Sudan: Rising Attacks against WHRDs and Women’s Rights Groups

© MENA WHRD Coalition

Eight organisations, including FIDH and OMCT within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, express their grave concern over the closure of civic space, attacks on freedom of expression, rising militarisation and continuous disruption and shutdown of communication that threatens the work and safety of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) and Women’s Rights Groups in Sudan.

February 14, 2024. We the undersigned groups and organisations would like to express our grave concern and raise the alarm over ongoing reports about the closure of the civic space, attacks on freedom of expression, rising militarisation and continuous disruption and shutdown of communication that threatens the work and safety of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) and Women’s Rights Groups in Sudan.

Shutdown of Communications

On February 7th, 2024, Sudan witnessed a complete communications shutdown. Reasons behind this shutdown remain unknown in the absence of official statements from operating companies and the warring parties. This shutdown followed two days of the extensive interruption of communications at the end of January 2024. The interruption of communications and frequent shutdowns have life threatening implications and put the safety and security of WHRDs at risk. Without access to communications, WHRDs struggle to document and report on the mounting atrocities on the ground. The interruption of internet networks has also impeded women groups’ access to the mobile banking apps that facilitate money transfers to operate or secure protection for WHRDs at risk. The #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 human rights organisations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — has raised concerns that “amid the ongoing brutal violence in Sudan, the continued weaponisation of internet shutdowns is a flagrant violation of international law.”

Attack on Wad Madani

Since the attack on Wad Madani, the capital of the central Al Jazirah state, in mid-December 2023, Women’s Rights groups and WHRDs have lost the resources collected since the start of the war. Dozens of WHRDs and Women’s Rights Groups were forcibly displaced for the second time, driven from the city that had been the humanitarian response hub for local and international NGOs. As WHRDs were forced to flee again, they faced enormous challenges searching for safe locations across states and neighboring countries. Dozens of WHRDs were harassed, detained, summoned and threatened by both warring parties during the last few weeks.

Targeting of Activists

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) launched an intensified attack on human rights defenders, humanitarian workers and volunteers, journalists, and peace activists in the last few months in the areas under their control. Aid groups and first responders faced rising restrictions of movement and supplies.

Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continued to arrest civilians, loot both public and private properties and perpetrate systemic sexual violence across the areas under their control. WHRDs and Women’s Rights Groups struggle to operate in these areas as the risks of sexual violence are growing.

At least five WHRDs and women first responders have been detained, summoned, harassed or threatened in the last few weeks. The attacks were reported in areas controlled by both warring parties. Since the war erupted, four WHRDs have been killed, two of whom were journalists. At least 11 women health workers were killed as well.

Closure of Civic Space and Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

In January 2024, Sudanese authorities in the relatively safer states in Northern and Eastern Sudan, including local governors, issued decrees to dissolve neighborhood resistance committees. These grassroot groups were mobilizing and organising communities since the emergence of the protests movement in 2018. The governors of five states also banned publication of information and imposed heavy penalties on publishing information on social media or other newspapers regarding the security situation in their states. Journalists and activists were detained in three states and two women journalists were summoned and threatened by local authorities following these decrees. In the Blue Nile state, Red Sea and other states, meetings and other forms of peaceful civic activities are either banned or not authorized. Women’s Rights groups and other NGOs operating in these states are working in hostile and increasingly challenging environments. Civic space in Sudan is closed, with an increasing militarisation of the state and local communities.

Rising Militarisation

During the last three months, Sudanese authorities launched a mobilisation campaign to arm civilians in various states under SAF control. This campaign’s leaders attacked and threatened activists who criticized the armament of civilians, including women, girls and boys. Voices of peace activists are considered treasonous by SAF supporters. The widespread arms in the hands of civilians has led to unprecedented threats to women and peace and security, including gender-based violence (GBV) in the areas outside of the fighting zones.

We the undersigned groups call on:

The warring parties:

  • An immediate ceasefire and the prompt creation of safe corridors for humanitarian aid organisations and groups, and to guarantee the safety of their operations;
  • An immediate restoration of telecommunications across the country;
  • Cease attacks on health facilities, medical supplies, and health workers, and uphold obligations under international humanitarian law;

The international community:

  • States and international human rights, peace-building and feminist groups and organisations to work together to create an immediate long-term protection program for WHRDs (and their families) that addresses relocation needs (in several locations if needed), provides psychological support for post-traumatic stress caused by war and conflict, including due to GBV, and equips WHRDs’ with all the necessary means to continue their work in the defense of human rights;
  • States to provide support for the FFM and other international mechanisms mandated to document human rights violations in Sudan, including by ensuring that these entities have the necessary resources to carry out their work effectively;
  • States to support local initiatives providing humanitarian support to local communities as well as support services to victims, and to support civil society’s documentation and reporting efforts so that the evidence obtained can be used for future judicial proceedings, including for those related to SGBV crimes.
  • The international community to establish a mechanism for the disclosure of the whereabouts of the disappeared and the release of detainees, and to urgently address the issue of enforced disappearances and grave violations in detention centers, including GBV;
  • The international community to reinforce and protect medical staff in accordance with international humanitarian law;
  • The Fact Finding Mission (FFM) recently established by the UN Human Rights Council, to ensure accountability is pursued for GBV crimes committed by warring parties, to regularly and meaningfully engage with civil society in this process, and to ensure effective protection of witnesses and victims;
  • All other UN human rights mechanisms, including UN Special Procedures, to support the FFM’s work and to investigate GBV as a weapon of war, to call for the release of detainees and for the disclosure of the whereabouts of the disappeared, and to demand an investigation into violations in detention, including GBV;
Read more