UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk concludes his official visit to Sudan
"The struggle for justice of survivors and families of victims is crucial for the future of the country"
Good evening, As-Salaam-Alaikum, and thank you all for coming.
As some of you may be aware, I took up the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights one month ago and Sudan is my first official country visit. I am grateful to the authorities for facilitating my visit and for the frank, in-depth discussions we have had.
I prioritised Sudan because at this pivotal moment in the country’s history, I wanted to express my solidarity with the people of Sudan. To bring a strong message: human rights have to be at the core of the transition.
The people of Sudan have been an inspiration to so many of us in far-flung parts of the world. When the people – in particular the youth and the women of Sudan – took to the streets in December 2018 to claim their human rights and unseat a 30-year-long dictatorship, we followed them in awe, joined the momentum for change and the hope for a brighter, more peaceful, more just future for the people of this amazing country.
Important progress between 2019 and 2021 towards legal and institutional reform was interrupted by the 25 October 2021 military takeover. And we now find ourselves at a decisive fork in the road.
As political negotiations continue towards a framework for a new transition, I urge all those involved to set aside entrenched positions, power games, and their personal interests, and to focus on the common interests of the Sudanese people.
To take bold steps towards consensus. To use the protection of human rights for all the people of Sudan as the driving force.
The future of the country depends on it.
A few facts make clear how much is at stake:
- Half of the population earns only about USD2 a day. The cost of electricity has increased 25-fold in the past year. The price of bread has doubled, as have fuel prices. The economy is in freefall, with serious consequences for the most vulnerable people in Sudan.
- In some parts of the country – including in Darfur, Blue Nile and Kordofan, there has been an escalation in armed clashes and attacks against certain communities. Historical grievances, competition over land, water and other resources, and the flow of weapons are among the factors driving inter-ethnic clashes. Weak State capacity – and in some cases complicity – is exacerbating the insecurity. Impunity is fuelling it. Tribal tensions are also resulting in clashes in East Sudan.
- Sudan is one of the countries likely to be heavily affected by climate change, and one of the least ready to respond to them. Climate change is a threat multiplier that could inflame tensions over land and resources further, if not carefully mitigated.
- There is a desperate humanitarian situation – one-third of Sudanese people are in need of humanitarian assistance. A staggering number. The number of internally displaced people is 3.7 million, with more than 211,000 displaced since the beginning of this year. Seven million children are out of school. Rising levels of food insecurity are also deeply alarming.
- There are almost daily protests by young people, demanding that authority be handed over to civilians, and for peace, freedom and justice. There is a hunger for – and a need for – good governance and a new social contract between State institutions and the population, grounded in human rights.
The situation is grim – but the tools to chisel away at some of these challenges are within reach:
The Juba Peace Agreement, signed in October 2020 between the then Transitional Government, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of 10 armed groups and alliances, and the Sudan Liberation Army, was a step forward in the country’s trajectory towards peace. It provides important commitments on issues like power-sharing, gender equality, resource-sharing, accountability, transitional justice, as well as the return of refugees and internally displaced people. This Agreement needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency.
An ambitious National Plan for the Protection of Civilians is another key tool to deploy, to provide much-needed security in some of the most volatile parts of the country.
There are also many traditional practices, and local dispute-resolution mechanisms and peace initiatives to draw from and encourage.
In this land so rich with natural resources, arable land and a young population, there is much wealth. This wealth is for the people of Sudan – current and future generations. They all need to benefit from it – not just the few. Its good governance and management are therefore a top priority.
And, importantly, there is an energetic, vibrant civil society that has a vision for the Sudan of the future, to build the country with the meaningful participation of all communities, for the benefit of all. This is a country with an incredibly young population, with a median age of just 18.9 years. In my time here, I got a glimpse of their desire for change, and the potential among young people to take their country’s future forward. They live and breathe human rights.
One of the biggest challenges, though, is to build trust between the authorities and the people. Following decades of repression, and the tumultuous last few years, trust in institutions – government and judicial institutions – is low. State institutions need to be representative of the people, accessible by the people and work for the people. This means real inclusivity and meaningful participation of people from across the country, including women and in particular the most vulnerable. In my discussions with the authorities, I consistently highlighted this need to take trust-building measures to earn the confidence of the people. I stressed that respect for human rights builds trust.
During my four days in the country, drawing upon the work of my Office here as well as the UN Integrated Transitional Assistance Mission in Sudan, I was able to discuss these and many other issues with a wide range of actors.
