Arms trade and human cost of war in Sudan

Many thanks to Salih for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Salih’s reflections below, based on his experience of war in Sudan. While on the day we focused on human stories, for this post Salih felt it important to give us some context to the violence in Sudan. The video of our speakers is also available.

Country profile

Named the republic of Sudan after the independence from the British colonial rule in 1956 is in Northeast of the African continent (Horn of Africa Region). Boarders the Central African Republic to the Southwest, Chad to the West, Egypt to the North, Eritrea to the Northeast, Ethiopia to the Southeast, Libya to the Northeast, South Sudan to the South and the Red Sea to the East. It has population of forty million people and occupies an area of 728,215 square miles (use to make Africa’s largest country until the secession of South Sudan in 2011). The Capital city is Khartoum located in the centre of the country where the blue and White Nile Rivers joint and create the great Nile River running down North stream to its Mediterranean estuary in Egypt.

Political history and previous conflicts

Due to failure in nation-state building, rule of law and multicultural governance, the country never experiences sustainable peace and political stability since the independence in 1956, when it descended into a series of violent Intra-state conflicts. the first war broke out in the south of the country in 1955 just a couples of months before the Independence Day. The south Sudanese (dominantly native African Christian and atheist groups) rejected their annexation to the North (mainly Muslim Arabs descendants’) which dominate the new national state and control the natural resources with the aims to deculturize and assimilate the native African Sudanese into state adopted Arab-Islamic traditions to consolidate grip of power and hegemony. This war alone, has cost more than 1.5 million lives, millions other injured and internally/externally displaced civilians. Eventually, this war ended through a political settlement in 2004 which guaranteed the right to self-determination for the South Sudanese.

In 2011 through a popular referendum, the South Sudanese overwhelmingly opted for independence and secession from the motherland however, new violent civil conflicts emerged in other parts of the country including Darfur region which, experienced a brutal and ferocious response by the Sudanese national army backed by allies the notorious Arabs militias (Janjaweed). Allegations of heinous atrocities: genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes perpetrated by the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed militias against the black Darfurian civilian population prompted an international investigation by the United Nation International Criminal Court ICC in The Hauge/The Netherlands. Eventually, an arrest warrant against by then sitting president Al-Bashir and other state officials was issued by the ICC but not executed to the day due to lack of cooperation by the current Sudanese government.

Current active violent conflict

In April 2019, the notorious regime of president AL-Bashir was toppled after months of peaceful popular protest, strikes and civil disobedient raising expectation of the Sudanese people for transition to civilian democratic that would profoundly resolve historical grievances, injustice and remove root-causes of conflicts through a transitional justice and national reconciliation processes.

transitional power sharing arrangement between civilian and military leaders was agreed to stir the country and prepare for a general election in three years period. soon nevertheless, became clear that there is a serious security threat and impediment to the entire political transition process as the Janjaweed militia transformed itself into a powerful paramilitary (Rapid Support forces RSF) that rivalling the legitimate national army with political ambitions, economics influence and strong external relations with some regional and global powers such as Russia which has vital interests in Sudan and uses the Janjaweed militia as a proxy to materialize these interests. Russia has secured the flow of weapons and military supplies to the Janjaweed militia through Wagner Group PMC in return for free access to gold sources in different parts of the country.

The situation of having two separate military powers in one country has created political and economic fragility and volatility as the power-struggle between the two for the control of the Sudanese state institutions and the national wealth intensified by; military built-up by both sides, coupled by divisive political polarization and mobilization among various Sudanese communities increasing the likelihood of violent conflict.

On the morning of April 15th 2023, the rhetorical rivalry between the national army and RSF forces took a different violent course when clashes of airstrikes, artillery and gunfire were reported throughout the country. however, the intense fighting concentrated within the Capital city and Darfur region to the west. All regional and international mediation efforts to stop the fighting failed so far as the war still waging on claiming thousands of innocent lives, destroying infrastructures, impeding provision of basic social services, and threatening to spill over beyond to the neighbouring countries.

