Last week, as Americans grappled with potential impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, and lawyers on the other side of the Atlantic digested the British Supreme Court’s prorogation decision, Nasredeen Abdulbari, Sudan’s new minister of justice, appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to recount the seismic shifts afoot in his country, too:
“As all of you know, women and men of my country successfully led a peaceful revolution that started on December 19th of last year in response to an unprecedented deteriorating political and economic situation. Despite the excessive violence that the previous regime used, the people of Sudan persevered, proclaiming a motto of freedom, justice, and peace.”
As I noted in the Washington Post yesterday, the significance of this moment may be missed by anyone who was expecting this democratic transition to be announced by a headline-making event akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sudan’s democratic opening is equivocal, precarious – but no less historic.
Under the power-sharing deal designed to take Sudan through to democratic elections in 2022, henchmen of Sudan’s ousted president, Omar al-Bashir, hold positions alongside representatives of the pro-democracy protesters. Despite the decidedly second-best nature of this arrangement, Sudan’s new prime minister — Abdallah Hamdouk, an economist selected by the pro-democracy movement — is moving quickly to secure democratic gains. His new cabinet has already sought to rein in the national intelligence and security services, which were notorious for their torture of countless citizens under the former regime, by disbanding its operations unit.
Civilian officials in the transitional government seem to be judging correctly that those who benefited most under the corruption of the former regime could shutter this window of opportunity at any moment. For those familiar with Andrew Moravscik’s work on fragile democracies in Europe over two decades ago, the strategy laid out by Abdulbari, the new justice minister, in Geneva last Tuesday is a familiar one: sign up to international human rights treaties to “lock-in” progress in the face of domestic uncertainty. As Abdulbari explained:
“We plan to join the international human rights conventions to which Sudan is not yet a party, especially CEDAW and the Convention against Torture. The last democratically elected government in Sudan …joined in 1986 significant human rights conventions such as the [ICCPR] and the [ICESCR]. History has now offered us another opportunity to write a new chapter in Sudan’s record of joining international human rights conventions.”
The following day, Sudan’s new minister of foreign affairs, Asma Mohamed Abdalla (the first woman to hold this position in Sudanese history), signed an agreement with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), establishing a country office in Sudan with access to all parts of the country. Time will tell whether such broad access rights will be realized. One of the key tactics of the al-Bashir regime was to deny external observers access to areas where the government and its proxy militia were committing human rights violations. But simply by having an office inside Sudan, the OHCHR will have a much better chance of hearing about imminent threats to human rights before they progress to mass violations.
The Ministry of Justice is moving quickly on the domestic front also, creating a law reform commission designed to align Sudanese laws with international human rights standards. And it has repealed the state of emergency laws that al-Bashir imposed earlier this year as the protests against him gained momentum.
If history is our guide, this extraordinary moment of progress for the rule of law in Sudan will be short-lived. Of the three democratically elected governments in Sudan’s history, all have been overthrown by the military. But this backdrop makes it only more crucial to not let a sense of fatalism dictate action in this moment.
At the close of his remarks on Tuesday, Abdulbari called on the international community to support Sudan as it strives to put human rights at the center of its system of governance. He asked the international community to “assist the new Sudan [in] its efforts to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism” and to help its efforts for “external debt relief and sanctions lifting.” The international community should view these requests, alongside the move to bring Sudan into the international human rights regime, as an essential part of a strategy to fend off the domestic opponents of a democratic Sudan (and their regional supporters).
The Sudanese economy has collapsed after decades of corruption and widespread sanctions, and the Sudanese people are tired of being associated with a nation that is considered an international pariah. Civilian officials in the transitional government understand that the promise of economic stabilization and the reintegration of Sudan into the international community is necessary to secure the public support needed to weather the challenging times ahead. Those who thrived under 30 years of genocidal dictatorship are all-too-ready to derail the gains of the past month.
Around the world, authoritarianism appears to be on the rise and the rules-based order of the post-World War II system is under siege. The civilians in Sudan’s transitional government are risking everything to buck this trend. Now is the moment for those who support democracy to step up and help them.