Report of the 36th Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights impact of the ongoing conflict in the Sudan

by Geneva Human Rights Council reports, Special session

On Thursday 11 May 2023, the Human Rights Council convened a special session to address ‘the human rights impact of the ongoing conflict in the Sudan’.

The Special Session was requested via an official letter dated 5 May signed by H.E. Simon Manley, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and submitted as a joint request by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America, Norway and Germany. This letter, addressed to H.E. Václav Bálek, President of the Human Rights Council, was officially supported by 19 Member States of the Council, and 33 Observer States.

The special session is convened after fighting broke out in mid-April between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes amid airstrikes, shelling, and the use of heavy weaponry including in residential areas and densely populated cities. The two forces are led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan respectively, the two men who conducted the military coup in October 2021. After the outbreak of hostilities between the two forces, the ensuing humanitarian crisis, with food, water and electricity shortages, has been compounded by reports of sexual violence, killings of civilians and staff from international organisations. In late April, UN High Commissioner Volker Türk urged the parties to the conflict to end hostilities, respect international law by ensuring the protection of civilians, and resume peace talks. However, violent clashes continued into the month of May, prompting mass displacements of people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and raising alarms for the impending food crisis. In May, a group of experts including several Special Procedures mandate-holders called for a ceasefire and reiterated calls on parties to respect international law and resume political negotiations, urging neighbouring countries to provide humanitarian support assistance to those displaced.

In order for a special session to be convened, in conformity with operative paragraph 10 of the General Assembly resolution 60/251, the support of one-third of the membership of the Council (i.e., 16 Member States or more) is required. 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.

Webcasts of statements delivered during the Session can be found here.

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

From the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006 to 2022, a total of 23 resolutions have been adopted dealing with the human rights situation in Sudan. A total of 8 resolutions have been adopted by the Council under Agenda Item 4 on the situation of human rights in Sudan. Additionally, the Human Rights Council has adopted three resolutions on Sudan under agenda item 2, and 11 resolutions under agenda item 10 on technical assistance and capacity-building. Additionally, the Council adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Sudan at its 32nd special session in November 2021. The first resolution on Sudan was adopted at the 2nd Regular Session in September 2006, with the most recent one being adopted at the 50th session in June 2022.

The African Group, and more recently Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, have traditionally been the main sponsors of the resolutions. The twenty-three resolutions have been generally adopted by consensus, with three resolutions adopted by vote (15/27 in 2010; 11/10 in 2009; and 2/115 in 2006). The 2010 resolution received the most favourable vote result (25-18-3), while the least favourable result was obtained in 2009 (20-18-9). 

In 1993, the then United Nations Commission on Human Rights established an independent expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan. The mandate was subsequently extended by the Human Rights Council until October 2020, when the Council decided, through resolution 45/25 adopted at its 37th meeting, to end the mandate of the independent expert. At the Council’s special session on Sudan, held in November 2021 to discuss the implications of the military coup that took place in October of that year, the Council adopted a resolution requesting the High Commissioner to designate an expert on human rights in the Sudan to monitor the human rights situation in the country. The then High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, appointed Adama Dieng. In December 2022, the High Commissioner, Volker Türk, appointed Radhouane Nouicer to succeed Mr. Dieng as the designated expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan 

As of May 2023, Special Rapporteurs had issued four reports on the situation of human rights in the Sudan, the latest of which, submitted to the Human Rights Council’s 45th session in June 2020, noted the progress in the peaceful transition of power and the cooperation of the Government with OHCHR. It was the last report before the mandate of the Independent Expert was phased out by the Council. 

Overview of Room XX during the 36th special session of the Human Rights Council

The Council and other UN mechanisms’ action on the human rights situation in Sudan

Sudan has not issued a standing invitation to Special Procedures, so mandate-holders have not been able to conduct on-the-ground visits.

In terms of other UN mechanisms, Sudan has participated in three cycles of the Universal Periodic Review (i.e., 2011, 2016, and 2022), through which it has received 716 recommendations, of which 49 were related to peace and 9 specifically to the peace agreement

Sudan has received 495 recommendations from Treaty Bodies, the most recent of which took place in the context of the 2018 concluding observations from the Human Rights Committee. ‘Children’, ‘women and girls’, and ‘persons affected by armed conflict’ constitute the three main groups of rights-holders targeted out of all Special Procedures, Treaty Bodies and UPR recommendations, with 387 out of 1,258 recommendations focused on these groups. 

