Sudan: Special Online Briefing with Special Envoy for Sudan Tom Perriello

Families arrive in South Sudan after fleeing fighting in Sudan.

London — MODERATOR:  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s London International Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world for this on-the-record briefing with U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Tom Perriello.  Special Envoy Perriello will discuss urgent U.S. efforts for peace and an immediate end to the war and humanitarian crisis in Sudan. We are pleased to offer this briefing with simultaneous translation into Arabic.  We therefore ask everyone to keep this in mind and speak slowly.  We will have some opening remarks from our speaker and then he will take questions from participating journalists. I will now turn it over to Special Envoy Perriello for his opening remarks.  Sir, the floor is yours.

MR PERRIELLO:  Thank you, Liz, and I want to thank all of you for being on this call, because the scale of the crisis in Sudan has not been met by global attention and, frankly, media attention, whether that’s in the Western, African, or Arab world press and beyond.  So all of you being here means a great deal to me.

My name is Tom Perriello.  I am the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, and it was a tremendous honor to be asked by President Biden and Secretary Blinken to take on this role at a time of incredible urgency.  On this trip we have been visiting with Sudanese across Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Egypt, as well as meeting with our African counterparts and now visiting with our counterparts in Saudi Arabia and finally the United Arab Emirates.  And the Sudanese people could not be more unified and clear.  They want an end to this war now.  They want full humanitarian access.  And they want their future back.  And it is our job, all of us who care about the people of Sudan – around the world, around this neighborhood and beyond – to be urgently seized with the project of ending this war, preventing the worst of this famine, and giving the Sudanese people a chance to determine their own future.

And with that, I look forward to your questions and the conversation ahead.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Special Envoy Perriello.  We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.  Our first question is a pre-submitted question and it comes from Juanita Sallah of Business and Financial Times in Ghana.  And Juanita asks:  “What are the priorities of your diplomatic engagements in Sudan, especially with the spillover effects across the Horn of Africa?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Thank you for the question, Juanita.  The goal of this mission, and I think the goal we have found of all the Sudanese civilians we’ve spoken with and our counterparts in governments around the region, is peace – and peace now.  This is an urgent situation where we are seeing signs of famine already across the country of Sudan.  We have known about horrific atrocities, particularly against women and children, forced recruitment, even slavery in this conflict that must end.  And now we’re seeing a situation as we head into the rainy season that could quickly get much worse, and the humanitarian crisis is already at a breaking point.

So the only true solution here is to silence the guns, and that is going to require not only General Burhan and General Hemedti to reach that deal but also for all of us across the region to be partners in peace.  And particularly for those who have been fueling the conflict rather than fueling the peace efforts, we need that alignment now.  And I think that’s the message first and foremost that we’ve been hearing from the Sudanese people and certainly something we’ve been hearing from our counterparts across the region.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Mohamed Maher from Al-Masry Al-Youm in Egypt, and Mohamed asks:  “How does the United States plan to coordinate with global and regional partners to advance peace efforts in Sudan?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Thank you.  Oh, you’re not throwing it to – sorry, yes.  Thank you for the question, Mohamed.  We believe that the – we have seen several really important efforts across the region.  And the role that the Saudis, Saudi Arabia has played in hosting the Jeddah talks, I think, can be an area that brings together pieces that have been emerging in Cairo and in Manama and other places.  But we need to restart formal talks.  We hope that will happen as soon as Ramadan is over, that those are inclusive talks of key regional actors as well as key voices from the inside, and that we can reach that agreement not just to end the violence but to really open up to full humanitarian access.

So we are looking forward to, hopefully, a restart of those talks as soon as Ramadan has ended.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next, we’ll take a question live from Mahmoud Abobakr with Asharq News.  Mahmoud, please ask your question.

MR PERRIELLO:  I’m not hearing a question if one’s being asked.

MODERATOR:  I’m not either.  Let’s come back to —

MR PERRIELLO:  Elizabeth, I think you’re muted now.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll come back to Mahmoud.  And we’ll take a pre-submitted question from Jamal Badawi from the Independent Arabia.  And Jamal asks:  “There are too many initiatives and proposals to resolve the crisis.  How do you view this problem?”

MR PERRIELLO:  We see it as an opportunity.  I think the fact that there have been many different initiatives reflects the fact that there is growing concern across the region and a new sense of urgency.  Frankly, we wish that urgency had been there before, but the clear message I’ve been getting, again, from Uganda to Ethiopia to Kenya to Djibouti to Egypt, is everybody understands that this crisis is barreling towards a point of no return.  And that means everybody needs to put whatever differences aside and be united in finding a solution to this conflict.

