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Non-international armed conflicts in Sudan

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Government of Sudan is involved in separate non-international armed conflicts against a number of non-state armed groups, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid in Darfur, and at least two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM-North).

A number of parallel non-international armed conflicts are taking place in Sudan.

  • In Darfur, the Government of Sudan is party to a non-international armed conflict against, at least, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and two factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW): the SLM/A–AW and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Minni Minnawi (SLM/A–MM).
  • In Kordofan and Blue Nile states, Sudan is party to a non-international armed conflict against, at least, two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM–North), namely one in the Nuba Mountains led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, and the other in White Nile state led by Malik Agar.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question of whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.

Darfur

In Darfur, fighting broke out in 2003, when a number of non-state armed groups took up arms against the government in order to obtain greater autonomy. Notably, the rebel groups accused the Government of Sudan of oppressing and discriminating against non-Arab groups in the region. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database; ‘Q&A: Sudan's Darfur Conflict’, BBC News, 23 February 2010. Since then, fighting between Sudan and a number of armed groups, in particular the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW), has been constant in Darfur. Over the years, the government and the JEM have signed several ceasefire agreements. For instance, a Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement was concluded in 2004 under the auspices of the African Union. Agreement With the Sudanese Parties on the Modalities for the Establishment of the Ceasefire Commission and the Deployment of Observers in the Darfur, 28 May 2004. As violence continued to affect the region, in 2013 the Government of Sudan and the JEM signed a new ceasefire agreement in Doha. Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement-Sudan (JEM), 10 February 2013; ‘Sudan and Darfur Rebel Group Sign Ceasefire Under UN-African Union Auspices’, UN News, 11 February 2013. Furthermore, since 2017 several unilateral ceasefires have been adopted by the government and a number of armed groups. ‘Armed Groups Renew Unilateral Ceasefire in Darfur’, Sudan Tribune, 3 February 2018; ‘Three Armed Groups Extend Unilateral Ceasefire in Darfur’, Sudan Tribune, 7 May 2018.

On 6 December 2018, the JEM and the government signed a pre-negotiation agreement, in which the parties declared that peace negotiations would take place in Doha over the following months. ‘JEM, SLM-MM Sign Pre-Negotiation Agreement With Sudan Govt in Berlin Today’, Dabanga, 6 December 2018. It is worth recalling that the existence of a ceasefire agreement does not in itself put an end to a non-international armed conflict: violence frequently continues after the conclusion of a such deals. IIndeed, a non-international armed conflict ends in the case of a 'lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption' and this was not the case in 2018.  ICRC, ‘Article 3’, Commentary to the Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949, 2016, §491. A number of illustrative confrontations reinforce this conclusion.  For instance, in March 2018 the SLM/A–AW engaged in armed violence against the Government of Sudan, leaving several civilians and members of the parties to the conflicts dead and wounded. Due to the clashes, thousands of families were reported to be displaced in the Feina area. J. Marra, ‘Darfur: Deadly Fighting Continues in East and South Jebel Marra’, Dabanga, 23 March 2018. Furthermore, in November 2018 clashes between the Government of Sudan and the SLM/A–AW took place in several areas in South Darfur. ‘South Darfur Confirms Clashes with SLM-AW in Jebel Marra’, Sudan Tribune, 28 November 2018. The intensity of violence is further exemplified by the number of casualties and displaced individuals. Notably, in May 2018 1,200 internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled their homes in Darfur following violence by the SLM/A–AW. Overall, 1.76 million IDPs are in need in Darfur due to the ongoing conflicts. Furthermore, the head of the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), Jeremiah Mamabolo, reported to the United Nations Security Council that 303 new instances of armed confrontation, involving 812 victims, were documented by UNAMID between February and October 2018. ‘Darfur: Inter-Communal Tensions Still High Despite Improved Security, Mission Head Tells Security Council’, UN News, 22 October 2018. 2019 did not see a reduction in the intensity of violence. This was confirmed for instance by the UN peace chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who noted that ‘armed clashes between rebel forces of the Sudan Liberation Army and Government troops have continued in the Jebel Marra district in West Darfur.’ ‘Ongoing insecurity in Darfur, despite ‘remarkable developments’ in Sudan: UN peacekeeping chief’UN News, 17 October 2019.

