Report of the 32nd Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of the ongoing situation in the Sudan

by the URG team Human Rights Council reports, Special session

On Friday 5 November 2021, the Human Rights Council convened a Special Session to address the ‘human rights implications of the ongoing situation in the Sudan’.

The Special Session was requested via an official letter dated 1 November 2021 and signed by H.E. Simon Manley, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN in Geneva.

This letter, addressed to H.E. Nazhat Shameem Khan, the President of the Human Rights Council, was jointly submitted by the ’troika of countries on the Sudan’ (United Kingdom, United States of America, and Norway), Germany and the Government of the Sudan. The letter enjoyed the official support of 18 member States and 30 observer States.

In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council is ‘able to hold Special Sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e., 16 member States or more). Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.

The Council’s action on the human rights situation in the Sudan to date

Prior to the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006, the UN Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946 as the principal mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights, consistently listed the situation in the Sudan as a high priority under agenda item four. Resolution 2005/82, established a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Sudan for one year.

In 2006, the year of its establishment, the Council unanimously adopted an additional decision 4/101 on the situation of human rights in Darfur, by which it dispatched a High-Level Mission to assess the human rights situation in the area. The Council continued to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur annually until 2009, when it created the mandate of an Independent Expert through the adoption of Resolution 11/10.

The Council gradually reduced scrutiny on the ongoing human rights situation in Sudan, moving the resolution on the human rights situation in Sudan to Agenda item 10 in 2011, despite calls from civil society and human rights defenders to move it back to item 4. Eventually in 2018, and prior to the ouster of former President al-Bashir, Human Rights Council Resolution 39/22 announced the decision to terminate the mandate of the Independent Expert as soon as a country office of the OHCHR would become operational in Khartoum. The resolution commended Sudan for conducting peace negotiations with the Government of South Sudan, and for hosting one million refugees. 

Mere days after the signing of the Juba Peace Agreement, the Human Rights Council unanimously adopted Resolution 45/25, praising the people of Sudan for their ‘non-violent and inspiring’ popular uprising, and applauding the Transitional Government for legal reforms and for enshrining respect and a commitment to protect human rights in the nation’s new constitutional document. The resolution also ended the mandate of the Independent Expert 

On 25 October 2021, H.E. Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the military coup in the Sudan, stating that the military actions, particularly the widespread internet shutdowns, contravened key articles of the Sudanese Constitution, the Juba Peace Agreement, and international human rights law. She urged the military to respect the people’s freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and stated that this clear departure from recent progress towards democracy would be disastrous and contrary to the wishes of the Sudanese people. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association Clément N. Voule praised the Human Rights Council for convening a Special Session on the situation, and urged a ‘robust response.’

32nd Special Session

The session was held in hybrid format at the Palais des Nations on 5 November, 2021, and opened with keynote statements by H.E. Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Mr. Victor Madrigal Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures.

The UN High commissioner for Human Rights opened the session by calling the actions of the Sudanese military and security forces ‘deeply disturbing,’ recalling a ‘sombre’ page in the country’s history when human rights were suppressed. She demanded the immediate release of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and other detainees, including the journalists, human rights defenders, civil society actors, government ministers, political opponents, and lawyers who have been arrested and detained by the military. She also demanded that the Sudan Armed Forces, the Rapid Support Forces, and other security forces immediately cease the disproportionate and deadly use of force against protestors, and called for accountability for the perpetrators. 

Ms. Bachelet also emphasised the significant role that Sudanese women have played in peaceful protests demanding democratic reform, both in the past and in the last two weeks, and lamented reports that women have been targeted by police and security forces during the protests. Additionally, she reported that key actors in the civic space (journalists and protest leaders), have been arrested by State security agents, who have also targeted anti-corruption rapporteurs and members of the Committee for Dismantling the 30 June 1989 Regime, indicating a hostility towards the democratic transition to civilian governance and to the Constitutional Document.  

Ms. Bachelet reported that all radio and television stations within Sudan have stopped broadcasting, except for those controlled by the military, so too have all newspapers stopped printing. There has been a nationwide shutdown of the internet imposed since 25 October, in contravention of international human rights law. The loss of internet capability has affected the ability of OHCHR’s staff to continue to operate and monitor the situation, and coordinate with civil society and humanitarian aid. Despite this, she noted that the Joint UN Human Rights Office in Sudan has continued monitoring and reporting work, and advocacy work on behalf of detainees.

She asked the Council to take appropriate action to support the Sudanese people’s clear wish to return to civilian rule, and expressed her hope that  the Council would do so by establishing an independent mechanism.

Victor Madrigal Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures reported that Special Procedure mandate holders had learned that the same civil society organisations that organised the protests having toppled Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019 were leading the ongoing peaceful protests against the military takeover in Khartoum and other cities since 25 October. 

Mandate holders have received complaints alleging that at least 13 peaceful protestors have been killed and 300 injured. Mr. Madrigal-Borloz asserted that the military’s excessive use of force and shut down of the Transitional Government were clear violations of international human rights law.

He further expressed the Special Procedures’ concerns over the Sudan’s lack of adherence to its 2019 commitments to the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms, even prior to the military coup. He noted that women’s rights had been largely ignored during the transition, and that the transitional government had failed to properly handle a vicious attack by security forces on peaceful protestors in 2019.

He concluded by asking the Council to support the Sudanese people’s clear desire for freedom and rule of law by to the fullest extent possible, and to support the immediate return to civilian rule.

Cameroon, speaking on behalf of the African Group, expressed solidarity with the aspirations of the people of the Sudan to establish a culture of good governance, democratic values, and respect of human rights and the rule of law. They also joined the statements of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union in its condemnation of the unconstitutional government, and for the restoration of the civilian government and an end to the detention of civilian leaders.

Slovenia spoke on behalf of the European Union, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Ukraine. Slovenia condemned the coup and unlawful detentions, and reiterated  the EU’s calls for the immediate release of all political detainees, noting that the physical integrity of detainees must be ensured. They also emphasised that all initiatives going forward must include women and youth in decision-making. Furthermore, Slovenia stressed that the EU is focused on the prompt investigation of violations so that perpetrators of human rights abuses will be brought to justice. 

Egypt, speaking on behalf of the group of Arab States, called upon all Sudanese parties to exercise self-restraint and return to a path of recovery after years of civil war and instability. They also stated their wish that the Human Rights Council support regional and international efforts to restore peace and accord in the Sudan.

Indonesia emphasised their longstanding, friendly relations with Sudan, and called for restraint, an end to violence, and adherence to human rights norms. Indonesia also called for military leaders to allow aid and health services to reach the citizens of Sudan, and asked that the international community scale up humanitarian aid to Sudan at this critical juncture. Finally, they suggested that the Council should continue technical assistance and capacity building in the Sudan.

Namibia aligned with the statement of the African Group, and asserted that in their State practice they do not support any government which takes power through the use of force. They noted that in the past year, Africa has experienced four, successful military takeovers, and called on the international community to criminalise such conduct to address this unsettling trend. 

Norway stated emphatically that there can be no return to authoritarian rule in Sudan. They expressed deep concern for the human rights situation and lamented this departure from substantial progress the country had been making towards democratic transformation, inclusive development, and protection of civilians and human rights. Norway also called for the release of all political detainees, so that a ‘real dialogue’ could take place between the military leaders and the civilian side.

Brazil joined others in urging that civilian political leaders be released from detention and that the democratic transition be resumed. They took note of the communiqué from the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s, dated  26 October, as well as  the statement of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on 25 October. They concluded by committing to vote in favour of the pending resolution on the human rights implications of the crisis.

Russia opened their statement emphasising their respect for State sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Sudan. They shared their view that the holding of a Special Session was ‘hasty,’ and that any interference in a State’s internal affairs would be counterproductive and unacceptable. They argued that the current crisis was largely a consequence of ‘certain foreign sponsors’ forcing ‘dubious economic schemes’ and boilerplate democratic reforms on the people of Sudan. Russia further commended General Al-Burhan’s 25 October address, stating that they welcomed his commitment to hold elections in July 2023. They stated their hope that the UN mission would support Sudanese national leadership in economic reform and the maintenance of law and order.

 China urged all stakeholders in the Sudan to resolve their problems via national dialogue. They stressed that China has always adhered to a policy of noninterference in a nation’s internal affairs. China also cautioned that all parties should accept their differences in the area of human rights in order to have a constructive dialogue, and expressed their doubts that external pressure would be productive.

South Africa called for all parties to engage in meaningful and inclusive dialogue to restore the civilian-led Transitional Government and the values of the nation’s constitutional document. They also stressed their hope that the resolution resulting from the Session would include references to regional efforts, and that those efforts might form  the basis for engagement in the Sudan.

The United Kingdom commended the Sudanese revolution as an inspiration and referred to the military takeover as a ‘betrayal’ of the aspirations of the Sudanese people for democratic transition. They expressed their gratitude to member State delegations, particularly the members of the African Group, for their contributions to the draft resolution. They also stated that the Council plays an essential role in upholding democracy and protecting human rights and affirmed their solidarity with the people of Sudan.

The United States of America emphasised their strong support for the Special Session and expressed their dismay for this break from a positive trajectory prior to the military takeover. They also noted that they were committed to continuing their ‘full throttle’ efforts to support the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.

A number of NGOs who spoke during the debate had previously signed an open letter to Human Rights Council member States ahead of the 48th Session in September 2021, imploring the Council to continue monitoring the situation in Sudan.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that recent events in Sudan highlight the fragility of the existing situation in the country, and further demonstrate that the Council’s suspension of Special Procedure monitoring mandate, in 2020, was premature. HRW noted that it was no coincidence that within weeks of the 48th Session of the Human Rights Council, the military takeover occurred. They reasoned that human rights abuses, such as those transpiring in Sudan, are predictable outcomes of a lack of international scrutiny. 

However, HRW conceded that transitional authorities have taken positive measures since 2019, like ratifying key international treaties, prosecuting a handful of cases of protester killings, and cooperating with the International Criminal Court. They expressed their dismay that these small but important achievements are being rolled back by the junta. HRW urged the Council to match its words with actions – recommending the re-establishment of an independent mechanism to monitor, verify, and report on ongoing human rights abuses with a view to preventing further violations.  

Access Now focused its remarks on the internet shutdown in the country. They echoed statements from member States and the High Commissioner denouncing the shutdown as a violation of international law, but further emphasised that the shutdown inhibited the ability of human rights defenders and journalists to document unfolding human rights violations in the country. They explained that the security forces have used internet blackouts before as a shield to commit atrocities, as they did during the June 2019 massacre of protesters in Khartoum. 

Access Now asked the Council to not only establish an independent mechanism for monitoring and investigation of human rights abuses, but to facilitate emergency digital security support for on-the-ground actors, particularly human rights defenders, activists, journalists, civil society organisations, and other vulnerable groups.

In the second meeting of the 32nd Special Session, draft resolution A/HRC/S-32/L.1 was presented by the United Kingdom, on behalf of the Core Group, which also included Germany, Norway and the United States. The UK explained that the objective of the resolution is to join the voices of the African Union and the United Nations Security Council in condemning the military takeover and to call for the restoration of the civilian led government. The resolution will also serve as a message to the Sudanese people that the Council stands with them in their fight for democracy and human rights. 

Draft resolution A/HRC/S-32/L.1 was adopted without a vote as orally revised.

Russia, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), and China disassociated from the consensus on the resolution.

With the adoption of resolution S-32/L.1, the Council condemns in the strongest possible terms the military takeover on 25 October 2021, the suspension of transitional institutions, and all measures contrary to the Sudan constitutional Declaration of 2019 and the Juba Peace Agreement (OP 3).

Additionally, the Council calls for the immediate restoration of the civilian led Transitional Government (OP 4), and demands the immediate release from arbitrary detention of all individuals unlawfully detained, including Prime Minister Hamdok and other members of the Cabinet of the Government of the Sudan (OP 5). The resolution stresses that the military needs to adhere to Sudan’s international human rights obligations with regard to detainees (OP 7), and with regard to the protection of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly (OP 11).

Finally, the Council requests that the High Commissioner appoint an expert on Human Rights in the Sudan to work with her Office in Khartoum to monitor the ongoing human rights situation and engage stakeholders, noting that a gender perspective should be safeguarded throughout their work (OP 15). The Council further requests that the High Commissioner and the designated Expert prepare a report to be presented at the Human Rights Council 50th Session (OP 16).

The full text of resolution S-31/L.1 can be found here.

Featured picture: Sudan: two days of civil disobedience to end military coup by Nesta Amenyah

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