EU should shift gears in the face of atrocities in Sudan

  • By: Laetitia Bader | Director, Horn of Africa
  • Photo: A destroyed medical storage facility in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur province, Sudan, May 2, 2023. © 2023 AFP via Getty Images

The EU’s response needs to echo the speed with which disaster is occurring on the ground. Residents of El Fasher and other civilians throughout Sudan deserve nothing less, Laetitia Bader writes.

From the pace of the European Union’s action on Sudan, no one would imagine that the country’s Darfur region is burning once again.

“Life has simply completely stopped in the city because of heavy fighting and shelling. People are hiding in their homes, scared. They cannot go out even to get necessities.”

These are the words of a volunteer in Sudan’s north Darfur town of El Fasher, desperately trying to help civilians facing intense shelling, starvation and a communications shutdown hampering real-time reporting.

Despite multiple warnings by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, the EU response has been grossly inadequate.

It set up a new sanctions regime in October 2023. But it has only used it to sanction entities connected to the warring parties, the Sudan military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and is still finalising a first list of individual sanctions against those implicated in atrocities against civilians.

Despite blatant disregard for the laws of war by Sudan’s belligerents, some EU member states apparently prefer to hope that they can convince the warring parties to end the fighting rather than act to build consequential international pressure.

Burned to the ground

The situation in El Fasher comes on the heels of over a year of devastating conflict in which the competing forces have killed thousands of civilians, forced nearly 9 million people, many of them children, to flee their homes, and left millions at risk of starvation.

Both warring parties have deliberately obstructed humanitarian aid and indiscriminately shelled and bombed civilian neighbourhoods and infrastructure.

Many residential neighbourhoods have been burnt to the ground in El Fasher, apparently by the RSF and their allies.

Their actions are eerily familiar to their atrocities we have documented against ethnic Massalit and other non-Arabs in El Geneina, West Darfur, last year. These mass killings, torture, arson, and sexual violence constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In El Fasher, both parties, particularly the RSF, have reportedly used imprecise explosive weaponry in densely populated areas. Médecins Sans Frontières said that the hospital it supports in El Fasher had received over 1,300 wounded between 10 May and 6 June, with over 200 dying from their injuries.

On 9 June, RSF forces stormed this same hospital, the only one in the town able to treat war-wounded, destroyed and looted medical equipment and supplies. The attack sent patients and staff running for their lives and forced the hospital to close.

Harmed, trapped, shipwrecked

Away from Darfur, the picture is also grim. On 5 June, the RSF attacked a village in al Jazira state, central Sudan, killing at least 100 people, including many children. In a statement following the attack, Borrell reminded abusers in the conflict that they will be held accountable.

Even before events in El Fasher escalated, Sudan was the country with the highest rates of internal displacement. Hundreds of thousands more have since fled into neighbouring Chad, only to be met by a shockingly underfunded humanitarian response.

Recent pledges at a conference on Sudan in Paris, organised by France, Germany and the EU, failed to bridge the gap.

Over 500,000 Sudanese have also fled north toward Egypt, but thousands have been deported back to the war zone. Thousands of Sudanese have fled toward Libya or Tunisia, only to be trapped between the lack of protection there and EU policies externalising migration controls.

In February, dozens of young Sudanese were among the victims of a tragic shipwreck while seeking safety in Italy.

There is ample evidence available to the EU regarding the scale of the abuses, those responsible, and the intransigence of warring parties to inflict civilian harm. However, the EU still seems unwilling to use the spectrum of tools at its disposal to ensure accountability and protect civilians.

Several EU counterparts have already sanctioned responsible individuals and entities, with the US leading the way. EU member states should follow suit and sanction top commanders implicated in widespread killings of civilians and deliberate obstruction of humanitarian assistance.

But sanctions should only form part of broader concerted global efforts to protect civilians and ensure consequences for these heinous crimes.

It’s time to roll out and protect those in need

Positively, on 24 May, the African Union Peace and Security Council called for the AU High-Level Panel on Sudan and the new AU special envoy on the prevention of genocide to develop a civilian protection plan.

Last week, the UN Security Council finally adopted a resolution on the dramatic situation in Al Fasher and requested that the secretary-general make recommendations for protecting civilians in Sudan.

The EU and its member states should actively voice support for these calls and work with the AU, the UN and others — notably the UK and the US to identify the most relevant options to create and urgently roll out a force to protect civilians.

The EU should now act more decisively at the UN, encouraging the three African states on the UN Security Council to work toward deploying such a force.

It should also press for the full enforcement of the existing UN arms embargo on Darfur, calling out countries such as the United Arab Emirates violating it, and press for expanding it to all of Sudan.

Finally, the EU should provide financial support and call for the protection of Sudanese local responders who are faced with providing civilians with support, food, and medical care.

The EU’s response needs to echo the speed with which disaster is occurring on the ground. Residents of El Fasher and other civilians throughout Sudan deserve nothing less.

Laetitia Bader is Deputy Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.

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