When it comes to the General Assembly, the Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural issues, has not adopted any resolutions related to Sudan. However, the Security Council has addressed the situation in Sudan through the creation of UN missions (such as UNMIS, which operated from 2005 to 2011; and UNITAMS, created in 2020 to support Sudan during its political transition to democratic rule) and the adoption of several resolutions, the most recent of which was adopted in March 2023 (resolution 2676), to extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts charged with assisting its Sudan sanctions committee. Since the outbreak of violence in April 2023, the Security Council has called for a ceasefire and a resumption of political negotiations, with the Secretary-General sending the Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs to the region to address the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.   

The 36th Special Session 

After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Václav Bálek, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures; and Mr. Hassan Hamid Hassan, Permanent Representative of Sudan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.


H.E. Volker Türk, UN Human Rights Commissioner, during the 36th special session of the Human Rights Council

H.E. Mr Volker Türk expressed his condemnation of the violence, ‘in which both sides have trampled international humanitarian law, notably the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.’ 

The High Commissioner highlighted the impact of the fighting on the civilian population, with ‘at least 487 civilians killed’ –noting that the real figure would likely be much higher– and hundreds of thousands displaced both inside and outside the country. He stressed the damage to health, water, electricity, and communications infrastructures, which could render approximately 2.5 million people food insecure. 

Mr. Türk recalled how four years ago Sudan was a ‘beacon of hope’ for a democratic transition to civilian rule and a democratic order, hopes which were dashed after the October 2021 military coup, and compounded by the recent fighting between the forces behind the coup. The High Commissioner underscored the lesson to be drawn from this crisis, namely that ‘all transitional arrangements [need to be built] on bedrock commitments to accountability, non-discrimination and participation.’

He noted the diplomatic efforts made by the African Union, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the League of Arab States and the United Nations, and called on all States ‘with influence in the region’ to encourage a resolution of the crisis.

Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng

Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, remarked that Special Procedures have monitored the situation in Sudan and raised their concerns repeatedly, especially in the context of country-specific mandates from 1993 to 2020. 

Ms. Mofokeng highlighted the alarming loss of lives and forced displacement caused by the hostilities, noting reports of sexual and gender-based violence and the food, water, healthcare and energy shortages. She expressed concern for the safety and well-being of women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons, who have been significantly impacted by attacks on critical infrastructure and humanitarian facilities.

Ms. Mofokeng further noted the ‘information blackout’ due to intimidation, threats and targeting of journalists and human rights defenders, which has hindered monitoring and documenting efforts on the ground.

Ms. Mofokeng reiterated the call by Special Procedures mandate-holders for an ‘immediate and prolonged ceasefire’, the de-escalation of violence and the resumption of humanitarian operations, all conducive to political negotiations ‘aimed at fostering the establishment of a government led by civilians.’ 

Mr. Hassan Hamid Hassan

Mr. Hassan Hamid Hassan, Permanent Representative of Sudan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, began his statement by noting the difficulties posed by the integration of armed forces into the Sudanese Army after the Juba Peace Agreement, stating that these difficulties had led to the outbreak of hostilities in April. 

Mr. Hassan argued that the situation in the country was an ‘internal issue’ and expressed the Government’s commitment to the protection of human rights while prioritising a ceasefire to save lives. He noted that regional efforts were ongoing, such as the negotiations taking place in Jeddah at the initiative of Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

Mr. Hassan further noted that Sudan is a theme on the agenda for the upcoming 53rd session of the Human Rights Council and questioned the ‘rushed’ holding of the special session a few weeks ahead of the Council’s regular session, without the support of any African or Arab States. 

During the special session, 28 member States, 48 observer States, and 20 international organisations and civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the human rights impact of the ongoing conflict in the Sudan.

Mr. Hassan Hamid Hassan, Permanent Representative of Sudan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, during the 36th special session of the Human Rights Council

The United Kingdom, as one of the main co-sponsors of the resolution, intervened to call upon States to ‘do all we can to help Sudan return to a path of peace’. In his statement, Rt. Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP and Minister of State, recalled the capacity to react quickly to human rights crises as one of Kofi Annan’s main visions behind the Council’s creation, and urged the Council to use its collective influence to ‘break the cycle of impunity in Sudan.’

Other members of the core group, such as Germany, intervened to stress the resolution’s call for a call for peace, human rights, and humanitarian access, and to express support for dialogue and mediation towards a ‘civilian-led transition, peace and stability.’ 

Norway, also a member of the core group, reiterated calls on parties to fulfill their obligations under international humanitarian law, de-escalate violence and establish a ‘democratic and peaceful future,’ while rejecting ‘any form of external interference which will further complicate the situation.’ 

Côte d’Ivoire took the floor to speak on behalf of the African Group, reiterating Sudan’s comments that its views and arguments regarding the holding of the special session ‘did not receive the attention it deserved by the States’ calling for the session. The African Group highlighted the principle of subsidiarity and the need to find ‘African solutions for African problems,’ commending regional mediation efforts and the support of complementary international efforts. The African Group further underscored the need to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and political unity of Sudan, especially in regard to the creation or expansion of mandates, and urged OHCHR to continue providing technical assistance to Sudan, consistent with the country’s needs, requirements, and requests.

Aligning itself with the statement of the African Group, the Republic of South Sudan intervened to stress that ‘African solutions remain better options to African problems,’ remarking regional efforts under the auspices of IGAD, and in light of such initiatives, called on the Council to consider lifting the resolution on Sudan so as to enable political and peaceful negotiations.

Speaking on behalf of the group of Arab States, Lebanon welcomed international and regional initiatives to end the conflict in Sudan, including the ongoing talks in Jeddah, while highlighting the need to respect Sudan’s national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence. The Permanent Representative of the Lebanese Republic, Ambassador Salim Bedoura, reaffirmed the concerns expressed by Sudan regarding the holding of the session, and expressed the Group’s regrets for the ‘contentious’ language contained in the draft resolution. He recalled Sudan’s continuous cooperation with the Council over the years and called on the Council to consider Sudan’s views as the concerned State, especially in regard to the creation of new mandates or the extension of existing ones. The Ambassador further conveyed the Group’s call on OHCHR to provide Sudan with technical support to progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Other States took the floor to reiterate critical positions on the holding of the special session. The Deputy Permanent Representative of Viet Nam, Mr. Cung Duc Han, stated that Viet Nam ‘does not support country-specific resolutions’ without the consent of the country concerned, and expressed the country’s view that the resolution of the conflict requires the participation of Sudanese stakeholders, United Nations and regional organisations. Along the same lines, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan, Ambassador Khalil Hashmi, expressed support for Sudan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the ongoing regional mediation efforts. He underscored the lack of consent of Sudan as the country concerned, and criticised the holding of the special session as contradictory to the Council’s institution-building package in terms of objectivity, dialogue, and cooperation as well as the non-duplication of work. H.E. Mr. Hashimi stated that the situation in Sudan falls within the mandate of the Security Council, which is already addressing its peace and security dimensions, and called for the prioritisation of mediation efforts.  

Among the States supporting the holding of a special session, Sweden provided a statement on behalf of the European Union, expressing the support of the EU’s 27 Member States for the special session, as well as their support for dialogue, mediation and the work of the OHCHR and the designated expert in Sudan. Likewise, the Ambassador of Paraguay, H.E. Mr. Marcelo Eliseo Scappini Ricciardi took the floor to express the country’s support for the special session considering that the Council is the appropriate space to address the reports of human rights violations coming out of the conflict in Sudan. Mr. Ricciardi also highlighted the ‘protagonist role’ of the African Union, as well as the work of the Security Council and other UN bodies.

Civil society also had the opportunity to take the floor. The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project stressed that the draft resolution ‘is not entirely satisfying’ and reiterated the organisation’s call, supported by over 100 other organisations, for the Council to create an investigative mechanism so that accountability prevents impunity and reoccurrence. The establishment of an international investigative mechanism was supported by other organisations in their statements, such as Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), with others, such as the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) calling for a United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission. Regional organisations like the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS) expressed that, despite Sudan being under the focus of the UN human rights system for over thirty years, ‘we see no progress in the human rights practices in the country’ and called on Sudan to address the root causes of armed conflict, including racial, ethnic and tribal discrimination. 

Voting and adoption of texts

Draft resolution A/HRC/S-36/1 was adopted as orally revised with 18 voting in favour, 15 against, and 14 abstaining.
In favour: (18): Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Czechia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Montenegro, Paraguay, Romania, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States.

Against (15): Algeria, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gambia, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Viet Nam.

Abstentions (14): Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Maldives, Nepal, South Africa, and Uzbekistan.

With the adoption of resolution S-36/1, the Council decided to include monitoring and documentation of allegations of human rights violations since 25th October 2021 under the mandate of the designated Expert of the High Commissioner on human rights in the Sudan. The designated expert is also mandated to report to the Human Rights Council on such allegations, and to assist the High Commissioner on the presentation of an oral update and interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in the Sudan at the Council’s fifty-fourth and fifty-seventh sessions. 

With the adoption of the resolution, the Council also enhances the interactive dialogue on the human rights situation in the Sudan, which will be held in the upcoming fifty-third session of the Council. 

Webcasts of those statements can be found here.

The full text of HRC resolution S36/1 can be read here.

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