May 29, 2024

How to Help Build Peace in Sudan

EU policymakers must support Sudanese civil society—particularly women activists—while simultaneously cutting off weapons supplies to militias and exerting diplomatic pressure on China and the UAE to prevent a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

A view of a street in the city of Omdurman damaged in the year-long civil war in Sudan, April 7, 2024. Residents in the city have found themselves besieged in their homes, trapped between the paramilitary RSF and the army.
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Now in its second year, Sudan’s forgotten civil war has claimed at least 15,000 lives and has led to the near-total destruction of Sudanese law, politics, and society. In a bloody throwback to the genocide in Darfur two decades ago, militias have raided and torched whole villages. 

The vast country, three times the size of France, with a population of almost 47 million, faces a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. According to UN OCHA, the United Nations crisis response agency, about 25 million people—equivalent to the population of Australia—cannot survive without humanitarian assistance.

The war has created the world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis, with nearly 11 million people fleeing their homes in the first few months of fighting. Twenty thousand more flee daily, the equivalent of emptying a city the size of Munich every two months. Violence has engulfed Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, shuttering the country’s major airport and causing the government itself to flee 800 kilometers northeast to the Red Sea coastal city of Port Sudan. 

The economic and political fallout of this war will last generations. Sudan now has the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons, half of them under the age of 18. More children are displaced than anywhere on earth, and 19 million Sudanese children are not in school. 

According to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, “Sudan is a buffer between … zones of turmoil in Africa and if it is to be allowed to be consumed by its internal conflict … the whole of Africa will be bleeding.” 

In this context of a disaster that risks upending wider African geopolitics, tireless activists on the ground are helping aid groups reach target populations and getting crucial information to diplomats and news media unable to travel into Sudan. 

European governments can do more to protect and support these groups who, at great risk to themselves, stand ready to rebuild. But how did Sudan reach this catastrophe on our watch, and why should ending this civil war matter to European policymakers? 

State of War

Even before the civil war erupted last year, Sudan was ranked the world’s seventh most fragile state, behind Syria with 13 years of civil war, and Afghanistan under Taliban rule since the US military’s deadly and chaotic withdrawal in 2021. 

Unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Sudan has been at war with itself since before it was even a country. The first civil war, which began in 1955, months before the United Kingdom unchained Sudan from colonial rule, ended in 1972. 

Another, longer, and more deadly war started a decade later. The peace agreement that ended it in 2005 left various armed groups resentful for being excluded from the government’s deal with only one group among the many. 

These conflagrations, fueled by ethnic rivalries and the pursuit of natural resources like oil and gold, killed millions of people, most of them in lands that are now South Sudan, since 2011 the world’s newest country and now plagued by its own civil war and instability

Sudan’s three short-lived democratic governments held power briefly in Khartoum, for just 11 of the past 68 years since independence. They could never stop the wars. Sudan’s longer-lived dictatorships profited from them. 

Abandoning Sudan

The latest war began in 2023 on an otherwise unremarkable day in spring. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia group that the SAF once supported, could not agree on how to share power, let alone whether and how to transfer power back to civilians after a people’s revolution in 2019 toppled Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship. 

The violence last year was so swift that it caught Western diplomats in Khartoum off guard. As bombs and bullets rained down, they destroyed their documents, shut down their embassies, and evacuated. Not since British General Charles Gordon’s ill-fated siege of Khartoum in 1884 had violence so overwhelmed Sudan’s capital city. 

Today, no group or government fully controls Sudan, though the SAF and RSF are the most likely and most feared groups to take up that role. But both have splintered, leaving them in the same position that the erstwhile strongman Bashir found himself in, unable or unwilling to negotiate with new armed factions seeking control and money. Foreign governments may not reopen their embassies for months or years, leaving the Sudanese people to fend for themselves. 

What Can Western Countries Do? 

UN officials say a negotiated solution is the only way forward to end the war. But how? 

European and US politicians have attempted to take the lead on Sudan, but their efforts so far have been another case of too little, too late. 

US President Joe Biden appointed a Sudan envoy in 2024 to coordinate policy and mediate a resolution to the conflict. However, concern for Sudan remains low among American politicians and swing voters, especially relative to election issues like abortion, crime, and immigration

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted top diplomats in Paris in April to drum up support to end the crisis in Sudan. However, European foreign policy has been stretched thin by the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the €2 billion pledged at the Paris Conference to Sudan is dwarfed by the European Union’s $160 billion commitment to Ukraine and amounts to just half of what the United Nations said it needs for Sudan.

Pledging 12 percent (€244 million) of the total, German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock told the Paris Conference that “Every life counts equally, whether in Ukraine, in Gaza, or in Sudan.”

Thinking Domestically

Western diplomats must focus on getting the warring parties to put down their guns—as well as on supporting civil society activists, who are the country’s lifeline. 

Forced to leave the ravaged capital, activists—many of them women—have not given up on their nonviolent struggle for justice. In the absence of a fully functioning government, they have been reaching out and helping survivors.

Women’s groups have painstakingly documented hundreds of cases of sexual violence that provide evidence of war crimes. This number, aid agencies say, is a small fraction of the actual number of sex crimes committed by armed groups. 

Constantly on the move, some women and girls have been assaulted in multiple places, terminating unwanted pregnancies only when they can reach a faraway refugee camp. Sudan’s few working hospitals are largely militia-controlled and women seeking treatment there may be raped again or even killed. 

The activism and contributions of women’s groups—alongside associations of lawyersjournalists, and students—have historically opened a pathway to democracy in Sudan, toppling the Bashir regime and the previous dictatorships in the 1980s and 1960s.

Acting Globally

But the Sudanese military and the militias have always put themselves first, and so it is imperative to cut off the flow of weapons to them. 

Bombs and bullets are arriving in Sudan through supply lines in neighboring countries, including Libya, Chad, and Uganda. Some of these countries, in addition to South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt, are feeling the strain of thousands of refugees fleeing Sudan. 

EU policymakers can also work with counterparts in the African Union and the Arab League to take a joint and multilateral leadership role that applies pressure on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China. They are Sudan’s largest trade partners, and they must not take sides

However, China and the UAE have an incentive to ensure that instability reigns in Sudan, so long as natural resources continue to flow to them. With demand for gold at an all-time high in both the UAE and China, militias in Darfur have been growing wealthier by working with Russia’s Wagner Group to mine, traffic in, and profit from Sudan’s gold. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) looms large in any future settlement. The ICC has already launched six cases against seven Sudanese defendants for crimes in earlier wars. This includes, most notably, former President Bashir. Languishing in Sudanese military custody, he is the first person the ICC ever indicted for the crime of genocide. 

A Sustainable Peace

My own family fled Sudan in the early 1980s when I was a boy amidst the country’s second civil war. My parents were never able to return. Yet, recapturing the hope of the recent Sudan Spring in 2019 is feasible. Rather than give up in despair, policymakers in Berlin, Brussels, and beyond can support Sudanese civil society and exert diplomatic pressure on China and the UAE to prevent an enormous humanitarian crisis from getting worse. This will foster the only sustainable route to peace. 

During his recent visit to Namibia to apologize for Germany’s colonial-era genocide of 75,000 people, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the importance of reaching out “over the dark abyss of our history” to make amends for political violence. His comments also apply to helping Sudan end this conflict, which is too important to pretend not to see. 

Mark Fathi Massoud is the author of Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan. He is Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, and a spring 2024 Berlin Prize fellow at the American Academy in Berlin