I was able to meet with several high-level officials, including the Chairperson of the Sovereign Council, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Deputy Chairperson, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, as well as the acting ministers of foreign affairs, justice, the interior, the attorney-general, national human rights mechanisms, and others on Sunday and Monday. In El Fashir, North Darfur, yesterday, I met with high-level regional authorities, including the Chairperson of the Darfur Regional Authority, and the Governors of North Darfur and West Darfur states.
I also met with many civil society representatives and victims of human rights violations in Khartoum and in El Fashir. Their tireless work across a variety of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights issues was palpable. The issues they raised – and that my Office has documented – are serious.
We have seen the excessive use of force against protesters in Khartoum, including the use of live ammunition. According to our own and medical sources, since the military takeover at least 119 people have been killed and more than 8,050 sustained injuries – many life-changing.
One woman told us that her cousin, a young footballer, was shot in the leg and may never be able to play again.
One rickshaw driver told me how he can no longer support his family after he was shot at a protest by security forces, underwent nine surgeries and had to have his leg amputated. I also heard from witnesses and others in relation to the 3 June 2019 protest sit-in, where more than 100 were killed and many remain missing. I insisted with the authorities that as a matter of urgency, and in a transparent manner, accountability must be served.
Ahead of the protests planned for tomorrow, I call on the relevant authorities clearly to instruct security forces to respond to the demonstrations in line with human rights laws and standards. People have the right to peaceful assembly, and the State has an obligation to ensure this right can be exercised without fear of being shot at.
Rather than detain protesters, I have asked for the police to establish a way to engage with the communities, to accept the fact that they have legitimate demands, and I urged them not to see demonstrators as adversaries.
There are also deeply worrying reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, as well as men and boys. My Office has verified 19 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, mostly committed by the police in the context of the protests. There may be more, but victims of such violence often do not come forward due to deep social stigma, lack of faith in the justice system and fear of reprisals. The lack of trust in institutions, including judicial bodies, means impunity for such violations. To date, I understand none of the perpetrators in these 19 incidents has been brought to justice.
In the Darfur region, civil society and internally displaced people highlighted the rampant impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses, including by the Rapid Support Forces. My Office has documented 11 large-scale deadly clashes leaving at least 1,091 people dead since January 2021. Attacks by mainly the Arab Rizigat tribe against non-Arab communities have resulted in the highest number of casualties. We have also documented sexual violence. The response of the authorities to early warning signs of violence has been weak, feeding into perceptions that the authorities are unwilling to protect civilians belonging to different tribes.
One young man told me his ambition is just to survive.
With lack of schooling, adequate drinking water, the spread of diseases and the lack of prospects, he said: “I don’t know what to do on a daily basis and I cannot have any aspirations.” I fear he speaks for many young people, and it breaks my heart.
Also in the Blue Nile State, since July 2022, there have been deadly incidents resulting in the killing of at least 441 people. And in the Kordofan States, we have recorded the killing of more than 150 people.
The communities are asking for security, to be able to return to their homes and their lands and for a justice system that works for them. I fear the cycles of violence will continue and call on the authorities to heed the warning signs and take immediate measures to stem the violence, in line with their international human rights obligations.
A key thread through almost every interaction I had during my four days in Sudan was the need for accountability and justice.
Transitional justice is never easy and accountability has many facets to it, particularly in a context as complex as that in Sudan, with the entrenched impunity for human rights violations over decades. It is crucial that there is acknowledgement and recognition of the harms done to victims, that the plight of the survivors is properly recognised, honoured and compensated. And it is crucial that serious violations of human rights are prosecuted and perpetrators brought to justice – regardless of their affiliations. Impunity breeds further violence. It must be addressed head on.
The struggle for justice of survivors and families of victims is crucial for the future of the country – in addition to being their fundamental right in their individual cases.
Any transition is delicate, and in Sudan, we are at a particularly delicate stage of this transition. I call on all sides involved in the political process to go the extra mile, to work towards prompt restoration of civilian rule in the country, and bring to an end the uncertainty that has left much of the population in peril.
What will also be key is the support of the international community. We will need all hands on deck to prepare now for “the day after” – both in Sudan and at the international level.
For our part, the UN Human Rights Office is ready to continue working with various actors in Sudan to strengthen the State’s capacity to promote and protect human rights and respect for the rule of law, to support legal reforms, to monitor and report on the human rights situation, and to support the strengthening of civic and democratic space. My Office is ready to share our expertise in the area of transitional justice, based on models used and lessons learned from such processes in other countries.
Sudan is the land where the two Niles meet. The confluence of these two tributaries into one mighty river is a powerful image of unity, combined strength and great potential – my deepest hopes for the next phase of Sudan’s transition.
Thank you, Shukran Jazeelan.
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