Sudan Faces Staggering Challenges to Democracy Despite Significant Advances on Political Transition, Special Representative Tells Security Council
Sudan’s Speaker Highlights Steps to Spur Economic Growth, Safeguard Human Rights
While Sudan is making significant advances in its political transition, the challenges ahead on its road to democracy are “staggering”, the new Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the country stressed in his first briefing to Security Council today, amid calls for the new United Nations Mission there to meaningfully engage the diverse expertise of civil society, particularly outside of Khartoum.
“I am confident that, with the unified support of this Council, we will be able to make a difference,” said Volker Perthes, who is also the Head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS). To that end, he said that, during his last five weeks in the country, he has met with the transitional Government and the Sovereign Council and heard from a wide range of Sudanese on their aspirations. He also has explained the mandate of UNITAMS and discussed how it can best offer support, on the basis of Council resolution 2524 (2020).
Outlining political progress, he said Sudan’s Sovereign Council was expanded on 4 February to include three signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement. A new Cabinet — formed under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 8 February — took on a political, rather than a technocratic, character, representing a broad coalition built on power-sharing between civilians, the military and armed movements.
While there are diverging views on the capability of this political Government, as it does not include all political forces, he said the representation of various political movements, along with their constituencies, has already allowed it to take difficult decisions — most recently, to float the currency exchange rate. The Government also agreed on five national priorities, he said: addressing socioeconomic conditions; implementing the Juba Peace Agreement and resuming negotiations with the two non-signatories; security sector reform and protection of civilians; international relations; and advancing the democratic transition.
At the same time, milestones envisioned in the Constitutional Document and the Juba Peace Agreement have yet to be reached, he said, notably the formation of the Transitional Legislative Council, with at least 40 per cent representation of women. “The swift formation of a diverse, inclusive and representative Legislative Council is critical to broaden the support for the political transition,” he stressed. Sudanese youth also have expressed frustration over their lack of participation in transitional institutions.
On the economic front, he said economic hardships — compounded by 304 per cent inflation, large trade and fiscal deficits, high unemployment and poverty — are posing a risk to Sudan’s stability. Further, 13.4 million people — one quarter of the population — are projected to require humanitarian assistance, including 2.5 million internally displaced persons, he said, recalling that Sudan hosts 1 million refugees, including 70,000 recent arrivals from Ethiopia. “The need for sustained financial and economic support to Sudan cannot be overstated,” he said.
Turning to the prospects for peace, he said the Government has given priority to advancing the peace process with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North‑Abdel Aziz al-Hilu faction and the Sudan Liberation Movement‑Abdul Wahid al-Nur faction. The recent meeting between the Sovereign Council Chairman, Lieutenant General Abdelfattah Burhan, with Mr. Al-Hilu, and the latter’s declaration to unilaterally extend the cessation of hostilities for five months are clear signals of a common interest in resuming engagement.
The protection of civilians, meanwhile, remains a top UNITAMS priority, he said, especially as intercommunal clashes in El Geneina, West Darfur, in January left 165 people dead and over 100,000 displaced. “Peace will only be sustainable if the root causes and ramifications of the conflicts are addressed,” he observed. Noting that UNITAMS is a small mission with a broad mandate, he said that together with the United Nations country team, it has adopted an integrated approach to maximize efforts and resources. The Sudan Peacemaking, Peacebuilding and Stabilization Programme will soon be launched to jointly implement resolution 2524 (2020).
As for regional engagement, he drew attention to the increasingly complex geopolitical environment — marked by tensions along the border with Ethiopia, and intermittent clashes between the two countries — expressing deep concern over reports of military operations in the border region. It is imperative that the international community build on Sudan and Ethiopia’s stated commitment for a diplomatic solution, he asserted.
Against that backdrop, Atul Khare, Under Secretary-General for Operational Support, reported on the drawdown of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), affirming that the mission is “on track in meeting the request of the Council to complete the withdrawal of all uniformed and civilian personnel by 30 June 2021.” Three of 18 contingents not being considered for a guard unit have been repatriated, while an accelerated drawdown schedule will ensure the departure of all uniformed personnel by end of May, allowing June as a buffer for any unexpected contingencies.
