ICC accuses Sudan and rebels of Darfur war crimes

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Sudan’s army and its rival paramilitary force are committing war crimes in Darfur, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor has said.

Karim Khan launched a war crimes investigation into the renewed conflict in July. On Monday, he reported to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that he had “grounds to believe” crimes established under the Rome Statute are being committed in the restive western region.

The situation in Darfur is “dire by any metric”, he told the UNSC.

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The Rome Statute established the ICC in 2002 to investigate the world’s worst atrocities, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression.

“We are collecting a very significant body of material, information and evidence that is relevant to those particular crimes,” Khan said.


Fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April last year, the latest flare-up in a conflict that has been simmering for more than 20 years.

The latest wave of violence has left nearly half of Sudan’s 49 million people requiring aid, with more than 7.5 million displaced. The UN reports that 12,000 people had been killed by the end of 2023, but the actual death toll is believed to be higher.

Khan, who recently visited refugee camps in neighbouring Chad that hold tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur, spoke of fears Darfur would become “the forgotten atrocity”.

He urged Sudan’s military-led government to provide ICC investigators with multiple-entry visas and respond to 35 requests for assistance.

Climate of impunity

Sudan plunged into chaos last April when long-simmering tensions between the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, erupted into street battles in the capital, Khartoum, and other areas.

The violence has extended from the earlier conflict that began in 2003, when rebels from the territory’s ethnic sub-Saharan African community launched an armed rebellion, accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of discrimination and neglect.

The government, under then-President Omar al-Bashir, responded with aerial bombings and unleashed the militia group Popular Defence Forces, also known as the Janjaweed, which is accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.

Internationally-brokered deals and peacekeeping forces have struggled to subdue the violence over the last two decades.

In 2005, the UNSC referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC. Khan has said the court still has a mandate under that resolution to investigate crimes in the region.

The prosecutor warned that the world must face “an ugly and inescapable truth” relating to its failure regarding the earlier conflict.

“The failure of the international community to execute the warrants that have been issued by independent judges of the ICC has invigorated the climate of impunity and the outbreak of violence that commenced in April that continues today,” he said.

“Without justice for past atrocities, the inescapable truth is that we condemn the current generation, and if we do nothing now, we condemn future generations to suffering the same fate,” Khan said.

‘Rules of war’

Responding to the claims, Sudan’s UN Ambassador Al-Harith Idriss al-Harith Mohamed insisted that the government had cooperated with the prosecutor’s office and was waiting for a visit from Khan.

He accused the ICC of not taking into consideration its “strategic engagement and the operational realities on the ground”.

Mohamed said the RSF “militia” is committing large-scale, systematic attacks which aim “to force ethnic cleansing and identity killing” of Darfur’s Masalit ethnic community. He said it is up to the prosecutor to determine if this amounts to genocide.

Sudan's General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan walks with troops,in an unknown location, in this picture released on May 30, 2023
Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan walks with troops in an unknown location in this picture released on May 30, 2023 [Sudanese Armed Forces/Handout via Reuters]

The Sudanese ambassador said the armed forces do not call for war but are compelled to defend the country. He claimed that the military spares no effort to minimise collateral damage and comply with the laws of war.

ICC ‘progress’

Last April, the first ICC trial to deal with atrocities by Sudanese government-backed forces in Darfur began in The Hague, Netherlands.

The defendant, Popular Defence Forces leader Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman – also known as Ali Kushayb – pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Former senior commander of the Sudanese Janjaweed militia Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb
Former senior commander of the Popular Defence Forces militia Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman during a hearing over alleged war crimes in The Hague, on May 24, 2021 [International Criminal Court via AFP]

Khan said he was pleased to report to the council that there has been “progress” in the ICC cases against former President al-Bashir and two senior government security officials during the 2003 Darfur conflict, Abdel-Rahim Muhammad Hussein and Ahmed Haroun.

“We’ve received evidence that further strengthens those particular cases,” Khan said. The three have never been turned over to the ICC, and their whereabouts during the current conflict in Sudan remain unknown.

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