Tue 22 June 2021

Does Sudan’s pledge to hand over Omar Bashir to face genocide charges mark the beginning of a new era?

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Sudan’s pledge on 11 February to hand over former dictator Omar Bashir to the International Criminal Court over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity indicates that its new transitional Government seeks to distance itself from Bashir’s brutal legacy. 

Bashir ruled Sudan with an iron fist after coming to power via a military coup in 1989. Among his gravest crimes was killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, along with torture and sexual abuses during the so-called Darfur Campaign from 2003. The regime worked with pro-government Arab militias known as the ‘Janjaweed’ forces to cleanse opposition factions that complained of race-based Government marginalisation.

Yet, after millions of civilians had protested against corruption and inequality since December 2018 – which led to a successful revolution in April 2019 – handing Bashir to the ICC would show that justice has finally been done.

ICC charges were first brought against him in 2009 and he has evaded prosecution in the Hague since then.

This latest move comes after the signing of a three-year transitional deal in August between civilian factions and the military, after fears that the military would crush the revolution after it had assumed power following Bashir’s departure. This agreement could lead to civilian rule if successfully implemented. 

Sudan has sought to reform its international image and consolidate positive ties with the West. Sudan was placed on a US 1993 list of “sponsors of terrorism”, which isolated the country and harshly impacted its economy. This designation has restricted Sudan from debt relief, along with IMF and World Bank financing. 

As post-revolution Sudan grapples with economic difficulties, Khartoum seeks to restore ties with the West. A senior US State Department official said in November that Washington was considering removing Sudan from this list. The following month the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the two states would begin exchanging ambassadors after a 23-year gap, showing a further development in their ties. 

Sudan has even pursued normalising ties with Israel, the United States’ closest regional partner, after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council lieutenant general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met on 3 February. This attracted criticism from Sudan’s revolutionary opposition parties, after perceptions that Sudan was unconstitutionally prioritising relations with Israel over resolving the Palestinian issue – which Khartoum had historically pledged to support. 

Along with handing Bashir to the ICC, Al-Burhan expressed that Sudan’s building of ties with Israel was essential for removing itself from the US blacklist.

Despite these surface-level reforms, Sudan’s democratic transition is uncertain and could be disrupted by reactionary elements that still hold sway within the government. 

Others culpable of past atrocities had seized the reins of power in Khartoum as the Transitional Military Council was formed after Bashir’s ousting. Particularly the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which had evolved out of the Janjaweed militia’s cleansing of civilians in Darfur. Some have even considered it the Janjaweed ‘repackaged’. 

Following the TMC’s takeover, the RSF in June had massacred dozens of protestors who staged sit-ins in Khartoum, calling called for the military to cede power to civilian factions. 

Among those responsible is Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo – nicknamed “Hemedti”, who also played a leading role in the so-called Darfur campaign, and is still considered the most powerful man in Sudan. Hemedti previously said he would step down “over his dead body”. Furthermore, the faction has driven Sudan’s participation in supporting the Saudi-Arabia-led war in Yemen since March 2015. 

Long after the Darfur campaign had commenced the RSF carried out ‘scorched earth’ attacks on villages and unlawful killings of civilians, according to an Amnesty International report last June. The RSF is also believed to be behind a coup attempt last July. Burhan claimed in a speech last December that the faction still has a crucial role in the military. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have supported multiple counterrevolutionary movements since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, had tried to secure TMC rule to ensure continued authoritarianism in the country. This would help shore up their own geopolitical influence and prevent a regionwide flourishing of democracy, which could then trigger calls for reforms within their own borders. 

Nevertheless, the vast pressure from protestors against military rule and external influence had curtailed such counterrevolutionary actions, as did widespread digital awareness of the massacres, prompting US pressure to successfully secure the transitional agreement within Sudan. 

Since Donald Trump has shown a fondness for authoritarian leaders, there is a danger that the protestors’ hard work could be undone. Trump’s unpredictable stance was revealed again after Washington’s arbitrary ‘travel ban’ on Muslim countries was extended to Sudan in February. Meanwhile, EU-linked organisations had covertly aided the RSF, in order to stem migrant flows, despite the faction’s alleged role in migrant trafficking to Libya. Western states may, therefore, turn a blind eye to the RSF’s actions, or even perceive it as a source of ‘stability’. 

Though Sudan may drift closer to the West, it is important that international powers combine adequate support to the country’s transition and remove crippling financial restrictions, while ensuring that the transition fully reflects civilians’ wishes.  

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