The Rapid Support Forces, an independent military group with a long history of abuse in Sudan, has reached El Fasher, the only major city in the Darfur region still outside its control. Since April, the RSF have been fighting the Sudanese Armed Forces in Khartoum, the capital, and across Sudan.
More than 200 days have passed since the eruption of the most-recent hostilities in Sudan, but the United Nations Security Council has yet to adopt a substantive resolution grappling with the crisis. Talks between the warring parties, which just wrapped up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, have produced only a few confidence-building measures that would not provide any comfort to civilians if mass atrocities still ensue.
A locally mediated ceasefire had been keeping El Fasher, north Darfur’s capital city, relatively stable for the past six months of fighting. But in the last week, the RSF and the allied Arab militias, who took three other regional capitals in quick succession, have clashed with both the Sudan military and other armed groups north of El Fasher. Local media report that civilians have already been killed in aerial bombardment by the Sudanese armed forces and shelling by the RSF.
Civilians in El Fasher are bracing for the worst. Elsewhere in Darfur, the RSF and allied Arab militias have deliberately executed civilians, raped women, looted and burned towns and targeted hospitals.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres should urgently mobilize the UN country team in Sudan to respond to the risk facing the hundreds of thousands of people who have been sheltering in El Fasher, hoping that it would be a haven. For its part, the UN Security Council should take steps to prevent further atrocities in Darfur, including by condemning the war crimes that have been committed in the last six months and renewing and retooling the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (Unitams) mandate to expand its duties to protect civilians.
The mission has been without a top executive since Volker Perthes resigned in September. He was told by the Sudanese military government that he was no longer welcome in the country in June. The Council should enforce its arms embargo on Darfur by calling out and sanctioning countries still funneling weapons into the region.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that the escalating conflict “would subject civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced persons — many of whom only recently fled to El Fasher from other areas — to extreme danger.” Nimr Mohammed Abdel Rahman, North Darfur’s governor, has appealed to the warring parties to allow civilians to evacuate to safer locations, as international humanitarian law requires. Many people have crowded into the southern part of town since the fighting has gripped the north. But it is unclear where people could safely flee farther afield without safety assurances.
Heightened risks to civilians in El Fasher come as horrific reports are surfacing from Ardamata, in west Darfur, describing the RSF and allied militias massacring civilians after taking over an army base there. Ardamata hosted a camp for internally displaced people that had been the last refuge for thousands of people forced from their homes by recent attacks in West Darfur and others who had been displaced since the early 2000s.
Survivors told Human Rights Watch that assailants once again targeted Massalit civilians because of their ethnicity, killing people, looting property and detaining many others, mainly men. A gruesome video by the Darfur Victims Support of the attacks has been corroborated by Sky News and verified and geolocated by CNN. While the Massalit of West Darfur have been singled out by the RSF for months, people of other non-Arab ethnicities, including the Fur community, sheltering in displaced camps in central Darfur, have been targeted as well. For weeks, the RSF besieged and shelled the Hasahisa camp in Zalingei, eventually attacking the camp, killing and raping many of the internally displaced people there.
In New York City, Security Council diplomats will soon get a set of options from the secretary-general on what the future of the UN mission in Sudan should look like. Rumors suggest that Sudan is pushing to shut down Unitams and replace it with a special envoy answerable only to Guterres.
The current mission was set up when the international community thought it was supporting a government on a path to a democratic transition, rather than a country torn apart by protracted conflict. The government of Sudan had asserted that it was ready to take on the mantle of protecting civilians in Darfur. The mission’s protection responsibilities are linked to a defunct national plan based on that premise. It’s clear that the government is unwilling or unable to fulfill that responsibility in Darfur.
In June, the Security Council postponed dealing with this issue by simply reauthorizing the mission for another six months. Adopting another “technical rollover,” which keeps the mission as it is, would demonstrate that governments sitting in the Council are indifferent to Sudan’s new circumstances and unmoved by the risk of continuing atrocities.
Even worse, canceling the mandate and replacing it with an envoy who does not publicly report on human rights violations and potential war crimes would suggest that the UN is leaving the protection space entirely. Considering the escalating violence, the Security Council should be considering more robust civilian protection possibilities and not scaling back further.