The impact on civilian population

Unequivocally, the impact of the war in Sudan so far is colossal on all aspects of the country. Images and videos from news outlet and social media reflect the level of damage and destruction to vital public infrastructures, state buildings and private properties. These material cost of war nonetheless, are possible to be repaired and rebuild when the war ends. the human cost however, is likely to affect generations to come. As the reports on 25th July 2023 suggest, between 5,000 and 7,000 civilians were killed and 10,000 to 15,000 others injured as a result of the fighting between the two forces. Furthermore, reports from June 2023 estimate more than 3.5 million civilian Sudanese have been internally displaced while 1.5 million others fled to neighbouring countries and became refuges.

Reports have indicated that civilians of all ages are experiencing various human rights abuses, including sexual assault and gender-based violence, as well as looting and shortages of food, water, healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, fuel and other basic goods and services, and collapse in communication channels. Densely populated residential areas of Khartoum, Bahri, Omdurman and towns in Darfur and North Kordofan are facing electricity cuts, a lack of healthcare and basic services, while running out of food, water, and medicines. Some infrastructure and services, including 11 hospitals that have been attacked, have collapsed. A shelter for girls with disabilities in Khartoum was shelled leading to the death of a girl and injuring another. A shelter for older women in Khartoum was reportedly also damaged.

Arms trade fuelling violent conflicts in Sudan

The proliferation of arms and ammunition in Sudan may originally, a legacy of the cold-war era and spill over from conflicts in the region. Various Sudanese governments however, played crucial roles in arming non-state militant groups in the country fuelling a cycle of violent intrastate conflicts and political unrests as in the case of South Sudan, southern regions of Blue Nile, south Kordofan and Darfur region.

In July 2004, in response to the global outcry over the humanitarian crisis being caused by the violent in Darfur, the United Nation Security Council adopted Resolution 1556. The resolution established a ban on the sale of arms to non-governmental groups and individuals, including the Janjaweed militia. The resolution moreover called on the Sudanese government meet its obligation of disarming Janjaweed militia. Nevertheless, Resolution 1556 fell short to include other government backed militia. United Nation Resolution 1591 in 2004 however, extended the ban of arms sale to include the Sudanese national security forces. Since the illegal flow of arms continued despite the previous two resolutions on arms embargo, comprehensive arms embargo Resolution 1945 in 2010 was therefore adopted by all member states of the Security Council with only China abstaining.

According to HART 2015 report on the arms trade in Sudan, Sudan is one of the heavily armed countries in the world as the accessibility of small arms and light weapons (SALW) has been a cause of regional and global concern as it instigates and escalate violent conflicts and instability. China and Russia are evidently; are the main suppliers of arms to Sudan in return oil and gold.

Reflections on the Human Cost of War from Anna Stavrianakis

Many thanks to Anna for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Anna’s reflections below, based on her research and teaching about war and the arms trade at the University of Sussex .  The video of our speakers is also available.

Thank you Robin and Quaker Roots for the invitation. And thank you Burhan, Salih and Sukaina for sharing your experiences of war.

I would like to make three points about the UK arms trade and its role in war: first, what drives the UK arms trade; second, the limits of export controls; and third, the importance of direct action.

What drives the UK arms trade

What drives the UK arms trade is a combination of state geopolitical interest plus the close relationship between the state and arms industry. By that, I mean the deep commitment across the British government and establishment – across both Conservatives and Labour – that Britain should try to remain a great power and have the military might to be one. This is combined with the deep, entrenched relationship between the state and arms companies. The arms industry’s interests are represented within the state: there is a government body dedicated to promoting arms exports. Called UK Defence and Security Exports (note that they don’t call them arms!), this body provides support to companies to advertise at arms fairs like DSEI: they offer help with government-to-government relationships, bilateral meetings, VIP programmes, presentations on what the weapons can do.

