Less than 20 years after the Darfur genocide unfolded, history is repeating itself. The current conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group established by Sudan’s deposed president Omar al-Bashir, has already claimed the lives of more than 12,000 and displaced more than six million people since it broke out in April.
This is all happening against the backdrop of one of the world’s largest, most pressing humanitarian disasters. According to the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), approximately 25 million Sudanese people, or half the country, are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. In Darfur, hundreds of miles away from Khartoum, the indigenous non-Arab ethnic groups are even more vulnerable, living under the reign of RSF terror and genocidal violence. The RSF has left a trail of mass atrocities in its wake with near impunity, reminiscent of the same brutal tactics used by the Janjaweed in the 2000s. Today, the RSF, as the Janjaweed’s successor entity, is committing the same atrocities and targeting the same indigenous groups on the international community’s watch. During the Janjaweed atrocities of the 2000s, policymakers not only failed to act in time to prevent genocide but even downplayed the nature of the violence to preserve other political interests. This time, there can be no debate over the magnitude of the horrors facing non-Arab ethnic groups at the hands of the RSF, or excuse for the repetition of our collective failure to uphold the promise of never again.
The 2003-2005 Genocide
In 2003, the former Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir unleashed a “counterinsurgency” war that, in reality, sent the SAF to bomb, and the Janjaweed militias to raze villages, kill, rape, loot, and force non-Arab populations to leave their homes. While the U.N. brought the full weight of its powers to bear, the international community still failed to prevent the unfathomable number of deaths, estimated to be upwards of 300,000, and the displacement of more than five million people.
In 2004 and 2005, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) adopted a series of resolutions, still in effect, (1) imposing an arms embargo on non-state actors in Darfur, including the Janjaweed (Res. 1556), (2) mandating a sanctions regime against those impeding the peace process, threatening stability, or committing atrocities, (Res. 1591), and, (3) for the first time, referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Res. 1593). This was happening at a time of optimism for a future where the international community would not stand idly by as mass atrocities are perpetrated with impunity. The ICC issued arrest warrants against the former President Omar al-Bashir, the Court’s first against a head of state and only genocide charge, and three other high-ranking Sudanese officials; all of whom remain at large, while a fifth, Ali Kushayb, a senior Janjaweed commander, is now on trial.
Genocide Looms Again
Despite the international community’s promises during and after the 2003-05 genocide, the actual impact in terms of accountability and deterrence has been woefully limited. Earlier this year, as violence flared up between the SAF and RAF, ethnic violence also escalated, raising concerns about another genocide – and the absence of attention from the international community.
In early November, in Ardamata, West Darfur, alone, the RSF massacred more than 800 people, with local groups estimating the death toll of up to 2,000, and forced 8,000 others to flee to neighbouring Chad. Human Rights Watch’s Sudan researcher, Mohamed Osman, characterized these RSF “ethnically targeted killings in West Darfur [as having] the hallmarks of an organized campaign of atrocities against Masalit civilians.” The RSF and its allied militia executed Masalit members in their homes, shelters and in the streets. International and regional institutions have similarly raised alarms about ethnic-based violence.
In June of this year, the RSF and affiliated Arab militia massacred thousands of members of the Masalit community in El Geneina, where several mass graves were hastily dug. The RSF has even gone out of their way to specifically target prominent Masalit leaders.
At the same time, the RSF is systematically committing sexual violence against women and girls based on ethnicity, including patterns of gang rape at gunpoint and subjection to “slave-like conditions.” Throughout the RSF’s attacks, its militiamen consistently use dehumanizing slurs to refer to non-Arab ethnic groups, including the terms “slave” (anbai/nuba) and “dirt,” historical and empirical markers of incitement that leads to genocide. One RSF commander has openly admitted to these atrocities on video, boasting “we rape, kill, steal, and whatever, this is our right, if you have a problem with it, meet us on the battlefield.” The RSF is now on the verge of carrying out similar attacks on El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, unprotected people are sheltering, largely comprised of non-Arab ethnic groups.
Taken together, these and other actions appear to constitute evidence of specific genocidal intent or intent to destroy a group in part, or the part of the group essential to its survival. On Nov. 14 of this year, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, an office that is typically very conservative in its official assessments, specifically raised the specter of impending genocide and the RSF’s alleged “explicit intent to destroy [the Masalit] community.” The Special Adviser described the RSF’s recent attacks targeting members of the Masalit as all pointing “to risk factors for genocide and related crimes.” This follows other similar statements that were issued by the office since the war began in April.
The mounting evidence of persecution, rape, and killings based on ethnicity in areas under RSF control spurred a coalition of over 100 leading experts on genocide, international law, and Sudan to alert the international community to the imminent risk of genocide facing non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur. The coalition’s open letter, coordinated by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, where we work, also sets out a list of calls to action to protect civilians, prevent future atrocities, and avoid the inhumane failures of the past.
Today’s Response Must Incorporate Lessons of the Past
When formulating the right response today, the international community should heed the lessons of the past.
