Academic community stands firm in pro-democracy efforts

After initially cautiously welcoming an agreement by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to protect civilians and allow safe escape routes and the passage of humanitarian aid, the Civilian Front for Ending the War and Restoring Democracy (CFEWRD), which includes several university-based organisations, has announced that violence is ongoing.

In a statement on 13 May, the front said that, despite a signed agreement, there have been “aerial and artillery bombardment of residential neighbourhoods, and the continuation of armed clashes in residential areas, resulting in a significant increase in civilian casualties as well as damage to buildings and continued encroachment on citizens’ properties”.

The RSF-SAF commitment was outlined in the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan signed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 11 May with the facilitation of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The SAF-RSF clashes that erupted on 15 April 2023 have internally displaced an estimated 730,000 people and about 150,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. Those who remained behind in the capital, Khartoum, have been left without access to health care because only 16% of health facilities are operating in the capital, according to a report on 11 May published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The civilian death toll and injuries stand at 530 and 2,948, respectively, according to a 13 May report by a committee of the Sudan Doctors Trade Union. However, these figures could be higher, given difficulties in collecting accurate data in certain geographical areas.

The university community has also felt the impact of the conflict following the deaths of faculty and students and damage to facilities.

For instance, on 12 May, Al Mughtaribeen University, or Expatriate University, a private university located in Khartoum, was subjected to looting, theft and destruction, according to its official Facebook page.

Due to the conflict, fears emerged about the survival of animals at the University of Khartoum’s Natural History Museum, located within the university’s central Khartoum campus – an important resource for scientists and specialists.

There are concerns about the survival of at least 100 animals, asaccess to the museum has been cut off – leaving them without food or water – because of their close location to the military’s headquarters, where fighting has been heavy.

High hopes for an end to the violence

Despite the setback, the Forces for Freedom and Change Central Council, an alliance of activist and opposition groups, which includes university staff, in an earlier statement was hopeful that the agreement would be “an important first step towards ending the war” and urged the two parties to “strictly and seriously adhere to what has been agreed upon”.

The council said it looked forward to a final cessation of the conflict and the fulfilment of the Sudanese people’s aspirations for a civil democratic transition, including a single, professional army committed to its constitutional responsibilities.

Similarly, the Civilian Front for Ending the War and Restoring Democracy issued a statement on 12 May welcoming the Jeddah Declaration, but with reservations.

CFEWRD said that, although the declaration is an important step towards peace and stability in Sudan, it emphasised the importance of protecting civilians and preserving their rights.

It said the agreement did not include a truce or clear measures for a ceasefire, “but, rather emphasised basic principles of international humanitarian law and of the Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Civilians in Times of War, which both sides should have adhered to in the first place”.

CFEWRD expressed concern that the declaration was silent on accountability, which should not be a subject of “political bargaining, in instances where there were breaches of these principles”.

CFEWRD also called for the involvement of civilians in negotiations to reach a comprehensive political solution to the crisis and the rapid conclusion of discussions to achieve the declaration’s goals and enable the monitoring and delivery of humanitarian aid.

The front consists of 35 pro-democracy organisations, including several bodies representing Sudanese universities, their academics, graduates and students, namely: the University of Khartoum, the Al-Neelain University Teaching Staff Trade Union, the University of Nyala Teaching Staff Association, the University of Khartoum Alumni Conference, the Khartoum University Engineering Association, the Alliance of Professors of Universities of Science and Technology, the Alliance of Professionals and Professors of Imam el-Mahdi University, the Democratic Association of Sudanese Universities and Higher Institutes’ Professors, the Alliance of Student Movements, Democratic Engineers Associations, Sudanese Teachers Committee, Democratic Alliance of Lawyers, the Forces of Freedom and Change, an overarching alliance of activists and opposition groups, including university staff, and the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, an umbrella group of independent professional unions, including doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers, as well as the Association of Sudanese Professors at Universities, Faculties and Higher Institutes.

Support for education community

This RSF-SAF commitment is in line with a 12 May UNESCO statement in which it indicates its solidarity with the people of Sudan and deplores civilian casualties, as well as the impact on the population, including on students, teachers, artists, scientists and journalists.

It reminded all parties of their duty to respect international humanitarian law, in particular by “refraining from any attacks against civilians and civilian facilities, such as schools, universities, heritage and cultural sites”.

UNESCO has reminded all parties that, as per Resolution 2601 adopted in 2021 by the United Nations Security Council, member states must “prevent attacks and threats of attacks against schools and ensure the protection of schools and civilians connected with schools, including children and teachers, during armed conflict as well as in post-conflict phases”.

UNESCO also underlines the need to fully implement the Safe Schools Declaration endorsed by Sudan in December 2015.

On 15 May, the Education Cannot Wait (ECW) organisation announced a US$3 million first emergency response grant to provide access to safe and protective learning environments for incoming refugee girls and boys and support host communities.

ECW is the UN’s fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises.

The new grant comes in addition to the ECW’s initial contribution of US$445 million to the inter-agency regional refugee response plan launched by the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, and 134 partners to address the Sudan refugee regional crisis in the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

This news report was updated on 18 May.