And beyond this immediate support for companies to hawk their wares, the preparation for war is paid for by taxpayers. BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company, routinely portrayed to us as contributing to jobs and the economy, pays less than 15% of its own research and development. The rest is paid by the state. So the costs are socialised – but the profits are privatised. And the arms industry is increasingly owned by major asset managers and investment funds, whose returns flow to wealthy individuals, pension funds, and foundations. At the time of a cost of living crisis, if the plight of our darker skinned friends doesn’t move us, the hit on our pockets just might.

The limits of export controls

The second thing I’d like to share is about the limits of UK arms export controls. On paper, the controls are clear that the government will not allow arms exports where there is a clear risk they might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. But we have seen direct evidence of the misuse of UK-supplied weapons. To give you an example from my home town, Brighton: a fragment of a guidance system for a bomb, with the markings of the EDO factory up the road, was found at the site of an airstrike on a factory in Sanaa, Yemen. The UN Panel of Experts concluded it could only have been dropped by the Saudi led coalition and that it was a likely violation of international law.

But it’s more than simply a case of the controls not being worth the paper they are written on. The government – again, whether Conservative or Labour – makes great play of its controls. They use them to justify and legitimise British involvement in the arms trade. Ask the government pretty much any question you like about its arms exports, and the answer you will always get is that the UK has one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. That’s why Campaign Against Arms Trade took the government to court about its arms exports to Saudi Arabia – three times. The first time, the High Court found in the government’s favour, on the grounds that government policy was legally rational. That doesn’t mean it was a good policy, but that it was rational in narrow legal terms. The second time around, when CAAT appealed, the government was found to have not even tried to conduct a meaningful risk assessment of the past use of weapons and told it had to stop issuing licences to Saudi Arabia. The government amended some other licences to ensure that companies could carry on transferring weapons under licences that had previously been grated; and conducted a whitewash internal review saying that any violations were isolated incidents, and couldn’t be said to constitute a pattern. So CAAT took them to court again. The decision was released last month – disappointingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it found in favour of the government. Again, the decision was on the narrow grounds of legal rationality.

The importance of direct action

Which takes me to my final point: the necessity and urgency for direct action against the arms trade. We are far beyond the point of saying, we should write to our MP; you should join a campaign group (although these are, of course, good things to do!). NGOs and specialists have been trying to engage with MPs, officials, those who have the power to change things from within, for years, trying to hold them to their commitments. The strength of the controls, such as they are, is largely down to NGOs in the British arms transfer control community. We cannot rely on the law to protect the right – the law protects the powerful. And the government is committed to exporting weapons when it deems it in its interest, regardless of the consequences. This runs alongside an increasingly racist and violent orientation towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – the latter often being the very people who are displaced by the wars facilitated by UK- supplied weapons.

To my mind, the significance of direct action is solidarity – not sympathy. The public outpouring of support for Ukrainians fleeing war has been both wonderful and troubling. When faced with people widely understood by white Britain to be “like us” and feeling from a familiar foe, Russia, people get it. But where has that widespread support been for Syrians, whose war couldn’t have been conducted without Russian support, and for Sudanese and for Yemenis? In this country, racially minoritized people experiencing and escaping conflict are portrayed either as terrorists, who need to be punished; or as interchangeable, often starving, poor brown and black people, often children, who deserve sympathy at best. Too rarely are they portrayed as political agents and actors with whom we could act in solidarity. The UK is caught up in crises over Brexit, the cost of living, Tory drama: it is not obvious that there is a social force of solidarity. It is up to us to show otherwise.

Text delivered at Quaker Roots event, ‘The Human Cost of War,’ 19 July 2023

Anna Stavrianakis, University of Sussex,

Burhan’s Story

Many thanks to Burhan for speaking at our event The Human Cost of War on 19th July.  You can read Burhan’s testimony about her experience of war below, the video of our speakers is also available.

