General Burhan Speaks Before the General Assembly
By Dismas Nkunda and Janet Sankale
On Friday, September 22, 2023 afternoon, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan will address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on behalf of Sudan, a nation ravaged by a brutal conflict overlooked by the world.
Sudan is suffering through a fifth consecutive month of intense fighting and humanitarian crisis. As the death toll – and displacement averaging a million a month – continues to rise, the international community’s inaction casts a dark shadow over the region. This has prompted urgent calls for the international community to step in and bring an end to the violence.
As General al-Burhan ascends to the speaker’s rostrum at the General Assembly, we have to ask: Where is the United Nations (UN) on Sudan? Burhan’s presence is part of concerted efforts to legitimize him as the leader of the country despite questions arising both from his coming to power in a coup, his ongoing dispute with his erstwhile coup partners in the RSF and the aspirations of the Sudanese people for a civilian government.
Since the outbreak of hostilities in Khartoum in April, the nation has witnessed a relentless and devastating battle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti). The conflict shows no signs of abating. Sudan’s regionalised conflicts lasted decades with heavy civilian tolls; this war, which has already engulfed the capital, could well do the same.
Despite the escalating turmoil, the international community’s response to the conflict remains conspicuously muted. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has refrained from passing any resolution addressing the Sudan crisis.
The violence has claimed at least 7500 lives, the actual number of casualties is considered to be much higher but difficult to ascertain, given the ongoing conflict. The relentless fighting has driven nearly seven million people from their homes and is leaving more than six million on the brink of famine. A dire humanitarian crisis now engulfs the nation, with 24.7 million people, the equivalent of half of the country’s population, in need of aid and protection. War-torn areas have experienced widespread damage and looting, burning of homes, a collapse in health services, power and water cuts, and dwindling food supplies.
Women, children and vulnerable people are still trapped in combat zones without either protection or safe passage to calmer areas. There have been multiple reports of women and girls being subjected to systematic kidnapping and rape and others being held for ransom.
A report by Amnesty International — “Death came to our home” — documents deliberate and indiscriminate attacks by parties to the conflict, including non-state armed groups and militias at times allied to either side. Although both sides have committed abuses, media and civil society organisations attribute more of the human rights violations, including rape, to the paramilitary group, the RSF.
There is mounting evidence that an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur may amount to a new genocide two decades after the bloody conflict captured world attention in 2003. The UN estimated that 300,000 non-Arab Darfuri civilians were killed by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and Janjaweed militia (a precursor to the RSF) during that conflagration. Despite global outrage at the Darfur genocide, most of those responsible have never been held to account. International mechanisms were activated to respond to the genocide, including the International Criminal Court, but so far, only one case has moved to trial and the highest profile defendants, including former President Bashir, remain at large.
Mediation efforts have been convened under the auspices of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the African Union (AU) and the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), but none have achieved tangible results. There is an urgent need to ensure coordination and consolidation of these efforts. The UN is in a strong position to play a consolidating role through its various member states. In addition, there is a need for both the UN and its member states to show greater political will and mobilize higher-level leadership by heads of states, with the mediation process assigned to an eminent panel of high-level persons reporting directly to the heads of states, too much of the diplomacy to date has been led by low-level officials, a situation that is contributing to the slow progress advancing the response on the conflict in Sudan.
A high-level week is a good opportunity for world leaders to prioritise action around the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Sudan. Human rights groups have asked the Security Council to issue a resolution on the crisis and press the Secretariat for options on civilian protection. In addition, Burhan’s presence in New York is a good reminder of the need to insist on and invest in a civilian-led future for Sudan.
Sudan’s crisis warrants a similar level of global attention and concerted action to that accorded to Russia’s war in Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022. This means investing in workable strategies for resolution, committing funding commensurate to evolving needs and leveraging international instruments towards protecting civilians are long overdue.
Inaction in the face of this crisis is not an option. The cost of inaction is measured in human lives, suffering, and the erosion of international norms, not to mention serious risks to regional and international stability. The world cannot afford to remain indifferent to the suffering of the Sudanese people. Diplomatic efforts, international pressure, and grassroots advocacy must converge to bring an end to the conflict, hold perpetrators accountable, and chart a path towards a stable, civilian-led, democratic and peaceful future for Sudan.
Time is of the essence, and the international community must act urgently and decisively.
Dismas Nkunda is Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Atrocities Watch Africa. Janet Sankale, who is based in Nairobi, is Communication and Outreach Officer for Africans for the Horn, a solidarity platform established to amplify citizen action and voice in the response to, and resolution of, the crises that increasingly plague the Horn of Africa.