July 14, 2024

U.S. Acknowledges Sudan Atrocity Crimes; Calls for Concrete Action

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participate in the U.S.-Africa Summit Leaders Session on partnering on the African Union’s Agenda 2063 in Washington, D.C., on December 15, 2022. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participate in the U.S.-Africa Summit Leaders Session on partnering on the African Union’s Agenda 2063 in Washington, D.C., on December 15, 2022. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/

The United States government confirmed on December 6, 2023, that grave atrocity crimes have been committed by both warring parties in Sudan, prompting calls for robust action to halt abuses and ensure accountability by Human Rights Watch.

The announcement, made by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, revealed that war crimes and crimes against humanity have occurred during the eight-month-long conflict in Sudan. Secretary Blinken explicitly pointed out the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) as perpetrators of war crimes, while the RSF and its allied militias were also held responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, remarked, “The U.S. determination of the atrocity crimes unfolding in Sudan sends an important message to the victims that their suffering is known. But for it to serve as a deterrent to further abuses and help safeguard civilians, it needs to be accompanied by a change of U.S. government policy and concrete measures.”

The conflict between the SAF and RSF erupted in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on April 15, 2023, rapidly spreading throughout the nation. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the destruction of vital infrastructure, and obstruction of aid access have been reported. Tragically, since the conflict’s onset, at least 12,190 people have lost their lives, and 6.6 million individuals have been displaced. In West Darfur, RSF and allied militias have specifically targeted non-Arab civilians, particularly the Massalit community, in ethnically motivated killings. They have also engaged in widespread pillaging, arson, and sexual violence.

Secretary Blinken’s statement drew a chilling parallel with the genocide that began nearly two decades ago in Darfur. He said, “In haunting echoes of the genocide that began almost 20 years ago in Darfur, we have seen an explosion of targeted violence against some of the same survivors’ communities.”

Despite the gravity of the situation and the U.S. government’s acknowledgment of serious violations of international humanitarian law, Secretary Blinken’s statement did not include any specific actions. It concluded by stating that the U.S. “is committed to building on this determination and using available tools to end this conflict and cease committing the atrocities and other abuses.”

Human Rights Watch emphasized that acknowledging such severe violations of international humanitarian law should be accompanied by concrete actions to ensure accountability for those responsible and to protect civilians in Sudan. It called for robust consultations with the United Nations, African Union, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to explore alternatives for civilian protection. The organization also recommended additional sanctions on individuals with credible evidence of serious crimes.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to include key civilian voices, such as displaced communities, human rights and women’s rights defenders, and pro-democracy forces, in ongoing and upcoming discussions. It called for increased funding for Sudanese rights and civil society organizations and the designation of refugees from Darfur, including victims of atrocity crimes and human rights defenders, as a “group of special concern” eligible for resettlement based on shared characteristics.

The U.S. response to the Darfur crisis two decades ago, though imperfect, included clearer steps to address abuses at the time. The U.S. recognized genocide in Darfur in September 2004, leading to a vote by the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Since May 2023, the U.S. State Department has been engaged in a mediation process in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with representatives of the warring parties. However, this process has not prioritized civilian protection or accountability for atrocities, nor has it led to a concrete resolution to the cycle of abuse. Despite expressing concern about massacres in Darfur, the U.S. has been unable to translate its worries into tangible outcomes to safeguard Sudanese civilians.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that previous U.S. government determinations of atrocities in Iraq, Burma, and China resulted in shifts in U.S. policy, resource allocations, and support for justice mechanisms. It called on the Biden administration to consider new policies and program decisions regarding Sudan.

In the wake of the U.S. acknowledgment of Sudan atrocity crimes, Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. government to strongly support the ICC Office of the Prosecutor’s investigation of recent crimes in Darfur and engage with ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan on effective prosecution of those involved in recent serious crimes. Additionally, it urged robust support for the UN Fact-Finding Mechanism (FFM) on Sudan, which would gather independent evidence to promote justice and accountability for international crimes across Sudan, bearing in mind that the ICC’s jurisdiction currently covers only Darfur.

“The U.S. government knows the magnitude of what is unfolding before its eyes and should not choose to look away,” Widdersheim emphasized. “It can start by rallying support for accountability efforts, including by the International Criminal Court, and working to fill the existing vacuum in civilian protection in Darfur.”

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