I’m speaking to Sudanese every day who’ve just escaped and describe, quote, “hell on Earth,” talk about imminent death.  We have a communications blackout in many areas that means people haven’t been able to speak to family members in ages or get good data on how many people are dying of malnourishment.

So what we need to do is take the greatest hits, the lessons from these initiatives, see it as a good thing that so many people want to try to solve this conflict, bring that together back into formal talks and get this war ended.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll now go back to Mahmoud from Asharq for his question.  Mahmoud, please go ahead.  Please go ahead, Mahmoud.  Your line is open.  Okay.  We will take —

MR PERRIELLO:  Mahmoud, you might try putting the question into the chat as well if that’s another approach.  Liz.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll take a pre-submitted question, this time from Thamo Kapisa from SABC Channel Africa in South Africa, and Thamo asks:  “Several women have come forward in the past week about abuses being inflicted on them by the RSF because of their ethnicity.  What is the U.S. reaction and response to this?”

MR PERRIELLO:  The treatment of women in Sudan is a horrific situation.  It has been since the beginning of this conflict.  And sadly, we’ve seen that before.  My first time in Sudan in 2004 was during the genocide in Darfur, where we saw both ethnic and gender-based violence, and sometimes combined.  We know that we’ve had moments where populations like the Masalit have been targeted, and we know that women have borne the brunt of this through sexual violence and targeting and also through the way in which the humanitarian crisis continues to play out.

I spoke to a woman recently who escaped and described how women would have to go out to the field to find any amount of food for their family and often be raped, come home, and have to go back to that same field the next day.  These abuses are horrific.  They not only need to end, but we need accountability for those who have conducted these atrocities and those who’ve had command-and-control structure over the people committing the atrocities.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And Mahmoud has typed his question into the chat.  He asks:  “Do you have plans to meet with the leadership of the army or with the RSF?”

MR PERRIELLO:  We think it’s important to engage with all voices and we certainly think the leaders of those forces have a key role to play, and I think where we see partners who are ready to be part of the peace process, that is a very important thing.  I think General Burhan in particular has a role to play in ensuring humanitarian access and a peace process goes forward.  We know that there is opportunities there to build that.

And the thing is, I think there’s alignment here about the decide for a unified Sudan, for a strong, unified professional army, and for a Sudan where the Sudanese people get to determine their future.  And we’ll be sitting down with all actors who are prepared to help make that future a reality.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll next take a question from the chats, and it comes from Sara Elareifi, a journalist at the Sudan Broadcasting Corporation.  And Sara asks:  “Has the recent imposition of sanctions by the U.S. administration had any direct impact or change in the trajectory of the war?”

MR PERRIELLO:  We believe that they have.  We think the sanctions have been significant, and both on individuals but also on some of the banks and other entities that have been supporting those individuals.  And I think all of those involved in this conflict, both inside Sudan and outside Sudan, are very aware about the U.S. willingness to ensure that there is a cost to those who are supporting and conducting these horrific abuses of rape, starving the population, other atrocities, and an effort to work with those who instead are trying to build a better and more peaceful Sudan.

Do we think that it has ended the war?  No, and that is why these peace efforts are important.  But it is also important for those actors to know there are consequences of doing this horrific – these horrific atrocities.  And this comes back to where I started, which is there’s really been so little coverage of this horrific situation.  It is growing, and I think the more the world pays attention and the region pays attention to the horrible things happening to the Sudanese people, that also is something that will be a consequence and reinforce both the sanctions that have already happened and those sanctions that could come if this kind of – these kind of horrors continue.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll take a related pre-submitted question on sanctions, and it comes from Aya Sayed of Roayah News.  And Aya asks:  “The U.S. announced sanctions on militia leaders who committed crimes against Sudanese civilians, but it’s clear that those sanctions didn’t stop the atrocities.  So what other measures could the U.S. adopt to hold accountable those who committed war crimes?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Well, it’s not just the United States.  I think the whole world has to be part of this accountability process, and a lot of it also will rest on what the Sudanese people decide as part of their future.  Certainly there are ongoing investigations that could end up in the International Criminal Court or other areas, and I think people really want to see a ceasefire now and a peace process.  And there are so many questions that the people of Sudan will need to be deciding over the coming years.