I come from the north of Syria, from the ancient city of Aleppo—the place where I was born, grew up, and lived until 2014. It was a simple life, revolving around friends, family, school, and eventually university. Everything seemed ordinary until the day we decided to demand our rightful freedom of speech and the control of Syria’s resources. We wanted to expose those who were stealing from the Syrian people.

“We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!”

The year 2011 marked the start of the revolution in Syria. I took to the streets with peaceful protests, calling for the very essence of freedom because we were tired of being silenced and having no say in how our country should be governed. The regime of Assad had tight control over everything, treating Syria like their personal possession instead of governing for the people. We chanted with all our might, “We want freedom, justice, and a new way of life!” Little did we know the consequences that awaited us.

When I was in one of the peaceful protests, holding nothing but my empty hands, the Assad regime militias started shooting at us with live bullets. The sound of gunfire shocked me, and I couldn’t believe they would resort to such violence against their own people. In that moment, my sister grabbed my arm, panic in her eyes, and urged, “We have to go, now!”

But the most horrifying day was when the regime brought a missile truck just outside our house. It was around 9 am and I was in my room, and suddenly, a deafening sound filled the air, followed by white dust surrounding our house. I was terrified, thinking our house would collapse from the bombing. Tears streamed down my face, and I feared for my life. When the dust cleared out we saw the missile truck from the window. The truck stayed there for two long hours, firing eight missiles, each one claiming innocent lives just a couple of kilometres away. The memory of that day will never fade from my mind.

Another haunting experience was witnessing the first Russian Sukhoi plane flying low and then unleashing a monstrous sound, while releasing a missile striking another part of the city, followed by a dark smoke. I knew then that innocent lives were being targeted, and I couldn’t help but feel helpless and afraid for my fellow Syrians.

More and more memories come back while I am typing this—I survived 2 sniper shots, I crossed the deadliest path Karaj Al Hajez, and I lost my dad. I can’t talk about all these memories without thinking, why weapons? Why did we invent them? Why are we still using and developing them?

“Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.”

Amidst the chaos, we found strength in each other. My community—friends, family, my husband, and fellow activists—became a source of support and hope during the darkest hours. Our unity became our shield against the horrors we faced every day.

As the years passed, the weight of the conflict grew heavier, and the need to protect my loved ones pushed me to make a hard decision—to leave Aleppo behind. Leaving felt like leaving a piece of my soul in those ancient streets, but it was the only way to ensure safety and a chance at a better life for my family.

Leaving Syria didn’t mean forgetting. It didn’t mean giving up on the dream of a free and peaceful homeland. Instead, it made me a stronger advocate for peace, justice, and human rights. My experiences in Aleppo became a driving force to share our stories, to let the world know about the suffering and resilience of the Syrian people.

“I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.”

In a new land, I found kindred spirits who understood the pain and struggles of displacement. We became a family bound by the desire for a world without violence and oppression. My story became a voice for those who couldn’t speak, a plea for understanding and compassion.

Here in the UK, the faces around me are kind, and the people welcoming, but a part of me will always feel like a visitor—an eternal wanderer in search of a place to belong. The fleeting smiles and genuine hospitality remind me that humanity’s compassion knows no borders, but there’s a profound longing to be embraced by the familiarity of my own homeland.

I long to walk the streets where my father and I once walked, to breathe in the essence of my past and feel memories that have been preserved in the corners of my mind. The thought of never again seeing these roads, brings aches to my heart. I miss the sight of buildings that hold stories from my childhood—the places I visited and schools I went to. Which I can only revisit in my memories. While I seek to build new memories in a foreign land, I hold the memories from my homeland close to my heart.

Through it all, as I navigate the complexities of life in a foreign land, I carry with me the resilience of my people, the history of Aleppo, and the determination to go ahead despite the challenges.

Though I may never fully know the feeling of settlement in my life, I will keep fighting for peace and belonging.