In Sudan, where prices for bread and fuel have risen sharply after the coup, people are once again taking to the streets. The global shortage of wheat triggered by the war in Ukraine may be adding fuel to the fire, but dissatisfaction has been brewing for years.
Five months ago, Sudan’s military carried out a coup, bringing an abrupt end to the country’s short-lived transition towards democracy and empowering a repressive clique, many of whom were in power when the former strongman, Omar al-Bashir, was in charge. Sudanese from all walks of life have been rallying in resistance ever since.
The military has used brute force to suppress the protesters, shooting at them with live rounds and teargas canisters and preemptively arresting individuals perceived as active within protest groups.
Sanctions should be designed to have minimal negative humanitarian impact. They could include visa bans and assets freezes
What we are seeing in Sudan isn’t the work of a few bad apples but the actions of a well-managed apparatus bent on denying people’s basic rights, trying to break the will of the protest movement while also buying time to cement their power.
Since the revolution, Sudanese protesters have been clear that without an end to impunity and reform of abusive forces, the path to democracy is blocked. Strategic regional and international engagement with Sudan needs to address both issues – impunity and reform – head-on and not trade them off or delay resolving them indefinitely for political concessions or convenience.
Unfortunately, to date Sudan’s international and regional partners have floundered, rubber stamping power-sharing deals that put justice and reform demands on the back burner.
It is time to change tack. Concrete actions, including targeted sanctions on individuals implicated in serious human rights abuses and war crimes, are needed to change the behaviour of security forces and curb the repression. If Sudan’s leaders see that the international community is willing to impose consequences, peaceful protesters should enjoy greater freedom to express themselves and organise.
Military leaders in control in Khartoum have ordered operations against protesters that have killed 87 people, including 11 children, and injured thousands, hoping to undermine resolve. Protesters have been beaten and assaulted, including sexually, and hundreds locked up. Many have been held incommunicado. There have been attempts to rein in independent media reporting, raids on at least two media offices and arrests and harassment of journalists. The security forces have also targeted healthcare facilities.
No one should underestimate the tenacity of the Sudanese risking their lives for real change. But as a longtime activist, whose 16-year-old son was detained at a protest, beaten and humiliated in detention, told me: “They want to break our boys from joining the protests, and also want to send a signal to families to trigger fear for the fate of their children so they won’t allow them to protest.”
Lawyers and families describe how the authorities deny knowing detainees’ whereabouts and invoke the state of emergency imposed after the coup, which gives security forces carte blanche to hold people. Refusing to disclose the whereabouts of someone in custody can constitute an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law.
The military junta has also tactically deployed forces and rotated units in an apparent attempt to deflect responsibility. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army leader, has blamed the police for crackdowns, even though the military has been involved.
Police officials have denied using excessive and lethal force despite overwhelming evidence of the opposite. After his reinstatement as prime minister, in November last year, Abdalla Hamdok sacked the then police chief and his deputy. This, however, did not stop security force crackdowns.
A prosecutor in Khartoum said the presence of many forces creates confusion, which makes it harder for investigators to identify those responsible.
Sudan’s regional and international partners should roll out a coordinated response, including targeted sanctions, which should be carefully designed to have minimal negative humanitarian impact. They could include visa bans and assets freezes that will help prevent individuals leading the repression from thriving while they throttle Sudan’s frail economy and oversee the brutal machinery of oppression.
Clear benchmarks indicating when and how sanctions can be lifted should be linked to behaviour change by the military and others and should be set out from the beginning. These benchmarks should lead to achieving the reforms sought by the protest movement.
The coup leaders should be given no further concessions that facilitate their efforts to undermine the future of a fairer, rights-respecting country that Sudanese people continue to strive for.
• Mohamed Osman is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch