Darfur is a region in northwest Sudan. It covers an area approximately the size of Spain.

For several years in the early 2000s, soldiers of the military-led government in Sudan and their proxy militia, known as Janjaweed, fought rebel groups in Darfur. Between 2003 and 2005, an estimated 200,000 civilians died from violence, disease, and starvation as a result of the conflict. Another 2 million were displaced from their homes. The violence continued for years. It claimed more than 100,000 additional lives. In 2004, US Secretary of State Colin Powell termed the Sudanese government's campaign of violence in Darfur a genocide.

A popular uprising in the spring of 2019 resulted in the ouster of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But a coup in October 2021 led to the reinstatement of a military-led government.

On April 15, 2023, fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began. Since then, millions of civilians throughout Sudan have faced a threat of mass atrocities. The RSF is a paramilitary group with ties to the Janjaweed. Both the SAF and the RSF are accused of committing crimes against civilians. 

In Darfur, the RSF and its allied militias have engaged in targeted, ethnically-motivated violence against non-Arab populations. Reports of widespread sexual violence and the destruction of entire villages are reminiscent of crimes from the early 2000s.

The Genocide in Darfur (2003–2005)

From 2003 to 2005, Sudanese forces, in cooperation with the Janjaweed, engaged in a scorched earth campaign in Darfur. Government and Janjaweed forces systematically depopulated land inhabited by Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa communities through forced displacement and violent attacks on civilians. These acts amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Attacks included the intentional burning of homes, villages, and crops and the systematic destruction of food stores. Refugees and displaced persons were targets of further violence by government and Janjaweed forces. Among the acts of violence were the looting of relief supplies, killings, and widespread rape. These measures resulted in the deaths of 200,000 and forced displacement of two million people.

Over the course of the genocide in Darfur, a pattern of government-sponsored actions included:

  • Backing Janjaweed militias in systematic attacks against civilians from the same ethnic groups as rebel forces, primarily the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit;
  • Bombing civilians from aircrafts; 
  • Committing massive human rights abuses, including murder, rape, and persecution based on race, ethnicity, and religion;
  • Impeding international humanitarian access, resulting in deadly conditions of life for displaced people;
  • Harassing internally displaced persons;
  • Using rape as a weapon of war.

Large-scale government attacks against civilians declined after 2005. However, most of those displaced by the violence did not return home for fear that their villages would be attacked again. Attacks on civilians continued, on a smaller scale, for years.

The International Response

The violence in Darfur in the early 2000s received enormous public and international attention. This attention enabled international policy responses to help prevent future violence in the years that followed. It also helped to achieve justice for groups targeted by the Sudanese government’s mass atrocities. Human rights advocates organized public protests and campaigns in communities around the United States and globally. They called for the United States, the United Nations (UN), and supporters of the Sudanese government, such as China, to step in to prevent genocide in Darfur. 

Naming the Violence in Darfur a Genocide (2004 and 2005) 

Partially in response to pressure from human rights advocates, members of the US government were some of the first international figures to label the violence in Darfur a genocide. In 2004 and 2005, respectively, Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush issued statements condemning the ongoing genocide for which the Janjaweed and Sudanese government were considered responsible. 

The UN, the African Union (AU), and the European Union accused the Sudanese government and its allied militias of committing crimes against humanity. However, they disagreed that genocide had occurred.

The United Nations-African Union Peacekeeping Force 

In 2004, the African Union Mission in Darfur (AMIS) was established to monitor the Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement signed earlier that year. African Union and UN efforts to negotiate a permanent settlement expanded in the years following the initial AMIS deployment. The effort resulted in the short-lived Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006. In 2007, the United Nations Security Council authorized a hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) to oversee the implementation of the DPA. Throughout its tenure, the force was underfunded and understaffed. It was also vulnerable to attacks from Sudanese government forces and rebel groups alike. These constraints hindered UNAMID’s ability to fully implement its mandate to protect civilians in Darfur. From 2007 to 2014, UNAMID was the largest peacekeeping force in the world. It formally ceased all major operations in December 2020. 

Justice and the International Criminal Court 

In March 2005, the UN Security Council referred the case of Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In July 2008, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested the court issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President al-Bashir. The ICC charged al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes for the government's role in orchestrating violence in Darfur. In 2010, three counts of genocide were added to the list of charges. However, in 2014, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the case against al-Bashir would be suspended because of lack of enforcement by international actors.

Popular Uprising (Spring 2019)

A popular uprising in the spring of 2019 led to the removal of al-Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The NCP had been in power since 1989. The uprising ushered in a period of civilian rule and a new constitution. It also raised the possibility that al-Bashir and other Sudanese leaders indicted by the ICC could be held accountable for genocide and other violations of international law. 

Discussions between the post-2019 government and the ICC involved a potential hybrid prosecution of al-Bashir. It would include both international prosecutors and domestic judicial procedures. In August 2021, the transitional government indicated that they were willing to turn over al-Bashir and other indicted leaders to the ICC. 

Military Coup (Fall 2021)

In October 2021, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) staged a military coup and formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC). Despite promises of transition to civilian rule, the TMC undid many of the reforms initiated by the civilian government in 2019. The coup leaders did not restore al-Bashir to power. However, many of the new military leaders were also responsible for earlier human rights abuses in Darfur and other regions of Sudan. Sudanese authorities have not turned al-Bashir or other individuals with outstanding arrest warrants over to the ICC. 

After the October 2021 coup, RSF leaders—especially General Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan—continued to gain influence as members of the ruling TMC government. In December 2022, in the face of popular protests, the SAF, RSF, and Sudanese political parties negotiated a deal that would have slowly led to a new civilian administration in Sudan. The RSF, however, rejected the idea of formally integrating into the SAF. 

New Violence in 2023

In April 2023, the RSF attacked SAF positions in Khartoum and key military sites. The attacks sparked another wave of violence. Since this outbreak of violence between the SAF and RSF, civilians in Sudan have endured ongoing mass atrocities at an alarming scale. This includes a renewed, high risk of genocide in Darfur. Both the SAF and the RSF have been accused of committing crimes against civilians. 

In June 2023, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum warned that Darfuri civilians faced significant risks of genocide. Several factors that pointed to this risk included:  

  • systematic attacks by the RSF and allied militias;
  • impunity for past crimes; and
  • new hate speech against marginalized groups. 

According to the United Nations, fighting between the SAF and the RSF has killed more than 12,000 people as of December 2023. The violence has led to the displacement of more than 6.5 million people, including more than 1.2 million people as refugees to surrounding countries.1  

The scale of the atrocities has been officially acknowledged by the United States. On December 6, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined that between April and December 2023, the SAF and RSF committed war crimes. He also determined that the RSF and their allied militias committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Darfur.