/ 3 March 2024

Critical UN fact-finding mission in Sudan hobbled

Foreign Minister Baerbock Visits South Sudan
Human catastrophe: Thousands of women and children have fled to the Gorom refugee settlement near Juba city in South Sudan. The devastating conflict between rival security forces, which led the coup, over the spoils has become a nationwide war. Photo: Michael Kappeler/Getty Images

In October 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to establish a much-needed independent international fact-finding mission on Sudan, yet four months later, it is still woefully underfunded and understaffed and therefore unable to meaningfully fulfil its mandate.

In the past four months, the situation in Sudan has gone from dire to catastrophic. What began in April 2023 as a conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces — rival security forces fighting for the spoils of the coup they launched together in 2021 — has morphed into a nationwide war, pulling in militia and international backers

More than 13 000 people have been killed, including in deliberate and indiscriminate attacks. About 10.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict, the largest internal displacement crisis globally. About 14 million children — half those in the country — require humanitarian assistance.

Although more than 100 Sudanese, regional and international organisations had called for an international fact-finding mission, it was touch and go as to whether the Human Rights Council would vote in favour of it. In the end, a resolution was narrowly passed with 19 members voting for it, 16 against and, crucially, 12 abstaining. 

Impunity is at the heart of Sudan’s human rights crisis and ending it is central to the country’s future. With a mandate to investigate human rights and international humanitarian law violations; preserve evidence for future legal proceedings and focus on the most concerning human rights and humanitarian situations, the international fact-finding mission has a critical role to play in delivering justice. 

By now it should have been fully staffed and running. Although it has three commissioners in place, it has not been able to fill any of its 

17 staff positions, including investigators, because of a hiring freeze stemming from a cash crunch in the UN system as a result of delayed or non-payment of dues by certain states. 

Without sufficient hands on deck, the international fact-finding mission will struggle to carry out meaningful investigations.

The clock is ticking; the mission’s term ends later this year, with no guarantee of renewal. Moreover, violations are ongoing and evidence could be destroyed. Even this brings no guarantee of a mandate extension. 

The operations of the Human Rights Council-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia were not extended, despite its warning of “acute risk of further atrocities”. 

Although not new, the United Nations’ liquidity crisis is worsening. According to secretary general António Guterres, the UN faced arrears of $859  million at the end of 2023, up from $330  million in 2022, marking the highest level of arrears ever. 

This coincides with the lowest number of states paying their dues in full in the past five years. Underfunding means crucial decisions and agreed mandates cannot be implemented, undermining the work, values and purpose of the UN system as a whole.

In addition, the UN Security Council’s ability to take effective action on various conflicts continues to be hobbled by permanent council members using their veto power to protect allies to the detriment of international norms, standards and principles. The recent selective use of human rights is painfully overt with the United States’s position on Gaza and Russia’s position on Ukraine.

Lacklustre responses to Sudan’s conflict today are mired in these obstacles to norms-based multilateralism. 

The ambivalence we see towards the situation in Sudan contrasts sharply with the response to the conflict in Darfur, which began in 2003, and spurred robust a security council engagement, a Chapter VII peacekeeping mission, an arms embargo on Darfur (still in place, although not fully enforced), Sudan’s referral to the International Criminal Court and the African Union’s establishment of a high-level panel led by South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki. 

This time around, the international fact-finding mission on Sudan is one of the only concrete steps to address the country’s conflict and must be set up for success. The mission can preserve evidence and identify suspected perpetrators, leaving pathways to justice for victims and survivors open. 

As importantly, perhaps, the fact-finding mission’s reporting can reveal the magnitude of the human rights catastrophe unfolding in Sudan and galvanise momentum to resolve it.

With increasing pushback on human rights mechanisms, the international fact-finding mission on Sudan’s creation was nothing short of a triumph but the failure to staff it undermined it from the beginning and must be remedied before it is too late. 

Sarah Jackson is Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa.