur and in other cases.
- Increase support for accountability efforts including through collection of evidence by the Sudan Conflict Observatory and other entities, assisting in setting up a justice mechanism that covers all of Sudan, and increasing cooperation with the International Criminal Court while pushing to expand its mandate beyond crimes committed in Darfur.
- Employ any and all atrocity prevention and accountability tools in Sudan that the US is currently using in Ukraine.
- Increase humanitarian assistance for the Sudan crisis and the region and urge other donors to likewise increase assistance.
- Press parties to the conflict to allow for greater humanitarian access, including through cross-border and localized delivery of aid.
- Ensure that mediation efforts and any future political negotiations include Sudanese civilians and women.
Featured Image: People fleeing conflict in Sudan arrive at an airport in Abu Dhabi after an evacuation flight, on April 29, 2023. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)