UN’s rights chief horrified by Sudan escalation as famine draws nearer

Peace and Security

The UN’s top human rights official has personally intervened to try to stop spiralling violence in Sudan that’s having a terrifying impact on millions of civilians, who humanitarians say are “staring famine in the face”.

According to the UN human rights office, OHCHR, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, held separate phone calls on Tuesday with Lt-General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the rival Rapid Support Forces.

Diplomatic approach

Mr. Türk urged them both to act immediately – and publicly – to de-escalate the situation, said OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, who noted that the UN rights chief had previously approached the rival generals in November 2022.

“He warned both commanders that fighting in El-Fasher, where more than 1.8 million residents and internally displaced people are currently encircled and at imminent risk of famine, would have a catastrophic impact on civilians, and it  would deepen intercommunal conflict with disastrous humanitarian consequences,” Ms. Shamdasani told journalists in Geneva.

“He reminded the commanders of their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure strict compliance with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and to put an end to any ongoing violations, as well as ensure accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by their respective forces and allies.”

13 months of heavy fighting

Thirteen months of war in Sudan have left half of the population in need of humanitarian assistance – a staggering 25 million people, including 14 million children. Millions have been repeatedly displaced, becoming more vulnerable each time, and aid teams have warned repeatedly that famine is closing in, with the approach of the rainy season. 

The UN human rights office expressed concerns about the ongoing and lasting impact of conflict across Sudan, while highlighting the dire situation affecting civilians caught up in escalating violence in and around El Fasher in Darfur.

At least 58 civilians are reported to have been killed and 213 others since fighting dramatically escalated in the North Darfur town last week, OHCHR said.



Disease, famine closing in

Echoing concerns about the emergency situation, the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, warned that diseases are closing in and people are “staring famine in the face”.

The UN-partnered response plan aims to reach and support 15 million of the worst-affected people but $2.7 billion is needed urgently to do so.

Today, humanitarians have received only 12 per cent of the total and without an immediate injection of funds, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke warned that aid teams “won’t be able to scale up in time to stave off famine and prevent further deprivation”.

He added that funding would be used to “bring in more food, health services, shelter, water and sanitation, but also for prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, help to the victims, and support for the re-opening of schools for out-of-school children”.

Women collect water in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda.

© UNHCR/Esther Ruth Mbabazi

Women collect water in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda.

Fleeing to Uganda

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR,  also highlighted the need for sufficient funding as increasing numbers of Sudanese flee to neighbouring Uganda.

More than 33,000 are now in the country, 19,000 of whom have arrived in the capital, Kampala, since January. 

Uganda already hosts the highest number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Africa, 1.7 million people. On average, 2,500 people arrive in the country every week, mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

Despite this, Uganda remains among the top 13 underfunded operations globally, UNHCR said.

Critical funding shortfall

Humanitarians are seeking $858 million this year to support 1.6 million refugees in the country, and 2.7 million people in host communities, but received just 13 per cent of the required funds. 

UNHCR warned that the continuous influx of people fleeing conflict, combined with funding shortfalls, is putting pressure on the protection and assistance services provided to both refugees and local communities hosting them.

The health sector has already been hard hit, with staffing numbers reduced and insufficient supplies to meet critical needs. Schools also are overcrowded and there are not enough teachers or educational materials, making it difficult for refugee children to get an education.

Furthermore, critical protection services have also been affected, as refugee registration is facing lengthy delays due to the lack of necessary materials and equipment that make the process smoother.

This past week, UNHCR and senior Ugandan officials visited key partners including the Governments of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as European Union institutions, to highlight the impact of reduced funding, and advocate for additional resources.