Human Rights and Cycles of Conflict: The Experience of Sudan | HART Prize for Human Rights

15 April 2015

This is the winning entry in the HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category, written by Elodie Jacoby. Read more entries here.


Breaking cycles of conflict in the world’s poorest societies is one of the most elusive and challenging goals for the global community. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that cycles of conflict are inexorably interlinked with patterns of human rights abuse. The case of Sudan demonstrates how civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of contemporary conflict as they become the targets of clashes between government forces, militia and rebel groups. Therefore, redressing grievances is increasingly difficult as violence is perpetrated in response to evolving triggers and identities. In light of this, the prevention of relapses is becoming an ever more pressing concern as Sudan’s population continues to experience the effects of insecurity and underdevelopment in their day-to-day lives.

The clashes currently occurring in Sudan stem from an outbreak in 2003 when rebels in Darfur chose to take up arms in opposition to the government against allegations of neglect in the region. Tensions between the numerous ethnic groups propelled new actors into conflict including government-supported militia and various tribal groups. By 2005, a United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (ICID) noted that a variety of indiscriminate attacks on civilians had occurred in the region. Allegations against the armed forces included death, torture, sexual violence, scorched earth tactics and the destruction of villages (ICID, 2005). Humanitarian access to the region continues to be heavily controlled by the Sudanese Government, which is causing the country to slide further into decline. It is estimated that more than a decade of unrest has driven 2 million Darfurians from their homes and cost the lives of over 1.5 million people in the country as a whole (BBC, 2015). Although South Sudan gained independence from the country in 2011, fighting between the various factions has continued within the mainland as similar outbreaks have occurred in the regions of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.

The Sudanese civil war is part of an alarming trend of conflicts that disproportionately target and terrorize civilians. In such conflicts, the identities of different groups are intertwined. The complex environment blurs the distinctions between civilian and combatant; perpetrator and victim; rebel and government forces (Kaldor, 2013). Within Sudan accountability for different war crimes has been complicated due to the fact that both sides have carried out attacks on local populations (Amnesty International, 2014). Civilians have been targeted as the intra-state conflicts are increasingly fought along symbolic acts of power and intimidation. These motivations were a driving force behind the multiple scorched earth offensives that occurred in the Blue Nile region throughout 2012 (Amnesty International, 2013). In addition to this, sexual violence against women has been combined with the offensives as part of a systematic policy aimed at uprooting local populations (DFID, 2013). Interviews carried out by Human Rights Watch in 2014 noted that, “almost half of the refugees said they had experienced sexual violence themselves, have an immediate family member or neighbour who had, or had witnessed sexual assaults” (p.1). In this context rape has been carried out as a form of occupation over the bodies and minds of the civilians. Because rebels and government forces focus on the acquisition of strategic symbols of control (in the form of resources and territories) they are willing to indiscriminately target innocent civilians. Therefore, the cycle of conflict is perpetuated as the actions of the armed groups continue to destabilise the region – ultimately leading to further underdevelopment.

Contemporary conflicts no longer fit into our conventional understanding of war and peace (Clark, 2013). We are increasingly faced with conflicts that are fluid in nature whose root causes stem from a complex web of factors. Furthermore, once a fragile state becomes trapped in a cycle of conflict it often lacks the governance and infrastructure to prevent future outbreaks of violence. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of conflict and underdevelopment. In the case of Sudan, aggravating factors included loss of arable land, access to oil and racial tensions between Arabs and non-Arabs (Sudan Consortium, 2007). The clashes between rebel groups, militia, tribes and the Sudanese Government have also been exacerbated by the weak governance and lack of social cohesion that permeates the region. The conflict has led to widespread economic stagnation, preventing large sections of the population from accessing much needed education and healthcare. As a result, a wide variety of actors among the international community have acknowledged the complexity of the conflicts occurring in Sudan. Recently, the UN UnderSecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos warned that the violence had the potential to create a generation of “lost” children (UN News, 2015). Valerie’s claims are substantiated by the fact that 40 per cent of war-affected countries relapse into conflict after ten years (The World Bank, 2011). The correlation between conflict and underdevelopment in Sudan was especially clear in 2013 when the government and rebel forces blocked humanitarian agencies from entering South Kordofan and Blue Nile. These actions only serve to entrench instability within the region as they simultaneously widen the gap between conflict-ridden and conflict-free countries.

One of the greatest challenges facing the future of Sudan will be establishing an environment that is conducive (rather than adverse) to diversity and pluralism. Reducing the insecurity in Sudan requires international actors to treat fragility as an issue that is driven by tensions in the social contract between society and the state. This is an important measure in breaking the cycle of conflict in Sudan as the violence has risen against ethnic and symbolic divisions. Relapses of violence have occurred as a result of the international community’s decision to allow the State of Sudan to maintain a high degree of sovereignty over its territory. In recent years a resiliencebased approach has become the UNDP’s key strategy for helping conflict affected societies. Resiliency focuses on allowing communities to address the complex web of divisions and past grievances that undermine social cohesion (Clark, 2013). Thus, the current situation in Darfur, Blue Nile State and South Kordofan confirms the requisite to start addressing cycles of conflict with more forward thinking approaches. This assumption has been supported by the World Bank (2011) in their report ‘Conflict, Security and Development’, which concluded that standard shortterm development templates are no longer compatible with contemporary conflicts. Consequently, the dynamics of the war in Sudan demonstrate how each cycle of conflict requires a tailored response that takes into account the unique circumstances that have caused the grievances. This is all the more necessary as the relationships between actors and conflict dynamics within Sudan are continually evolving (Amnesty International, 2014).

As the cycles of conflict continue to terrorise the Sudanese population, questions need to be asked about the future of the state once it enters a post-conflict phase. The dynamics of the violence in Sudan is reflective of the problems faced by a growing number of contemporary intra-state conflicts. As ethnic, partisan and regional identities are manipulated in the pursuit of power, it is civilians who bear the brunt of the struggle. A degree of commitment to establishing stability is needed as each displacement and human rights abuse only adds fuel to the tensions in the region. The Sudanese people are resilient, but if this resiliency is not transposed into the structures of governance the cycles of conflict will continue to plague the region.


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Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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