Drilling into specifics, he said that 24 per cent of 1,088 civilian personnel who will not be required for the mission’s liquidation have already been separated/repatriated. The international staff footprint is at a minimum, with nearly 70 per cent of the remaining 825 civilian personnel being national staff. UNAMID is seeking the Government’s cooperation in the timely processing of all administrative requirements, such as issuance of visas or customs/export approvals, to meet this aggressive drawdown timeline.
On the Council’s decision to retain a guard unit, he said the proposal for two formed police units takes into consideration the Government’s primary responsibility for the protection of United Nations premises in a post-mandate environment and envisages complementary Sudanese security forces deployment. The unit will be responsible for protecting UNAMID personnel, facilities and assets, strictly within the parameters of its sites. The Secretariat is preparing a detailed concept of operations and costing.
He said 5 of 15 team sites have been handed over to their rightful owners, with team sites — except El Fasher, Khartoum Liaison Office and Port Sudan — handed over by end of May. His visit to Sudan from 26 February to 7 March featured discussions on the handover of Sortony, North Darfur, the future civilian end-use of the Zalengei site with the State authorities, local communities and United Nations family in Central Darfur. He condemned the looting of Saraf Umrah, the first site handed over after the adoption of Council resolution 2559 (2021).
“Closing 14 team sites, separating and repatriating more than 7,000 uniformed and civilian personnel within the drawdown period of six months is in itself a complex task,” he emphasized, one made more challenging by a Government request to delay closure and handover of team sites in Kalma and Sortony planned respectively for 11 and 28 March. He said he remains concerned about the continued presence of uniformed personnel, a formed police unit in Kalma and a military contingent in Sortony, both from Pakistan.
Beyond the drawdown period, after 30 June, he said the outstanding liquidation tasks are no less challenging. The skeletal liquidation team will need to clean up and environmentally restore El Fasher, dispose of any remaining United Nations-owned equipment, close out outstanding contracts and financial commitments, and enable the administrative closure of the mission. He was assured by the leadership of Sudan — both at central and state levels — that all efforts will be deployed to make this drawdown and liquidation an example of effective collaboration between the United Nations and Sudan.
Rounding out the briefings, Kholood Khair, Managing Partner of Insight Strategy Partners, underscored the importance of gaining the buy-in of civil society during Sudan’s political transition. “This transition is not merely about the mechanics of civilian democratization, but about engendering the governance practices necessary for a vibrant democracy,” she stressed.
Over 30 years, the Sudanese people have seen violent and sustained attacks on civil space and attempts to control and coerce. Stressing that transitions “live and die” by the space that diverse civil society actors are able to carve out at national, subnational and local levels, she underscored the importance of engaging civil society intentionally across governance structures as the best chance Sudan has for creating change. “Let’s hope the third time is the charm,” she observed.
Noting that Sudanese civil society comprises a range of actors gathered under a large umbrella — from women’s rights groups to research centres to organizations fighting for justice — she said their reach is often vastly wider than that of the State and significantly deeper than that of national actors. Over the years, Sudan’s civil society has created more opportunity for engagement outside of the aid space and must now be given the room to operate as a key partner in the civilian transition.
Cautioning that UNITAMS has been up and running for just over two months, she drew attention to the potential difficulties it faces in navigating Sudan’s enduring power imbalance between broadly armed and civilian components. Within the unclear terms of engagement between the civilian Government and UNITAMS, due consideration must be given to what impact the Mission will have on civil society and the burgeoning social contract will be. “UNITAMS must learn the lessons of the missions that came before it, the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) and UNAMID,” she said.
Indeed, success will hinge on how UNITAMS will position itself as both a follow-on mission to UNAMID and one with a wholly different mandate, she said, with urgent priority in Darfur; on how it will build consensus across broad Government structures; how it will resist co-optation by various political interest — inside and outside the Government — and generally manage the great expectations placed on it by the Government and the public.
