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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 and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid in Darfur, and at least two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North, notably one based in the Nuba Mountains led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, and the other operating in White Nile state led by Malik Agar.

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 and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid.
  • 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/A–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 the Government of 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.

Since 2017, the Government of Sudan and numerous armed groups operating in Darfur have adopted unilateral ceasefires, which have been constantly renewed.  ‘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. Accordingly, armed violence has decreased, though it has not ceased. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. Indeed, 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.

In 2018, armed clashes between the JEM and the Government of Sudan were sporadic, as the armed group remained largely inactive in Darfur. UNSC, African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, Report of the Secretary-General, UN doc S/2018/912, 12 October 2018, §2. On 6 December 2018, the JEM and the government signed a pre-negotiation agreement, in which the parties declared that peace negotiations will resume 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 agreements. Indeed, a non-international armed conflict ends in the case of a 'lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption'.  ICRC, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, ICRC, 2016 Commentary on Art 3 of the First Geneva Convention, §491. At the end of 2018, it is still too early to envisage with certitude whether the ceasefire agreement will lead to such a lasting cessation of violence.

Armed violence between the Government of Sudan and the SLM/A–AW has not ceased, though it has reduced significantly. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. 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.

Although in 2018 the intensity of violence between the government and the armed groups active in Darfur has decreased, this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, it is worth recalling that a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved.’ Accordingly, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Haradinaj et al., Judgement, 3 April 2008, IT-04-84.

Kordofan and Blue Nile states

A myriad of armed groups are currently active in Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Among them, the most prominent is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N), which splintered into two factions: one led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu (SPLM/A–N Hilu) and based in the Nuba Mountains; the other led by Malik Agar (SPLM/A–N 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/A–N 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. For instance, in September 2017 the government attacked the SPLM/A–N 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/A–N 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 tensions and fuelled violence between the two factions. In February 2018, deadly clashes between the SPLM/A–N Hilu and the SPLM/A–N 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.

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 Agar (SPLM/A–N Agar) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Hilu (SPLM/A–N Hilu)

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N) 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/A–N split into two rival factions. On the one hand, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM/A–N 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/A–N 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.

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) is an armed non-state actor that operates in Darfur. The group started its military activities against the government in order to obtain greater autonomy. 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.
  • The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW) is a splinter group that was originally part of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A). it has been engaging in violence against the government since 2006. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–AW)’, Armed Conflict Database.
  • The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM/A–N Agar) is a splinter group that was originally part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM/A–N). It is based in White Nile state and is led by Malik Agar. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Sudan (Darfur, Blue Nile and S. Kordofan)’, Armed Conflict Database. 
  • The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Hilu (SPLM/A–N Hilu) is a splinter group that was originally part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North Agar (SPLM/A–N). It 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.
Last updated: Monday 14th January 2019