Transitional justice is key to building peace and stability in Sudan after years of impunity, especially in light of the current conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, writes Abdelmageed Yahya.

Transitional justice is a moral imperative and prerequisite for building peace and stability in Sudan, which has been side-lined in peace agreements between successive governments and rebels in the country for years. Transitional justice cannot be ignored yet again in efforts to resolve the current conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), even if it is a politically volatile issue.

For many peace actors, the 2011 split of Sudan into two countries – Sudan and South Sudan – was the direct result of the failure of post-independence governments, whether military or civilian, to engage in state-building, answer the question of justice for past abuses, and address the socioeconomic and political marginalisation of peripheral regions.

This failure also contributed to the escalation of war in the South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur regions of Sudan, which has reportedly resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people and the forced migration of over 2.7 million since 2003. About 65 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are women and children who have settled in more than 338 IDP locations across the Darfur region, the majority of which are less than 60 km from their place of origin. The conflict has also had a severe impact on 2.8 million nomads in the area, the 1.5 million Sudanese in the diaspora, and the 800,000 refugees who are mostly in neighbouring Chad and South Sudan.

Responding to this situation, participants in the Sudanese revolution of December 2018 – which adopted the slogan ‘Freedom, Peace and Justice’ – asserted that justice is one of the country’s most pressing issues. The revolution succeeded in forcing regime change and provided a promising opportunity to pursue transitional justice for past abuses. The need for justice also came to the fore after the June 2019 Khartoum massacre, in which the armed forces of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council, headed by the RSF, killed at least 120 peaceful protestors.

The Juba Peace Agreement of October 2020 included provisions for transitional justice, including reforming the state’s institutions and public services, including military institutions; rebuilding trust and peaceful management of disputes; nationalising the foundations of societal peace; and deepening the values of forgiveness and reconciliation between the local societal components and all the people of Sudan. The agreement raised awareness of transitional justice and brought it into national discourse.

When the military coup occurred in October 2021, it hampered existing transitional justice efforts and created new issues that needed to be addressed. Military and civilian parties signed a framework agreement in December 2022, with general principles that encompassed putting an end to impunity and holding accountable those who committed genocide and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including sexual violence and other forms of violence against women. However, many argue that this agreement ended up triggering the armed conflict between the SAF and the RSF in April 2023.

This new war has brought massive destruction to the political and socioeconomic infrastructure of Sudan and exacerbated regional conflicts. It has led to new violations, including high rates of rape and sexual violence against women, mass killings of civilians, ethnic cleansing, looting and burning of homes and land, looting and destruction of markets, and hate speech. Women always represent the most affected group in Sudan’s conflicts, and reports are surfacing of atrocities and other violations against women and girls in Khartoum and Darfur, especially Geneina.

This violence and the prevalence of hate speech are close to destroying the viability of the country. The Sudanese people are shocked by the unprecedented brutality of the violations being committed against civilians on the basis of their ethnicity, regional identity, sociocultural background and economic status. The collapse of security instruments, militarisation of civilians, absence of justice and inability of government institutions to gain control of the state have led to the collapse of social institutions, an increase in community-based conflicts, and the destruction of the social fabric.

Transitional justice is even more of a priority for survivors/victims of past and ongoing human rights violations in this context, especially IDPs, refugees and women. Yet, the evolving conditions in the country are impairing access to peace, justice and reparations. Those accused of committing crimes against humanity since the independence of Sudan in 1956 continue to enjoy impunity. Political actors and decision makers still do not have a clear understanding of transitional justice, despite its prevalence in public discourse, and are not serious about developing a Sudanese model of it. There is widespread public mistrust in state institutions and their ability and willingness to ensure justice. This mistrust is in part the result of ineffective public consultations and a lack of transparent information-sharing in earlier transitional justice efforts.

Many stakeholders have continued to raise awareness of the definition, core measures and policy requirements of transitional justice among Sudanese, particularly victims/survivors. Listening to different stakeholders, and victims/survivors in particular, in future transitional justice efforts would be a stepping stone for peacemaking and peacebuilding. Pivotal in developing a Sudanese transitional justice model is benefitting from the country’s accumulated experience and rich history of using customary laws that are widely trusted and respected by the population. In fact, there is significant interest in and demand for the use of customary justice mechanisms as a component of transitional justice.

Balancing public demand for rapid action with ensuring transparency and inclusive consultations on any proposed transitional justice measures will be a crucial challenge in Sudan, given that we are dealing with complicated, sensitive and multidimensional issues under conditions of prevalent hate speech, racism and regionalism, and feelings of marginalisation, which have worsened with the current war.

Due to ongoing atrocities, the continuation of historical injustices and impunity, and the fragility of the social fabric, transitional justice should be the first national project of the post-war government. This project must be contextual, consultative and coordinated. It should include monetary compensation to victims/survivors, restitution of property and land, rehabilitation that includes psychological support and collective reparations, and symbolic reparations in the form of memorialisation and apologies. For success, the Sudanese judiciary and criminal justice system require capacity building and alignment with the International Criminal Court. A balance between restorative and punitive justice that is specific to the Sudanese context must be struck. Overall, ensuring a combination of accountability, reparation, truth seeking and guarantees of non-repetition will be crucial.

Abdelmageed M. Yahya
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Abdelmageed M. Yahya is Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Peace and Human Rights Center, Open University of Sudan.

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