While the human rights situation in Sudan has hardly improved, with significant restrictions on the activities of opposition political parties and civil society organisations, the country remains a key partner of the European Union in its fight against migration across the Mediterranean, namely through the Khartoum process. This partnership, as well as close cooperation between some EU member states and Sudan for forced returns of migrants, and sometimes political opponents, raises the question of how far Europe is prepared to go to normalise its relationship with a state whose president remains accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
A poor human rights record
In its latest annual report, Amnesty International reported that political opponents, human rights defenders and journalists in Sudan were regularly subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, most often by agents of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS). Detention conditions were often difficult, in crowded cells, and prisoners were subjected to ill-treatment and even torture. Under the 2010 Security Act, NISS officers have extensive powers of arrest and detention and are immune from prosecution for any violations they commit. This law also allows any suspect to be detained for up to 4.5 months without charge.
Since 2012, protests against Omar al-Bashir’s regime have increased, mostly in response to austerity measures. Most of these demonstrations were met with violence and followed by arbitrary arrests and detentions, often of opposition members but also of journalists. In September 2013, at least 170 people were killed when thousands of people protested against rising fuel prices. Most were shot at by police and security forces. No investigation has been opened following this massacre and no member of the police or security forces has been prosecuted.
More recently, in January 2018, the government’s decision to entrust grain imports to the private sector, with the effect of doubling the price of bread, provoked demonstrations in several regions of the country at the call of opposition parties. The government has made hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions, mainly in Khartoum. Despite the recent release of some prisoners, many political opponents remain in detention, most of them without even having been charged.
On a visit to Sudan last April, the UN independent expert on the human rights situation in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi Khartoum,called on the government to lift restrictions on freedom of expression and association and allow civil society actors and political activists to participate in peaceful protest actions. He also called on NISS agents to stop arbitrary arrests aimed at silencing human rights defenders, journalists and political activists.
Bringing Sudan back from the cold through the Khartoum process
Despite a bleak human rights record and a president still being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, Sudan seems to have regained international legitimacy, notably by putting forward its key role in two areas of particular importance to western countries: the fight against terrorism and the fight against « illegal » migration.
In October 2017, the US administration announced the lifting of all economic sanctions against Sudan, citing progress in humanitarian access to its territory, reduction of its military offensives, but also cooperation in the fight against terrorism. A decision that was immediately criticized by Human Rights Watch, which recalled the lack of progress on human rights, and Amnesty International, which accused the regime of using chemical weapons against civilians in Darfur between January and August 2016.
Sudan has also become a key partner for Europe in its efforts to prevent African migrants from reaching Europe. The « Khartoum Process », signed in November 2014 and reinforced one year later at the Valletta Summit on Migration, is a partnership between the European Union and some twenty African countries, such as Sudan, Libya and Eritrea. This agreement aims to combat trafficking in human beings in the Horn of Africa, but also and above all, to reduce the influx of African migrants into Europe and to encourage them to remain in their countries of origin.
In fact, Europe is thus relocating the surveillance of its borders and subcontracting asylum applications directly to Africa, even if this means entrusting this task to states with little regard for respect for human rights. Critics of this agreement point out in particular that the security forces responsible for monitoring the border between Sudan and Libya against migrant incursions, which are indirectly funded by the EU, are mainly composed of former Janjaweed militias responsible for atrocities in Darfur.
While Switzerland initially denied active participation in the Khartoum process, it acknowledged in early 2017 that it had joined the process, with voting and decision-making rights, in December 2016.
Forced returns facilitated by close cooperation with Sudan
In addition to this agreement on the management of migration flows between the European Union and Sudan, the EU Member States also maintain close relations with Sudan with regard to the identification and return of Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers. In September 2017, a controversy erupted in Belgium when the government had to explain the arrival of Sudanese officials to identify Sudanese migrants with a view to their return to Sudan. According to information quoted by the Belgian Green Party, at least 6 of them were tortured on their return. Amnesty International severely criticised the deportations, arguing that Belgium had violated its international obligations regarding non-refoulement of persons.
France has also acknowledged that it has collaborated on several occasions with the Khartoum regime since 2014 to facilitate the return of more than 200 Sudanese, some of whom claimed to be victims of the regime’s oppression. Last April, the New York Times reported that in the last 18 months more than 50 asylum seekers had been deported to Sudan from countries such as Italy, France and Belgium. Of the seven NYT interrogators, four reported being tortured upon their return.
In view of the reality of the threats faced by persons returned to Sudan, European countries must put an immediate end to forced returns. They must also ask themselves how far they are prepared to go to normalize their relationship with Sudan.