But the U.S. has, I think, been a constructive player in putting consequences on the table for those who’ve been committing these atrocities, and we’ve made clear that those certainly could continue.  And we believe it has deterred some actors, both inside and out.  But we’re not satisfied, and we won’t be, satisfied until we see an end to this conflict and a chance for the Sudanese people to return, for those inside to feel safe, and for there to be a return to the very inspiring vision of a Sudan that was being built just a few years ago based on the inspiring and courageous work of Sudanese civilians and demanding that they control their future.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll take a pre-submitted question from Mahamout Issa Terda Mahamat from Tribune Echos in Chad.  And Mahamout asks:  “What are the priorities of the U.S. administration in Sudan?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Number one is get a peace deal that ends the violence, immediately ensures full humanitarian access to all citizens, and returns the country to the civilian transition process that the Sudanese people risked so much to create just a couple of years ago.  We believe that future is possible, and we think that it is something that really is what we’ve heard from the Sudanese people.  There’s some chatter now about there being a lot of disagreement among the Sudanese.  And it’s true that when – in any country, when you get to a level – a certain level of politics, we will always have active disagreements that happen over many years.  But underneath that, there’s an incredible unity among the Sudanese people about what they want.  I’ve met with over a hundred Sudanese from across all regions in civil society on this trip, and every single one wants the same thing, and that’s how we’re informing our U.S. policy – an end to the war, the access to basic humanitarian goods, and the dignity to define a future that includes a strong, unified Sudan armed force going forward as well as an opportunity for people to determine their future.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll next go to a pre-submitted question from a freelance journalist in South Sudan, Richard Sultan, who asks:  “In the case of future peace talks between the warring parties, will you include their outside backers?”

MR PERRIELLO:  We have been very clear that we think that peace talks should be inclusive.  That includes making sure that our African partners, both key African leaders in the region and our multilateral actors, including both IGAD and the African Union, should be part.  We also think that our colleagues here in the Gulf states – I’m in Saudi Arabia now, going to United Arab Emirates – need to be part of conversations about the future.

And so we do believe that this next round of formal talks should be inclusive, but it also has to be people who are truly serious about ending the war and handing the country back to the Sudanese people and its future.  And we believe if we can get that group together, it can help end this war in a matter of weeks, not months.  But it is going to take a much higher level of political will among many of us, and it can’t be the U.S. alone – and shouldn’t be.  But we are hoping that all actors, including those who have been involved in Sudan historically and today, need to be part of the solution.

MODERATOR:  Our next question is a pre-submitted question and it comes from Charbel Barakat from Aljarida newspaper in Kuwait.  And Charbel asks:  “What is the U.S. Department of State’s assessment of the impact of Iranian presence in the Sudan conflict?”

MR PERRIELLO:  There’s been significant public reporting about Iran’s role in this, and certainly the message we’ve gotten from the Sudanese people is that this is not something that they want to see – this kind of external engagement – and including with some extremist elements that had been present in the country before.  I think that is something that is of great concern.  It’s certainly something we will monitor and it’s something we’ve heard both from our Sudanese conversations and across the region, that this is just an – one example of something that could take an already disastrous situation and be fuel on the fire that helps turn this into even a regional war.

And I think that’s actually part of what has increased the political will of leaders in the region to realize this is a crisis we need to come together and work with the Sudanese to solve.  And I think that is everything from the level of the atrocities, the proximity to famine that we get closer to each day – some think we are already at that level – and also this increased role of external actors that are definitely not the future that the Sudanese people want to see.

MODERATOR:  Next, we’ll go to a question in the chat from Simon Marks of Bloomberg News.  And Simon asks:  “How concerned are you about hardline Islamist factions of Sudanese society joining SAF’s ranks as well as the involvement of Iran in backing the army?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Well, our starting point is what do the Sudanese people want?  And what is very clear: there is consensus.  For all of the chattering-class chatter about divisions, there could not be more consensus among the Sudanese people about what they want.  They want an end to this war.  They want a silencing of the guns.  They want full humanitarian access.  Those who’ve escaped want the ability to return, and they want to return to a civilian transition that gets them to the kind of democracy and future that they all want.

And it’s something that benefits the whole region.  The idea of a stable and inclusive democratic Sudan with a strong, unified army is something that can be an anchor of stability in the region.  And instead we are hurtling right now towards a situation where more and more actors appear to be getting involved, where we could see a return of extremist elements that the Sudanese people, with great courage and over much time, had mostly eradicated from the area.  And I think this is something where all of us need to come together and try to bring this war to an end, first and foremost to prevent the current humanitarian catastrophe and the violence, but also to make sure that Sudan gets to reclaim that future that they deserve.