She went on to emphasize that civil society can bolster — even lead — the coordinated efforts to ensure protection for civilians. Meanwhile, crucial State‑building exercises — such as Constitution-making efforts, election-related initiatives and measures to ensure that the peace deal is viable — currently led by international actors, with civil society in a support role “should be the reverse”, she asserted.
For its part, the civilian Government should expand on its transition priorities, she said, and mitigate its capacity issues by working with civil society, particularly outside of Khartoum. It also should rely less on personality-driven politics and allow for greater representation of women, in line with its own quotas. UNITAMS, meanwhile, should consult regularly with diverse civil society actors across the country in its planning and strategizing during the transition. “UNITAMS should be a mission for the entire country,” she said.
In the ensuing dialogue, Council members expressed their support for Sudan’s civilian Government in ushering in a meaningful political transition and encouraged it to work with UNITAMS in identifying the new Mission’s priorities. Many welcomed the formation of a Cabinet and setting of strategic objectives as integral to laying the groundwork for peace and democratic change. Some also pressed armed groups outside the peace process to join these efforts as soon as possible, to maximize the chances for success.
The representative of the United Kingdom said that her country stands ready to work with Sudan as it continues its transition to democracy, including through a $456 million bridging loan to help it clear its arrears with the African Development Bank. Going forward, the Government must work with UNITAMS and its integrated country team to identify the Mission’s priorities and to swiftly finalize a Status of Mission Agreement. Turning to Darfur, where “significant obstacles lie ahead”, she echoed the Secretary-General’s call for the Government to expedite implementation of the National Plan for Civilian Protection, the Juba Peace Agreement and other efforts to reduce and prevent community-level violence. She went on to call on those still outside the peace process to re-engage without preconditions to swiftly conclude talks on a comprehensive peace deal.
The representative of Tunisia, also speaking for Kenya, Niger and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, expressed support for UNITAMS and welcomed political progress made by the Government of Sudan despite acute economic and humanitarian challenges. Emphasizing the paramount importance of key provisions on promotion of gender equality, protection of human rights and upholding the rule of law, he reiterated his call on all signatories to fully prioritize them. Calling on those who have not yet done so to join the peace process without delay, he also stressed the urgent need to tackle the root causes of conflict, as evidenced by the continuation of intercommunal violence. Serious challenges also lie ahead in accessing the financial and technical resources needed to implement the Juba Peace Agreement. Calling on Sudan’s partners to provide the assistance necessary, he underscored that the support of the Council and regional organizations, especially the African Union, is also crucial.
On the economic front, he welcomed the recent economic and financial reforms undertaken by the Sudanese Transitional Government despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. The authorities should continue those steps and Sudan’s partners should inject fresh international funding to address structural distortions and promote growth. “We maintain that sanctions do not align with the existing political situation in the Sudan, and [reiterate calls] for the lifting of all forms of sanctions on Sudan in order to strengthen the existing momentum of the transitional process and create the necessary environment for economic recovery, growth and stability,” he said, welcoming the United States decision to remove Sudan from its List of State Sponsors of Terrorism and the Council’s decision to initiate a sanctions review process. Additionally, he spotlighted challenges in transitioning away from UNAMID and called on the Sudanese authorities to investigate the recent looting of the former UNAMID site in North Darfur.
The representative of China said that the Juba Peace Agreement is “just the beginning, not the end” and that the current positive political momentum must be maintained. Armed groups outside the peace process should join it as soon as possible. He called for the prompt removal of the negative effects of the arms embargo, adding that military means alone cannot end intercommunal fighting. For its part, the international community should do more to help Sudan deal with the pandemic, its socioeconomic challenges and the dire humanitarian situation. At the same time, unilateral coercive measures should be lifted soon. He went on to say that UNAMID’s withdrawal should be steady and orderly, and that UNITAMS should focus on advancing the peace process and mobilizing greater economic assistance while also respecting input from the Government.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that, hopefully, armed groups outside the Juba Peace Agreement will join it. However, spoilers remain, she said, calling on those with influence on Abdul Wahid al-Nur, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid, to exert the necessary pressure on him. Pointing to Sudan’s many challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries, she said that its transitional Government has every right to expect large-scale international support. The Russian Federation expects UNITAMS to build Sudan’s capacity in key areas, including economic and security sector reforms. Now that the United States has taken Sudan off its List of State Sponsors of Terrorism, Security Council sanctions should be reconsidered with a view to adapting them to realities on the ground. Turning to Darfur, she said that isolated clashes do not change an overall promising picture. The priority in that region must be reconstruction and economic development, with UNITAMS playing a supporting role.
