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Escalating Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender Violence in the Ongoing Sudan Conflict

By: Agnes Poplawski


"Sudan: A Forgotten Crisis" by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid via the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED. Copyright EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie.


Since its independence from Great Britain and Egypt in the late 1950s, Sudan has been in a state of perpetual internal conflict. When Omar al-Bashir seized power and became Sudan’s president in 1989, the state had split into northern and southern Sudan, resulting in South Sudan’s secession.[1] Sudan’s economy began to deteriorate, mass street protests erupted, and the military-civilian government was soon created and overthrown in 2021 when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took over.[2] Since this time, the country had been run by a council of generals led by two military figures from opposing groups, bringing us to Sudan’s current conflict at the expense of innocent civilians.

 

At the heart of the conflict lies a power struggle between rival warlords of two groups: the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Previously, the two groups worked together to oust the al-Bashir regime in 2019 and orchestrated a military coup in October 2021 to remove the Sudanese military-civilian government.[3] While the groups agreed that Sudan should progress into a democratic nation, conflicts emerged over how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF, as well as who would assume leadership over the new military.[4] Since this time, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF served as the leader and chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the RSF (commonly referred to as Hemedti) served as the deputy chairman of that same council.[5] Hemedti pushed for reforms for a more inclusive, professional military while maintaining his own paramilitary as a guarantee through the election.[6] To the contrary, al-Burhan and the SAF expressed its fears the proposed reforms would “hollow out the military and leave it open for RSF to dominate.”[7] While it is unclear who began the conflict, Sudan has become a hothouse to some of the gravest human rights violations and potential war crimes in our modern day.


Fighting broke out in April 2023 in the Sudan capital of Khartoum with both sides using heavy explosive weapons in particularly populated areas.[8] Large-scale attacks by the RSF and allied forces (Arab militia) primarily targeted the Massalit population, an ethnic group found in Western Sudan.[9] Medical facilities were largely damaged due to airstrikes or shelling, preventing the care and treatment of Sudanese civilians.[10] Further, any attempt to provide international aid (resources and humanitarian workers alike) has been repeatedly blocked or looted by both sides.[11] Since August 2023, an estimated 12,000 people have been killed and an estimated 6.6 million Sudanese citizens have fled their homes due to the egregious abuse and attacks.[12] 

 

Perhaps the most appalling and apparent form of abuse in the Sudan conflict surrounds sexual and gender-based violence. United Nations Human Rights Chief, Volker Turk, highlighted how rape has been a defining characteristic of the conflict since its resurgence in April 2023.[13] Turk’s team had documented sixty incidents of conflict-related sexual violence involving at least 120 victims, primarily women and girls, across the country.[14] It is also noted that men in RSF uniform or affiliated with the RSF have been found to be responsible for eighty-one percent of the document incidents, and the majority of the sexual assault targets Masalit women.[15] While sixty reported incidents may appear to be small in comparison to the Sudanese population, reported incidents do not reflect just how much sexual and gender-based violence is occurring unnoticed. Today, over four million women and young girls are at risk of further sexual violence; women and children also constitute the majority of the misplaced population as well as those who are in need of humanitarian assistance.[16] 

 

International law has positively progressed to recognize the importance of human rights in both international and civil conflicts. Amidst the many atrocities being conducted by both sides of the Sudan conflict, the International Criminal Court [ICC] has recognized “rape, sexual slavery … or any form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” to be a crime against humanity when committed on a widespread basis against civilian population.[17] Because Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute, it does not automatically submit itself to the jurisdiction of the ICC. Sudan may, however, decide to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC and bring forth a case against the alleged perpetrator (who must be a national of a State Party) or where the crime was committed in the territory of a State Party.[18] Alternatively, the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, may refer a situation of the Office of the Prosecutor.[19] 

 

Aid and intervention are often limited by the general nature of international law: international law primarily concerns disputes among states and leaves very little response to be left in civil conflicts. This, however, need not be the norm. The Security Council possesses great discretion to refer the conflict once again to the ICC and investigate the sexual violence war crimes pursuant to the Rome statute.[20] Arguably, sexual violence against women may be even more egregious than other listed war crimes due to its complete lack of justification both in and out of conflict. One can argue that acts of rape or molestation are done to exert fear or dominance. However, committing such crimes does not get either party closer to governmental authority– what other purpose does it serve?

 

Absent international intervention due to the laws of war, the United Nations remains the largest entity that can bring expedited justice to the Sudanese survivors. Sudanese medical facilities are unable to provide complete relief to such victims and international aid does not reach any civilians, thus leaving the women traumatized and suspect to underlying, unwanted sexual health conditions. Committing these issues to the ICC once again and promptly ruling on the alleged war crimes aids to penalize further similar acts and enforce compliance. If the United Nations seeks to serve its purpose and protect human rights, it should urge its constituents and the ICC to not only perform its role but do it hastily.  


Agnes Poplawski is a Staff Editor at CICLR.


[1] What’s Happening in Sudan? Explainer on the Current Conflict and Its Effects on Humanitarian Aid to Civilians, World Food Program USA, https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/whats-happening-sudan-explainer-current-conflict-effects-humanitarian-aid-civilians/ [https://perma.cc/PD5V-6MXT].

[2] Susan Stigant, What’s Behind the Fighting in Sudan? U.S Inst. of Peace (Apr. 20, 2023), https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/04/whats-behind-fighting-sudan [https://perma.cc/LV8Y-LX87].

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Sudan: Setting the Stage for a Long War, ACLED (Jan. 17, 2024), https://acleddata.com/conflict-watchlist-2024/sudan/ [https://perma.cc/3S8R-9FNH].

[6] Stigant, supra note 2.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Masalit, Africa 101 Last Tribes, https://www.101lasttribes.com/tribes/masalit.html [https://perma.cc/J6NK-Q6NR].

[10] Sudan Events of 2023, Hum. Rts. Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/sudan [https://perma.cc/J6NK-Q6NR].

[11] UN Official Warns of Possible War Crimes, Rape as a Weapon in Sudan, Al Jazeera (Mar. 1, 2024), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/3/1/un-official-warns-of-possible-war-crimes-rape-as-a-weapon-in-sudan [https://perma.cc/P7E3-S5QJ].

[12] Adel Abdel-Rahim, More Than 12,000 Killed in Sudanese Conflict: UN, Anadolu (Aug. 12, 2023), https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/more-than-12-000-killed-in-sudanese-conflict-un/3076249 [https://perma.cc/9PCU-YGJE].

[13] Sudan Grapples with Aftermath of Wartime Sexual Violence, Sudan Tribune (Mar. 6, 2024), https://sudantribune.com/article282950/ [https://perma.cc/GR9Y-FWNT].

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Hala al-Karib, Violent Conflict in Sudan Has Impacted Nearly Every Aspect of Women’s Lives, Relief Web (Oct. 30, 2023), https://reliefweb.int/report/sudan/violent-conflict-sudan-has-impacted-nearly-every-aspect-womenslives#:~:text=More%20than%204%20million%20women,human%20rights%20and%20humanitarian%20law. [https://perma.cc/7LA2-KVKB].

[17] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court art 7, ¶1, July 17, 1998, 2187 U.N.T.S. 90.

[18] Understanding the International Criminal Court, Int’l Crim. Ct.

https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/Publications/understanding-the-icc.pdf (last visited Mar. 7, 2024).

[19] Id.

[20] This situation in Darfur, Sudan has been referred to the ICC by the Security Council in 2005, and investigations are still pending. See Darfur, Sudan, Int’l Crim. Ct.,  https://www.icc-cpi.int/darfur (last visited Mar. 7, 2024).

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