Opinion piece by Hassan Shire, Estella Kabachwezi and Nicolas Agostini
Published by Just Security on 5 October 2022
Sudan, a country controlled by a military junta that routinely uses live ammunition to disperse protestors, is running for re-election as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Based on the record of such candidacies and the council’s arcane procedures and traditions, saying that Sudan stands a chance of winning is an understatement. And part of the blame will lie at the feet of the African Union.
On Oct. 11, the U.N. General Assembly’s 193 member states will participate in elections for the Human Rights Council for the next three years (2023-2025). The idea of a council term for Sudan seemed like a good idea in mid-2019, after the country’s peaceful popular revolution, with the motto “Freedom, Justice and Peace,” had overthrown a dictator and appeared on the way, albeit shakily, to a democratic transition. A civilian-led government had assumed office. Some of its members were civil society figures. One of them, newly appointed Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari, an academic and human rights advocate, headed the government delegation at the Human Rights Council’s 42nd session. After three decades of Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist-backed military dictatorship, it felt like Sudan was re-engaging with the international community.
Shortly after the 42nd session, in October 2019, Sudan was elected a council member for the first time. Gathering 175 votes among U.N. member states, it secured a seat for a three-year term (2020-2022). The hope of many, including within civil society, was that Sudan’s membership on the council would bolster the country’s reform agenda and its respect for human rights at home.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) signed an agreement to open a country office in Khartoum and significantly enhanced its technical cooperation programs. In 2020-2021, as a council member, Sudan voted on dozens of resolutions. It supported many of these, opposed a few, and abstained on others. Its voting record was far from ideal, but it wasn’t among the worst. The civilian-led government then decided to run for a second term (2023-2025).
The military coup and its aftermath
On Oct. 25, 2021, Sudan’s military took over power in a coup. Military forces arrested Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and key government and civilian figures. The head of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, suspended key provisions of the Constitutional Charter and halted the transitional process.
In Addis Ababa, the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan. In Geneva, the Human Rights Council took its own action: it held an emergency session and tasked an expert to monitor and report on the country’s human rights situation.
But Sudan remained a council member. The military regime’s representatives, who took over Sudan’s seat, joined forces with the worst human rights abusers on the forum. They voted against resolutions addressing atrocities committed in South Sudan and Eritrea, refused to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and abstained on a resolution shedding light on the plight of human rights defenders working in conflict situations.
To date, the military coup hasn’t been reversed. In Khartoum and other cities, military and security forces have been targeting anyone demanding civilian rule through arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings. In Darfur and other regions, intercommunal violence has increased. Gains of the revolution are being erased.
The African Union’s Role in the Junta’s Re-election Bid
The Sudanese military is using any opportunity to legitimize itself. Like many authoritarian regimes did before, it’s trying to hide behind council membership to avoid scrutiny. There’s nothing new here.
The problem is bigger than individual governments and their attempts to cover up their abuses. Its root cause is that the AU hasn’t reconsidered its decision to endorse Sudan’s bid for re-election. In practice, Sudan is an official, AU-endorsed candidate.
By failing to withdraw the AU’s endorsement, African heads of state have taken policy incoherence to a new level. On the one hand, they condemn the military coup. They haven’t lifted the AU’s suspension of Sudan from its own membership, and they demand a return to the transitional process in the country. On the other hand, they’re stealthily normalizing relationships with Sudan’s military regime, including by endorsing the latter’s claim to represent Sudan on the international scene.
This Kafkaesque situation is a result of years of bad practice at the Human Rights Council. The African Group isn’t the only one at fault. Election after election, several regional groups present “closed slates” (or “clean slates”) — the same number of candidates as there are seats available for the group. Facing no competition, all candidates running in closed slates are nearly guaranteed a seat on the council.
Closed slates are problematic anywhere, including in Africa. Since 2015, the AU has endorsed candidates such as Burundi (which was a member from 2016-2018), Eritrea (a member since 2019, re-elected for the 2022-2024 period), and Cameroon (elected for the same consecutive terms).
Sudan isn’t the only council member seeking re-election in a closed slate. Germany is doing the same within the Western Group (and many did so in previous years). Two other current members, South Korea and Venezuela, are seeking re-election (but they’re facing competition).
The AU’s failure to withdraw its endorsement of Sudan’s re-election bid, as well as its tacit endorsement of the junta, is particularly shocking considering the AU Peace and Security Council Communiqué of Oct. 26, 2021, which “totally reject[ed]” the Sudanese military’s seizure of power as “unacceptable and [as] an affront to the shared values and democratic norms of the AU.” It makes a mockery of the Lomé Declaration on unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, in which African heads of state and governments pledged to “immediately and publicly condemn” unconstitutional changes of power.
What Can Be Done Now?
The AU failed to publicly urge the Sudanese military to withdraw its bid for a second term, or to encourage other East African countries (say, Tanzania or the Seychelles, who have never been council members) to put forward their candidacy. If the AU tried to persuade the junta to do so behind closed doors, its efforts were unsuccessful. But as council elections approach, it cannot be business as usual.
A second term for Sudan would be bad for the council, bad for Africa, and, above all, bad for the Sudanese people. It would only be good for the country’s military and security forces, who continue to commit abuses with impunity. Just last week, Sudan’s resistance committees issued a political blueprint detailing how security forces have killed at least 117 protesters and injured 6,000 since the coup.
Given the AU’s failure to exercise leadership, it’s up to U.N. member states to act. Sudan’s name will be on the ballot Oct. 11. While Africa once again presents a closed slate, voting states should refrain from choosing Sudan. They have no obligation to do so: they can leave the ballot blank and vote only for candidates who “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” (this is the phrasing of the council’s founding resolution). If Sudan fails to gather a majority of votes (97), its candidacy will be rejected. It’s unlikely, but not completely impossible.
We urge UN member states to act in a principled manner and reject Sudan’s candidacy. It’s the least they can do to support the Sudanese people and their quest for Freedom, Justice and Peace.