On 31 August 2020, the Sudan Revolutionary Front – an umbrella organization of which the SLM/A–AW and JEM are members – signed a peace agreement with the government. However, SLM/A–AW refused to sign it. In any case, a peace agreement is not sufficient per se to conclude that a NIAC is over because armed confrontations might continue after the conclusion of the deal. ICRC, ‘Article 3’Commentary to the Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949, 2016, §§485-492. Therefore, it is premature to conclude that the armed conflicts between the government and the armed groups that signed the peace agreement is over. This point will be further explained in the following sections.

Kordofan and Blue Nile states

A myriad of armed groups is currently active in Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Among them, the most prominent is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM-North), which splintered into two factions: one led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu (SPLM-North Hilu) and based in the Nuba Mountains; the other led by Malik Agar (SPLM-North Agar) and based in White Nile state. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. Despite the fact that the non-state actors and the government have declared unilateral ceasefires, the violence has not decreased. For instance, in July 2017 the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, adopted a unilateral ceasefire in Darfur and, a few months later, this was followed by the SPLM/-North Hilu. Nevertheless, armed confrontations did not cease between the government armed forces and the two non-state actors. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. Indeed, in September 2017 the government attacked the SPLM-North Agar in the Ingessana Hills area of Blue Nile state, which is considered a strategic area in light of its proximity to the capital of Blue Nile state. ‘SPLM-N Agar Reports New Clashes with Sudanese Army in Blue Nile State’, Sudan Tribune, 21 September 2017.

In February 2018, the SPLM-North Hilu started peace talks with the government, while the Agar faction was excluded from the negotiations by the African Union. The Agar faction heavily criticized the decision to prevent them from participating in the talks. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. This further exacerbated tensionThis further exacerbated tensions and fuelled violence between the two factions. In February 2018, deadly clashes between the SPLM-North Hilu and the SPLM-Nroth Agar caused the displacement of at least 9,000 individuals. ‘Agar, al-Hilu Fighters Clash Again in Blue Nile: Spokesperson’, Sudan Tribune, 19 February 2018; ‘“9,000 displaced” by Deadly Clashes Between SPLM–N Factions in Blue Nile’, Dabanga, 23 February 2018. Nevertheless, from the information available it is not clear whether the clashes between the two armed groups reach the necessary level of violence for a NIAC to exist.

On 19 April 2019, the leader of Sudan's People's Liberation Movement-North Hilu announced a three-month suspension of hostilities in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. He explained that the decision was ‘a goodwill gesture... to give a chance for an immediate transfer of power to civilians.’ ‘Sudan rebels suspend hostilities in Blue Nile and South Kordofan’, Middle East Eye, 17 April 2019. The following year, on 31 August 2020, the Sudan Revolutionary Front – an umbrella organization of which SPLM-North and JEM are members – signed a peace agreement with the government. However, SPLM/North Hilu refused to sign it. As we shall see in the next section, a peace agreement is not sufficient per se to conclude that a NIAC is over because armed confrontations might continue after the conclusion of the deal. ICRC, ‘Article 3’, Commentary to the Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949, §§485-492. Therefore, it is premature to conclude that the armed conflicts between the government and the armed groups that signed the peace agreement is over.

Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF)

On 11 November 2011, the four major Sudanese rebel groups – SPLM-North, SLM/A–AW, SLM/A-MM, and JEM – formed an alliance: the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), with the aim of overthrowing president al-Bashir. Since 2012, the SRF had conducted joint military operations against the governmental forces, while the armed groups member of the alliance continued fighting independently as well. One major victory took place on 27 April 2013, when SRF’s joint force attacked Um Ruwaba, in North Kordofan and then took control of Abu Kershola, South Kordofan, after intense fighting against the governmental forces. According to the Sudanese government, the SRF forces comprised: 400 JEM soldiers in 55 ‘heavily military equipped Toyota 4WD land cruisers’; 200 SLA-AW soldiers with 22 Technicals; 200 SLA-MM soldiers with 22 Technicals; and an SPLM-North battalion (750–1,000 soldiers) with 25 Technicals. The attack was particularly significant inasmuch as it highlighted the rebels’ capacity to work together. Sudan’s letter to the UN Security Council dated 13 June 2013; A. McCutchen, ‘The Sudan Revolutionary Front: Its Formation and Development’, Small Arms Survey, 2014.