The representative of Norway welcomed Sudan’s formation of an expanded cabinet, exchange‑rate reforms and the launch of the cash support programme, as well as its ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and its decision to keep its border open to refugees. “Despite bold reforms, Sudan continues to face a deep economic crisis that puts the Sudanese people under severe stress,” she said, advocating for continued international assistance while emphasizing that such aid cannot replace domestic resource mobilization. Joining other speakers in voicing concern about the security situation in Darfur, she highlighted four priorities going forward: Moving to a decentralized, inclusive and locally representative governance structure; bringing all armed groups, including those in eastern Sudan, into the Peace Agreement; fully implementing the Ceasefire and Security Agreement for Darfur and the National Plan for Civilian Protection; and ensuring that UNITAMS is able to effectively fulfil its mandate throughout the country. In that vein, she urged the transitional Government to finalize the Status of Mission Agreement as soon as possible.
The representative of India urged Sudanese stakeholders to continue to show their commitment to the Juba Peace Agreement and engage constructively to overcome their differences. For its part, international community — particularly the United Nations, African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — must do all it can to help Sudan implement the Agreement. He called on armed movements in Darfur which remain outside the peace process to join negotiations. At the same time, the international community must continue to support Sudan’s economic recovery and the transitional Government’s economic reform agenda, he said, underscoring India’s efforts in that regard, including the supply of 8.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility.
The representative of Mexico commended Sudan’s efforts to implement the Juba accords and called on armed groups that have not yet done so to urgently sign them. Citing the quota for 40 per cent women’s representation, he pointed out that only four of the Cabinet ministers are women and more broadly expressed concern over increased military presence along both sides of the border with Ethiopia. He called for the peaceful settlement of differences and efforts to protect civilians, so as to prevent further destabilization in the region. He also expressed concern about the uptick in violence in West Darfur, notably in January, which he said was deplorable. He anticipated that the Joint Maintenance Force will be established, as called for in the Juba Peace Agreement, noting that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts are still scarce, and expressing concern over the continued illicit arms flows.
The representative of Ireland said that the next steps in the peace process must include the formation of the Transitional Legislative Council and the Commissions envisaged under the Juba Peace Agreement. Women were instrumental in bringing about the transition in Sudan and must not be shut out of the political process. As UNAMID’s civilian protection mandate ends, the transitional Government must fulfil its responsibility, she said, underscoring an urgent need to swiftly carry out the National Plan for the Protection of Civilians and implement the security pillar of the peace agreement. The Council, UNITAMS and Sudan’s international partners can offer technical support, including on post-conflict and community police training, she said, calling on the transitional Government to set out concretely what is needed. It is of vital importance that the Sudanese authorities immediately finalize the Status of Mission Agreement with the United Nations.
The representative of Estonia welcomed Sudan’s announcement of its accession to United Nations human rights instruments. Noting that institutions form the backbone of democracy, he encouraged Sudan to continue with institution-building, as set out in the Constitutional Declaration. He also urged Sudan to enhance women’s meaningful participation in the transitional decision-making bodies. He further recognized the Government’s latest cooperation with the International Criminal Court, as restoration of justice and accountability remain crucial. He called on Sudan to articulate the priority areas where they would need help from UNITAMS and finalize the Status of Mission Agreement. Cooperation between Sudan and UNITAMS will help the country to rise to the challenge so that it can complete its historic transition, he emphasized. On the recent escalation of tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia over the al-Fashqa border area, he urged both sides to de-escalate the situation and work towards a peaceful solution.