MODERATOR:  Next we’ll go to a pre-submitted question, and it comes from Suzy Elgeneidy Alahram in Egypt.  And Suzy asks:  “How can the United States cooperate with Egypt and other countries in the region to deal with the food shortage and the bad humanitarian situation?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Oh, we – I had a very positive visit with our Egyptian counterparts just a couple of days ago, and of course they are a country that knows how serious this crisis is because they have already taken in half a million refugees from this crisis.  They understand what it means to have instability not just on the border, but really across the Red Sea area.  And I sensed a deep seriousness among the Egyptian Government about bringing this war to an end and ensuring that there is a stable transition forward, and I think that we can be constructive partners and we have said for a while that they need to be part of the resumption of talks going forward.

MODERATOR:  Next we’ll go to a question in the chat, and it comes from Mohamed Osman from the BBC.  And Mohammed asks:  “Do you plan to speak to Islamists, including NCP party, who are active in the fighting?”

MR PERRIELLO:  Well, we’re hearing from a wide range of folks, and I think that’s a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people in this context.  And I think we are trying to hear from people all over the country about what they want.  In general, I think that there is a lot of concern about leaders from previous regimes coming back in.  But I think there’s also an interest in putting together the elements that get us to a peace process.

So in this round it’s been important for me to primarily be hearing from women and youth and so many of the courageous people who’ve been standing up emergency response rooms and other efforts to keep people alive, their neighbors and friends back home, some of whom they haven’t heard from in forever.  And I think there’s an interest here in not letting this be an opportunity for any elements to take advantage of this to reclaim power, but instead to have this be something where the Sudanese people are coming together to reclaim the trajectory that they were on before.

And I think we should be informed in this process first and foremost by those voices from across Sudanese communities, and I think that that is something where we have a strong sense of the fact that they want these horrors to stop.  We saw just another report on CNN, I think it was CNN yesterday or two days ago, about forced recruitment of men and boys by the RSF at a systematic level.  We have heard people coming out of Darfur describing it as hell on Earth.  And this is what we need to focus on, is what ends that, not which elements want to try to be part of a power-sharing arrangement or get back in power.  We need to be empowering the Sudanese people to create a process forward where they can answer a bunch of the questions that should really be on the Sudanese people to decide, and not be part of this peace process.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question is from the chat, and it comes from Khalid Elnour from Sudanese ELAFF:  “You mentioned that the United States will negotiate with all active parties, but you previously said in press statements that you will not communicate with members of the former regime and Islamists.  How can the war be stopped without negotiating with them?”

MR PERRIELLO:  I think that they – that there’s – there are many ways to do that.  I think we see an opportunity right now where the leadership of RSF and SAF can come together and find that agreement.  I think we have regional actors who can come together and help the Sudanese people demand the future that they want.  And I think that those who are meddling around with – as extremist or other parties are not constructive to this process.  I don’t think they’re serious about a peace process.

So where we see people who are serious about being part of a peaceful and democratic future for Sudan, we will absolutely want to engage.  But where people are exploiting this opportunity and exploiting Sudanese people, those elements will be counter to.  So I think some of this is going to be about seeing the behavior of all the actors, but I think this is a moment that people are going to see negotiations accelerate because we’re getting so close to a crisis.  And I think it will be an opportunity to see who’s serious about peace and who’s serious about that future that the Sudanese people want and deserve.

MODERATOR:  So we have time for one more question, and we’ll go to Aya Sayed of Roayah News, who asks:  “What are the prospects of reaching a political settlement for this conflict?  Can you bring all parties to the negotiating table?”

MR PERRIELLO:  We believe now is the time to do that.  We hope that we will be in a position to relaunch formal talks soon.  We think those are likely to be coming out of the Jeddah process, but also drawing on lessons and progress that has been made in Manama and in Cairo and in Addis and in IGAD and other elements.  And we think this is a crucial time for those elements to come together.

And I think if there’s any seed of hope from this trip – and certainly this trip has been very tough because we understand just how horrific the situation is for the Sudanese people – but if there is a sliver of hope, it’s that that sense of urgency seems to be shared so strongly, certainly by the Sudanese people, but also by our African counterparts and our Gulf counterparts.  And we believe that gives us a new opportunity to find a path to peace, and a peace that is reflective of what the Sudanese people want.  And we think that there is – that this is the time to do that.  Every week we wait without a peace deal makes that the potential for famine more protracted, and the atrocities that we know that have been documented continue.

So we do believe this is the time for inclusive talks.  We do believe that there is an opportunity given some of the changing dynamics that are there to have room for a peace deal that could hold and provide a path forward that meets the interests of the Sudanese people.

MODERATOR:  And that concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Special Envoy Perriello for joining us, and I would like to thank all of our journalists for participating.

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