As explained in the next section, following the overthrow of president al-Bashir , the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) agreed on a Draft Constitutional Declaration, which requires the conclusion of a peace deal to put an end to the conflicts in Darfur and in Kordofan and Blue Nile states withing the first 12 months from the adoption of the constitutional agreement. Draft Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Transitional Period. Accordingly, in late 2019 the transitional government of Sudan started engaging in peace talks with the SFR, which led to the conclusion of a peace agreement on 31 August 2020. The agreement addresses key issues regarding ‘security, land ownership, transitional justice, power sharing and the return of people who fled their homes due to war,’ as well as ‘the dismantling of rebel forces and the integration of their fighters into the national army.’ In May, the SLM/A–MM left the SFR alliance but did not abandoned the negotiations. Nevertheless, not all armed groups member of the SFR have accepted the deal. Specifically, the SLM/A–AW and the SPLM/North Hilu refused to sign it. ‘Sudan rebels agree key peace deal to end 17-year conflict: Report’, Al Jazeera, 31 August 2020; ‘Sudan peace talks continue despite split in rebel alliance’, Dabanga, 21 May 2020.

According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved.’ ICTY, Prosecutor v Haradinaj et al., Judgment, IT-04-84, 3 April 2008. Nevertheless, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has pointed out that a peace agreement is not sufficient per se to conclude that a NIAC is over because ‘armed confrontations sometimes continue well beyond the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a … peace agreement.’ ICRC, ‘Article 3’, Commentary to the Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949, 2016, §§485-492. Therefore, it is premature to conclude that the armed conflicts between the government and the armed groups that signed the peace agreement is over.

Coup d’état (2019)

Omar al-Bashir reached power in 1989 with a military coup d’état. ‘Omar al-Bashir: Sudan's ousted president’, BBC, 14 August 2019. For nearly 30 years, he had been able to remain in power in spite of several NIACs taking place in the country and the secession of South Sudan, which took place in 2011. ‘South Sudan referendum: 99% vote for independence’, BBC, 30 January 2011.

In December 2018, the rising of bread prices triggered demonstrations that quickly turned into peaceful protests across the country calling for al-Bashir resignation and a transition towards democracy. ‘Sudan's military seizes power from President Omar al-Bashir’, Al Jazeera, 11 April 2019; International Crisis Group, ‘Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan’, Briefing No. 143 /Africa, 14 January 2019. In response to the continued protests, in February 2019 the President declared the state of emergency, rising the risk that the situation could degenerate into an armed unrest. Furthermore, he dissolved the cabinet and replaced the provincial governors with army and intelligence officials. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2019.

On 11 April 2019, a military coup ousted al-Bashir. The announcement was given by General Awad Ibn Auf, head of the Supreme Security Committee, a body which encompasses armed forces, police, and security agencies. The Transitional Military Council (TMC), composed by seven generals, assumed power on the same day. ‘Sudan's military seizes power from President Omar al-Bashir’, Al Jazeera, 11 April 201; ‘Sudan crisis: What you need to know’, BBC, 16 August 2019. On 17 April, al-Bashir was transferred to prison and in August he was ‘indicted on corruption charges and for illegal possession of foreign funds.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2019.

The military nature of the coup raised tensions between the protesters and the ousters of al-Bashir. Indeed, the civilian demonstrators feared that the change of power would not have led to the democratic reform they were hoping for. In May 2019, as the military council was resisting their demands, tensions continued to increase. On 13 May, in Khartoum, individuals wearing uniforms of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) opened fire against civilian protesters and killed five people, but both the TMC and the RSF denied responsibility. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2019.

In June 2019, tensions escalated and resulted in direct attacks against protesters: the security forces killed over 120 individuals in Khartoum, while other 120 protesters were killed by members of the RSF during a sit-in protest outside the headquarters of the army. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2019.  During the following month, the TMC and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), an umbrella group created by the protesters, resumed talks with the mediation of the African Union and Ethiopia. On 17 July, they reached a political agreement to create a joint council that would remain in power until the elections, to be held after 39 months, composed by five civilians from FFC, five TMC officers, and one consensually selected civilian. The TMC would lead the council for 21 months, and the FFC would be at the head of the ruling organ for the remaining 18 months. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2019. On 4 August, FFC and TMC concluded a constitutional agreement which sets the basis for a civilian transition. Notably, it established the creation of an interim government that would remain in power until elections are held in 2022. ‘What does Sudan's constitutional declaration say?’, Al Jazeera, 4 August 2019.