The representative of Viet Nam urged the Sudanese parties to resolve their differences and thus facilitate the implementation of the Juba Peace Agreement. More confidence-building measures and opportunities for dialogue should be put into place to encourage the remaining armed groups in Darfur to join the peace talks. He called on the Government to do more to protect civilians in Darfur, address the root causes of security issues and promote reconciliation among different tribes and communities. At the same time, the Government must ensure a safe and orderly withdrawal of UNAMID personnel and assets, in line with resolution 2559 (2020). Sudan’s economic and humanitarian challenges must also be addressed. In that regard, the international community must continue to help the Government deal with the pandemic and allow Sudan to gain easier access to international financial institutions.
The representative of France said that a high-level meeting in Paris on 17 May to support Sudan’s transition will be an opportunity to mark the country’s reintegration into the realm of nations, as well as a chance to encourage the return of private investment and to ease Khartoum’s external debt burden. She stressed the need to expedite the pace of the peace process, adding that those outside the Juba Peace Agreement must join it as soon as possible. More women should be given places in the new Council of Ministers and the fight against impunity pursued, including through greater cooperation with the International Criminal Court. She called for dialogue and restraint to ease tensions along the Sudan-Ethiopia border and for the swift finalization of a Status of Mission Agreement for UNITAMS, with Sudan making the most of the Mission’s broad mandate.
The representative of the United States, Council President for March, spoke in her national capacity, saying that her country is committed to UNITAMS’ success and that the voice of civil society is vital to Sudan’s future. “Today it is clear that Sudan finds itself at a pivotal moment,” she said, but six months on, the Sudanese people have yet to see those who signed the Juba Peace Agreement commit to achieving progress. Going forward, Sudan should, among other things, complete the formation of an inclusive transitional council, with at least 40 per cent representation for women, and set up a special court for Darfur crimes. The Government must assume full responsibility for protecting civilians and hold to account those who perpetrated the shocking attack in the west of the country that took place in January, left 163 people dead and displaced thousands. Expressing deep concern about border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia, she called on both sides to establish direct communications and hold discussions without preconditions. The United States is ready to work with regional partners to help find a solution, she added.
The representative of Sudan said the Government is implementing policies to promote a democratic transition, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as well as working to address inherited structural distortions of the economy and lay the foundation for a democratic State centred on the Sudanese people. Among other achievements, the Government has reformed the Sovereign Council to ensure the inclusion of representatives of armed movement signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement, and it will work to foster peace through dialogue with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North‑Abdel Aziz al-Hilu faction, and the Sudan Liberation Movement‑Abdul Wahid al-Nur faction.
To be sure, decades of mismanagement and ill governance have led to harsh economic conditions, which are now exacerbated by COVID-19, he said. The Government is working to increase economic growth and create stability. It has lifted subsidies on various goods and floated the Sudanese pound to attract expat savings, all while fighting illegal marketing of the currency. He called on the international community to support Sudan through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Debt Initiative, and urged UNITAMS, in particular, to play a vital role in this regard.
He went on to stress that, in line with international and regional norms, Sudan has established a national human rights mechanism, with wide participation by all national parties. To ensure support for victims in Darfur, a representative of the International Criminal Court is currently visiting Sudan. The Government is considering ways to implement a memorandum of understanding to promote cooperation with the Court and preparing for a second visit by its Prosecutor next April. Sudan also has ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture — “an important positive leap forward” — he said, citing the lifting of Sudan’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism as another important achievement.
Turning to events ongoing at Sudan’s border with Ethiopia, he said they do not constitute an encroachment on any international boundaries. “We have opened our borders without any preconditions,” he said, and worked to address the crisis of Ethiopian refugees by facilitating a visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to eastern Sudan. More broadly, he said Sudan is “ready to cooperate fully with UNITAMS, to implement all four strategic objectives of [resolution] 2524 (2020)”. He expressed support for efforts to bring about comprehensive peace and mobilize economic resources, underscoring the Government’s desire to attenuate the situation in Darfur by implementing the Juba Peace Agreement and the national plan for the protection of civilians, with all signatories, including the Abdul Wahid faction.