Michigan Law professor on listening to the people and other lessons from Sudan

By Bob Needham
Michigan Law

Conditions in Sudan have deteriorated drastically since the outbreak of widespread fighting.

“The destruction is just unreal,” Professor from Practice Susan Page said in a recent interview. “Aerial bombardment, strafing, kidnapping, raping, looting, pillaging. People have been sheltering in their homes or in offices and trying to get to safer locations.

“The prices of commodities have skyrocketed, for what little is available. In many locations, there's no electricity and no running water. The internet is down. Armed men are occupying and destroying people's homes and ransacking clinics, university buildings, businesses, and religious centers. They are even bombing the hospitals, because one side accuses the other side of occupying the hospital. It will take years to rebuild.”

Page has a unique perspective on the conflict. She served as the first US ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan from 2011 to 2014; served on the mediation team that helped to end Sudan’s second civil war with the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement; and has held other senior diplomatic roles, including as assistant secretary-general of the United Nations in Haiti.

The current fighting in Sudan has its roots in mass civilian protests that began in December 2018, ultimately leading to the ouster and arrest of longtime Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir. The country began a transitional process toward the formation of a civilian-led democratic government in 2019, but in October 2021, the military faction in the civilian-military ruling council—the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti—staged a coup and took power as the country’s de facto leader and deputy, respectively. Eventually, the two men agreed to a new framework and timeline to transition to civilian rul

Now those two forces are fighting each other, with the Sudanese people caught in the middle. Page recently answered a few questions about the current status of the conflict.

1. With the heart of the conflict being two military factions, is there popular support for either side? 

It largely depends on how you define popular. Since the October 2021 coup by Burhan and Hemedti, they have been running things. But in 2020, the Juba Peace Agreement was signed. Some of the various rebel factions from around the country signed the Juba accords and also supported one or the other, or both, military leaders. But that’s not popular support of the kind that was behind the peaceful protest movement that ousted Bashir.

2. Where does the rule of law stand in Sudan today? Does it have any meaning at all? 

It hasn't meant anything since the October 2021 coup, since that violated the constitutional interim arrangement that had been set. Yet governments, including the United States, continued to work with these two generals. Certainly at this point, I don't see how one can say that there is any rule of law. 

No one is being arrested and held, at least no one who is committing violations of international humanitarian law or any Sudanese laws. On the other hand, people who have been picked up and put in jail under false pretenses, such as peaceful protesters, are not being let go.

The Jeddah Declaration that was signed recently included an agreement not to target civilians, to allow and facilitate humanitarian activities, and to allow safe passage for civilians to leave areas of active hostilities without interference. Essentially, the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan is just a restatement—and recognition—of their pre-existing and continuing core obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law: obligations that they should have already been following but weren't—and they still are not. 

3. Is there anything that the international legal community can and should be doing either to improve conditions on the ground or to help restart the  peace process? 

The first thing is, the fighting has to stop. So far, the ceasefires have not lasted for very long, no matter what they've committed to. So that's the first thing: holding people accountable for what they have committed to do. 

For the international community—legal and otherwise—that is no longer really on the ground, it’s helping the civilians who are bearing the brunt of what's going on and the humanitarian workers to deliver assistance amidst very dangerous conditions. That could mean helping with funding, where the funds can go directly to the local resistance committees and other local organizations. These local resistance committees are delivering real help in real time at great risk to themselves, all in order to help their fellow Sudanese. 

Additionally, the international community needs to pressure neighboring governments to eliminate visa requirements so that people fleeing war and destruction can enter Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, or South Sudan.

It’s also important to try to forestall countries that have different interests in Sudan to back off of supporting one side or one faction versus another, particularly if other Sudanese armed movements decide to align with Burhan or Hemedti. Once it's safe enough to do so, whoever begins to play a mediation role needs to listen to the voices of the population and not the armed groups holding the country hostage for their own ends. The Sudanese women, teachers, doctors, resistance committees, and union members who organized protests and provided food, shelter, blankets, evacuation routes, and other assistance before Bashir was ousted up to now, really do want to see democracy take hold in their country. The mediators must ensure that these groups of Sudanese play the key role in what happens in their country—and to help fulfill citizens’ objectives of civilian-led democracy and seeing the military out of politics.

People also want accountability. Bashir was arrested in 2019 and transferred to a prison hospital at the beginning of the current conflict. He's wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and could still be turned over to the ICC. For all of the others who have been implicated in and/or charged with various crimes, even outside if it's not an ICC-related issue, people want to see justice done. The legal community has a role to play in supporting accountability measures, including working to free Sudanese citizens unfairly arrested or tried for political reasons.  

4. Were there mistakes made in the original 2019 agreement that contributed to its ultimate failure, and that should be avoided in a new process? 

Yes. You had a lot of different players trying to figure out how to get to the agreement in 2019. Some of the failures were on the part of the United States and the United Nations, believing that these two generals would actually respect their commitments. 

At a minimum, countries that are going to be involved in any mediation need to actually understand the dynamics of the people involved, what their actual grievances are, what they really want. 

You have to have all of the people at the table. If they can't be physically at the table, they need to have their voices truly heard. 

Also, it can't just be the same power-sharing arrangements that worked to a certain extent in some places for a limited time. We constantly try to go back and put the status quo back together. It didn't work the first time; it's not going to work the second time or the third time or the fourth time.

We're not listening to the right people. Western countries should stop paying attention only to what they consider the formal, organized entities that are somehow sanctioned by the state. 

Not to say that we shouldn't be working with the people who actually have power, but we have to remember how militaries were formed in the first place and what they mean in different contexts. I know from the peace process for South Sudan that the international community is always very impatient. But wars take a long time to start, and they take a long time to end. 

It would behoove us to help the Sudanese to form the kind of government and structures that they actually want.

5. Do you see parallels or common threads with the recent unrest in Haiti or other situations around the globe? Looking at these other conflicts, are there any broader lessons that we should be taking away as a global community? 

While none of these situations are the same, with different factors and different players, in both Haiti and Sudan you had real popular movements wanting major change. And in those cases, those movements were really squashed. We had that also throughout the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia, as another example. 

Most of these conflicts demonstrate that we don't take an equal approach to all countries. All countries aren't equal anyway because of myriad factors. But if we really are concerned about values and democracy, it is messy and it's not easy. And as we can tell in our own country, it has to be constantly renewed and reinvigorated. It can't be neglected. It also can't be postponed forever. 

I think the world would do well to highlight what individuals in countries really would like to see for their own country and make sure that they have the agency, that the global community doesn't take that away from them. That's calling for justice, holding people to account for their actions. There are lots of local justice mechanisms in many countries and societies within those countries that can work really well. But if we don't listen to people, we don't know about them. If we don't know about them, we can't support them. 

More broadly, we should try to learn as much as possible about different countries and their history. If we are not even teaching our own history, how will we ever know someone else's history? 

People in other countries do know their history, and they know what it felt like to be colonized or neglected or deemed not to be even citizens. The more that we fail to recognize a people’s and country’s past, including our own nation’s possible role, the less we understand how people feel today. 

We really do them a disservice, because they do know—and they don't forget.


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