 

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)

The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is an armed non-state actor that operates in Darfur. It was founded in 2003 by Khalil Ibrahim, who remained the leader of the group until 2011, when he was killed in armed clashes. Currently, its leader is Suleiman Sandal. JEM is led by an executive office composed by 18 members. See ‘Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) (AKA JEM-Jibril)’, Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan, Small Arms Survey; Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1564 of 18 September 2004, Geneva, 25 January 2005, §§133-137. The group started its military activities against the government in order to obtain greater autonomy. Unlike other groups based in Darfur, which pursue a regional agenda, the JEM aims to control Khartoum. Despite the paucity of information regarding the internal structure of the group, the JEM is reported to be more disciplined than other armed non-state actors. ‘Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)’, Sudan Tribune; International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)’, Armed Conflict Database; Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1564 of 18 September 2004, Geneva, 25 January 2005, §§133-137. Furthermore, its military capabilities and the engagement in peace talks suggest that the group meets the organization requirement.

Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW)

The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW) is a splintered group of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A). The latter started fighting against the government in 2002. Due to internal tensions, in June 2005 the group splintered into two factions: the SLM/A–AW and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Minni Minnawi (SLM/A–MM). The latter signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with the government in May 2006, while the SLM/A–AW continued its armed confrontations with the government. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW)’, Armed Conflict Database; Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1564 of 18 September 2004, Geneva, 25 January 2005, §§127-132. Information regarding the internal organization of the SLM/A–AW is scant. Nevertheless, its military capabilities and capacity to speak with one voice suggest that it meets the organization requirement.

Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM-North)

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM-North) has been militarily active since the 1980s, when it emerged out of a tribal self-defence militia. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N)’, Armed Conflict Database. In 2017, the SPLM-North split into two rival factions. On the one hand, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM-North Agar) is based in White Nile state and led by Malik Agar. On the other hand, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Hilu (SPLM/A–N Hilu) is led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu and is based in the Nuba Mountains. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. Notwithstanding the absence of clear information regarding the internal structure of the two factions, their organization can be deduced from other elements, such as their military capabilities, their capacity to speak with one voice and to conclude and implement ceasefire agreements. While the Hilu faction has been engaging in peace talks with the government since February 2018, the Agar faction was excluded by the African Union. Furthermore, in 2018 the SPLM-North Hilu declared a unilateral ceasefire in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. For further information, see the Intensity of the Violence section. See also International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database.

Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF)

The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) was created in 2011 by four of the major armed groups operating in Sudan: SPLM-North, SLM/A–AW, SLM/A-MM, and JEM. The aim of the alliance was overthrowing president al-Bashir. The SRF is led by the Joint Military Command. ‘Sudan Revolutionary Front formed’, Dabanga, 13 November 2011. The chief of staff is Abdelaziz, a general of SPLM- North, who was chosen ‘because he had the largest area under his control and the most troops.’ A. McCutchen, ‘The Sudan Revolutionary Front: Its Formation and Development’, Small Arms Survey, 2014. Abdelaziz has three deputies, who are selected among the other three armed groups. SFR has also a Leadership Council, a political body which decides the objectives of the alliance. A. McCutchen, ‘The Sudan Revolutionary Front: Its Formation and Development’, Small Arms Survey, 2014.

International Interventions

On 31 July 2007, the United Nations Security Council established the United Nations–African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), an unprecedented joint peacekeeping operation in Darfur organized by the African Union and the United Nations. UN Security Council Resolution 1769, S/RES/1769 (2007), 31 July 2007. The mandate of the mission includes, among other things, the protection of civilians, the delivery of humanitarian assistance by UN agencies, and mediation between the Government of Sudan and a number of armed non-state actors. United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), ‘About UNAMID’.

From October 2017, UNAMID started to scale down. Notably, it handed over the Eid Al Fursan, Tulus and Forobaranga team sites to the Sudanese Government. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. In 2018, the operation continued to reduce its presence in Darfur. However, it still holds bases in regions where the rebels maintain their stronghold and where access to the civilian population has proved more challenging. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. In light of the nature of the intervention and considering the low degree of violence between the peacekeeping operation and the non-state armed groups, UNAMID is not a party to the conflict.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

  • The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) 
  • The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW) 
  • The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM-North Agar) 
  • The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Hilu (SPLM/A–N Hilu) 
Last updated: Friday 4th September 2020