Sudan: Prioritize Justice, Accountability

press release

Nairobi — Sudan's new transitional government should take concrete steps to ensure accountability for past rights abuses, including the attacks on protesters since the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new leaders, sworn in on August 21, should set clear benchmarks for progress on justice and a range of other reforms to be undertaken during the three-year transition period. International organizations including the United Nations, African Union (AU), the European Union and other states should monitor implementation of the agreement, as well as progress on key human rights reforms.

"As Sudan's leaders embark on long-overdue critical reforms, they should ensure justice to fulfill the promise for a transition to a state based on human rights and rule of law," said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "To ensure progress, they should set goals and benchmarks, including for accountability for serious abuses, just as the protesters demanded."

Under Sudan's new power-sharing deal, signed August 17, a transitional government will be headed by an 11-member sovereign council for a period of three years, followed by elections. On August 21, the council's chair, general Abdel Fatah Burhan - the army general who led the transitional military council (TMC) that took power in April - was sworn in as chair of the sovereign council for the first 21 months. A civilian leader will chair for the remaining 18 months. Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok was also sworn into office, and will select ministers by the end of August.

The agreement, the result of months of negotiations between the Transitional Military Council and a broad coalition of opposition groups, is an important step. But many observers have raised concerns that if the military generals block attempted reforms while they are at the helm for 21 months, they will effectively extend military rule. Women's groups have criticized the process, saying that too few women have been appointed to the new leadership and that they have had little representation during the negotiation and signing of the agreement.

The constitutional charter, signed August 4, among other things, calls for a raft of major institutional and legal reforms. They are designed to end repression and gender discrimination; secure accountability for crimes since 1989 under al-Bashir's rule; and establish an investigation into the attacks on protesters on June 3, which killed over 100 people according to independent doctors' groups.

But the charter does not contain benchmarks or consequences for failure to make any specific reforms or to ensure justice and accountability, Human Rights Watch said. It does not provide that the investigation into attacks on June 3 should be capable of leading to criminal prosecutions of those most responsible. It provides immunity for sovereign council members, including Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or "Hemeti," who is the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Burhan's deputy. By all accounts heard by Human Rights Watch researchers, the RSF has led most of the attacks on protesters since April, including on June 3.

In July, the attorney general announced findings of an investigation into the June 3 attack, claiming that 87 people had died, and finding that "rogue" RSF soldiers were responsible. Burhan denied ordering the crackdown, while Hemeti announced arrests of some suspects. However, Sudanese activists and protesters rejected the findings and have continued to call for accountability for the killings. The RSF has a well-documented record of abuses committed in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile.

Incoming leaders should ensure that the new investigation committee has the authority to thoroughly investigate the crimes, with the capacity to preserve evidence, and that it is mandated to produce a public report that identifies those most responsible for the crimes and recommends ways to hold them accountable. They should request external involvement from all appropriate international bodies, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Council.

Leaders should also prioritize Sudan's compliance with international human rights law, including ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention against Torture. Sudanese rights groups lobbied the former regime for years to ratify these treaties, without success. Since April, the TMC has insisted on trying al-Bashir domestically instead of handing him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The domestic trial, which began on August 19, on charges of corruption and money laundering, has no bearing on those crimes and the widespread human rights violations for which he has been charged. These national proceedings should not overshadow the pressing need for accountability for gross human rights violations and atrocity crimes in Darfur and elsewhere.

Sudan's new leadership can demonstrate a commitment to respect for the rule of law and human rights by ensuring that al-Bashir is surrendered to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said. Sudanese authorities have an obligation to surrender al-Bashir to the ICC, which they can only overturn if they make a successful legal challenge to the ICC that would remove its jurisdiction on the basis that there are credible domestic proceedings for the same alleged underlying crimes.

"With such enormous tasks ahead, the new transitional authorities should ensure specific, measurable work plans to achieve progress, and the regional and international actors watching Sudan should do their part to monitor and support the process and promote justice," Henry said. "If this new chapter is to bring real and sustained transformation, it needs to be founded on the respect of human rights without discrimination and justice for serious violations, not continued impunity."

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