Reflections of Human Rights Lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman 10 Years after Receiving the Sakharov Prize

It has been 10 years since Sudanese human rights’ lawyer, Salih Mahmoud Osman, was awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. At the time, the Sudanese government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region was fully exposed, and it was at the centre of the international community’s attention and concern. Now, 10 years after Mr Osman received the Sakharov Prize and with Darfur absent from international headlines, it is critical to reflect and ask some searching questions. Most importantly, has the situation improved in Darfur and what is the wider picture in Sudan? Whilst Mr Osman was visiting the European Parliament in November, British MEP Julie Ward took the opportunity to meet him and discuss these issues.

A decade after receiving the Sakharov Prize in recognition for his contribution to protecting and promoting human rights values and respect for the rule of law, Mr Osman reflected, “I still feel honoured for receiving this prestigious award and I firmly believe that it was on behalf of the human rights defenders in Sudan and the entire globe". 

For the last 20 years, Salih Osman has been widely honoured for his work in defending human rights and providing free legal representation for hundreds of victims who have been ethnically cleansed, arbitrarily detained and tortured by the Sudanese government. His strong belief in fighting impunity has also led him to file cases on the victims’ behalf and challenge the government as a member of the opposition in the parliament. 

Darfur is widely recognised as the first genocide of the 21st century. According to the estimations of the United Nations, more than 2.6 million people in Darfur have been displaced over the past 13 years. Alas, 10 years after receiving the Sakharov Prize, Mr Osman stated that the situation in Darfur has sadly deteriorated.

Whilst it doesn’t get reported in media headlines, appalling violations still occur on a daily basis in Darfur. Violations include using rape as a weapon of war, extrajudicial killings, forcible displacements, arbitrary arrest and detentions, absence of justice, non-implementation of UN Security Council resolutions relating to Darfur, and non-implementation of International Court of Justice (ICC) indictments against President Omar Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

Regardless of the factual situation on the ground, international attention and solidarity regarding the issue of Darfur has diminished. Salih Osman warns about the danger of international silence, “We don’t see these stories on the front pages like we used to 10 years ago, when I received the Sakharov Prize. We must therefore demand a review of the international position and this shameful silence about genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

But how can this solidarity be manifested and what are the priorities that the international community and the European Union must demand?

Julie Ward is particularly interested in Osman’s view on the Khartoum Process, a new EU policy towards the Sudanese government that was launched in 2014. The Khartoum Process’s objective is to establish a long-standing dialogue and platform for political collaboration and cooperation on migration and mobility between the countries along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe. Since Sudan is regarded as a key transit country for migrants to Europe, it is an active member of the process. Osman’s attitude on the EU’s cooperation with Sudan on migration flows is rather critical:

“The Khartoum process is very controversial and provokes fears that this will negatively affect the EU’s obligations towards victims of genocide, and simultaneously allow negligence regarding the bloc’s response to protect human rights. This is largely because this new EU approach is normalising ties with a government that is globally renowned for committing genocide and vile human rights abuses. It is fundamentally providing the Sudanese government with legitimacy by considering it as a credible partner”.

In response, Julie Ward noted that when criticising the EU’s support to the Sudanese government within the Khartoum Process, many supporters argue that the EU does not provide any direct financial support to the Government of Sudan. Instead, the EU only offers technical support which cannot be misused for human rights violations[1].

Highlighting that Sudan is the 4th most corrupt country in the world, Mr Osman stated that all support, either financial or technical, ends up in the hands of the government and is misused against the victims. Moreover, Mr Osman added that, “Technical support is just as dangerous as direct financial support when it is provided to a government that has committed crimes against humanity and genocide against its own people. Collaborating with this government, instead of isolating them, sends a message of support and legitimacy from the EU. This is hindering the global pressure to implement the ICC charges against President Omar-Bashir

In fact, since the implementation of the Khartoum Process, violations in Sudan have increased and the EU’s critical voice has diminished, adopting a policy of silence about the ICC. This is a dangerous move, particularly in the absence of a monitoring body. Osman warms that while NGOs are perceived to conduct the monitoring, this supposition is not accurate, as NGOs are not permitted and do not have the space to monitor the situation in Darfur. In this respect, Julie Ward stresses the need for the European Union to review migration policies that danger its longstanding reputation as a human rights defender and champion, including the Khartoum Process. 

Though the conflict in Darfur may appear challenging to resolve, Mr Osman remains hopeful. In order to bring peace back to Darfur, Salih Osman firmly believes that justice must be attained first. In order to resolve the issue of impunity, Mr Osman advocates for implementing four key recommendations: 1) Push the government of Sudan to fulfil the recommendations offered in the report of the Human Rights Council, as the EU can certainly pressure for these conditions to be met; 2) Abolish laws that contradict the Sudanese Constitution; 3) Isolate President Bashir by recognising that the regime only survives because of support from the EU, USA, China and Russia; 4) Advocate for the implementation of ICC indictments to tackle the issue of immunity and provide justice to the victims and peace.

As the European Parliament prepares to honour its next Sakharov Prize winner it should reflect on the state of play  in countries where human rights abuses created the conditions for previous laureates.

[1] The EU does not provide any direct financial support to the Government of Sudan. Through the Khartoum Process, Sudan attains £34m to restrict refugee flows. These revenues could be used to pay for “military and police management posts, surveillance systems, transport vehicles, IT systems... EU officials deny that any revenues will go to government forces such as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), border guards on Sudan’s Libyan frontier linked to the notorious Janjaweed militia”. The Guardian, 2017