London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”

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