First, the international community should enforce the already binding UNSC resolutions on Darfur, including closing all gaps in the arms embargo on the RSF, targeting perpetrators with sanctions, and apprehending suspects for prosecution. The last 20 years have demonstrated that empty words, memos, and resolutions without concrete follow-up action only emboldens perpetrators to commit mass atrocities. At this urgent juncture, the international community cannot defer to a powerless UNSC to adopt additional measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect innocent communities at immediate risk of genocide.
Second, States and regional actors should expand the sanctions regime to target all perpetrators, enablers, and their corrupt networks. The AU should play a central role in sanctions coordination, as most of the perpetrators are in Africa, where sanctions will be more impactful. The use of targeted sanctions remains a largely neglected tool rife with the potential to exact real costs on the RSF by directly targeting their military capacity, means of support, and key sources of revenue like the gold industry. Once identified, the actors directing, aiding, and abetting the commission of atrocities, and egregiously breaching the arms embargo, should be immediately sanctioned, starting with the UAE, an American ally that is openly and directly propping up the RSF through the provision of powerful arms and even medical treatment. The UAE has been identified as financing other conflicts in the region, including in Libya and Ethiopia, and just rolled out the red carpet for a visit by Vladimir Putin this week, flouting the outstanding ICC arrest warrant against him—
all creating further grounds to impose targeted sanctions on UAE entities and senior officials. The warlord Khalifa Haftar, who now controls Eastern Libya, is also complicit. Haftar helped train the RSF earlier this year, and collaborates with the head of the RSF, Hemedti, through illicit trade and the supply of fuel required for the RSF to carry out atrocities.
Third, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted during the same year of the ICC Darfur referral, should be revived and activated as an emerging norm of international law. Prior misuse of the R2P doctrine does not nullify its central universal, humanitarian imperative to protect vulnerable populations at the mercy of the world’s worst atrocities. Where the U.N. is derelict in its duty to uphold R2P, that responsibility falls on every member of the international community and person of conscience. The duty to prevent mass atrocities lies at the heart of the most fundamental and pertinent treaties, including the Genocide Convention, a prospective Crimes Against Humanity treaty, and the African Union’s (AU) Constitutive Act. At a minimum, the first dimension of R2P– to exhaust all diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to protect populations from atrocity crimes– is an accepted legal obligation under customary international law.
When peaceful means fail, however, the deployment of a peacekeeping operation should be considered as a last resort through the authorization of the UN or the AU. Two years ago, the UNSC withdrew the Hybrid United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. Despite the Mission’s limitations and concerns about its effectiveness, these shortcomings can be addressed through a renewed mechanism. During the brief democratic transition period, Abdallah Hamdok, Sudan’s former Prime Minister acknowledged the positive role of UNAMID in the country and its “important peace dividends that must be safeguarded, deepened, and expanded.” A viable and acceptable peacekeeping force can be narrowly tailored towards the protection of civilians at imminent risk of genocide. For instance, in October of this year, the UNSC authorized a Multinational Security Support Mission in Haiti, mandated to provide specific operational support to the National Police and security for critical sites. A U.N. or regionally mandated mission can be circumscribed differently in the context of Darfur to provide the bare minimum of safe passage to civilians seeking to flee areas at imminent risk of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Fourth, the AU should prioritize a comprehensive response to unfolding genocide in Darfur, including legitimate intervention free from allegations of neocolonial exploitation. As Alex de Waal compellingly argued here last month, the AU’s silence on Darfur is indicative of its wider loss of a commitment to the principle of “non-indifference” to atrocity crimes, as enshrined in the AU’s Constitutive Act. The AU now has an opportunity to reclaim its authority and leadership on “non-indifference,” the AU equivalent of R2P.
Fifth, States must intensify their coordination and efforts to apprehend ICC suspects at large. For instance, the U.S. Office for Global Criminal Justice can play a more active role in seeking the arrest of Sudanese actors responsible for mass atrocity crimes. The longer they are free to roam, the less credibility international criminal law will have, both as a mechanism for justice and deterrence. The perpetrators will continue to take these signals as a green light to wage war and commit atrocities as a profitable enterprise. While the ICC is limited in its enforcement power, the very process of issuing additional arrest warrants and maintaining an active investigation and court proceedings will play a significant role in shining a protective spotlight on civilians, putting would-be perpetrators on notice, and serving as a basis for an eventual transitional justice process.
Sixth, this conflict must stop being portrayed as an internal armed conflict, or simplified as a power struggle between two generals. During the earlier genocide, a common racist refrain in the U.S. State Department held that it was “just a standard African civil war.” As is generally the case, regional powers and outside actors are clearly complicit, as demonstrated above, through direct or indirect involvement, in fueling the conflict and particularly supporting the RSF’s atrocities for financial gain, while robbing the indigenous people of their land, water, and resources.
The international community failed 20 years ago to stop mass atrocities and genocide in Darfur, and is now failing again. There is a universal legal and moral imperative to prevent genocide as soon as we become aware of its serious risk. That threshold has been crossed. That duty has been triggered. We now know, and must act.