In international politics, national sovereignty is a sacred principle that must be steadfastly safeguarded. But in deferring to this tenet, one must ask what makes a particular nation sovereign. In whom does supreme authority reside within that nation’s borders? Is it the people, or some other entity? If that authority rests with an individual or some other body, who or what confers that power?
These questions come to mind as the current humanitarian crisis in Sudan evolves. This crisis originated from the 2019 overthrow of Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, following a popular uprising by the Sudanese people. After al-Bashir’s ouster, a transitional government was established to oversee the process of returning the country to civilian rule. That government was subsequently overthrown in an October 2021 coup. The leader of that coup, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese army, became leader of the ruling council that has governed Sudan since. His deputy on the council, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, is leader of the paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Following international pressure on the two generals to cede control to a new civilian-led transitional government, the two men began to jockey for power within the new political arrangement. That intense rivalry precipitated the fighting between their forces. Since hostilities began in the middle of April, hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in the capital, Khartoum, with thousands more wounded. The unrelenting gun battles and rapidly deteriorating conditions have forced many nations to hurriedly evacuate their citizens from Sudan. For the tens of thousands of average Sudanese who are now trapped in their homes in Khartoum, with nowhere to go, the situation is getting increasingly dire. Water and electricity are scarce to nonexistent, and most people are said to be running low on food supplies. With residents unable to venture out to find food or escape to other parts of the country, the situation could get even more desperate in the coming days, unless there is a ceasefire.
Quite clearly, the people of Sudan never voluntarily conferred ruling authority on Generals al-Burhan and Dagalo. The two men forcibly took the reins of government through a coup, and have proceeded to hijack the machinery of state to bolster each individual’s quest for power. The helpless people of Sudan can only watch as the fighting escalates in the capital and their country descends into chaos. As is often the case, the crisis is having spillover effects, which could soon destabilize that entire region.
One could justifiably argue that the rule of these two generals lacks legitimacy. In that case, relying on the national sovereignty principle as a vehicle to search for ways to end the conflict becomes problematic. The poor Sudanese civilians cannot reasonably be expected to resolve this “internal matter” on their own, when they are caught in the crossfire between two heavily armed groups.
Article 2 of the United Nations Charter expressly gives deference to the principle of national sovereignty. It frowns upon UN intervention in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. Nevertheless, it goes on to say that “[this] principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.”
Recognizing that some internal matters have the potential to threaten peace and stability both domestically and regionally, Article VII of the Charter entrusted responsibility to the Security Council to take measures, including the use of armed forces, to restore order when necessary. The current situation in Sudan, where the actions of two unelected and unaccountable men have thrown a wide regional area into chaos, perfectly fits the type of problem Article VII was meant to address.
In essence, the permanent members of the Security Council were accorded a sort of “adults-in-the-room” status in the UN Charter. Ironically, in recent times, some of those members have been the worst generators of chaos, both inside and outside their national borders. Members of the Council cannot seem to agree on anything nowadays, and the body has become so dysfunctional that it can reasonably be viewed as no longer fit for purpose.
In truth, determining what constitutes a purely internal matter that is best left to domestic parties to hash out, and what qualifies as an issue needing external intervention, will always be a tricky balancing act. An essential requirement for any country to be able to resolve its internal disputes successfully and peacefully is the presence of strong domestic institutions. Those are in worryingly short supply in most places nowadays.
Large numbers of countries around the world are increasingly becoming less democratic, which means the frequency of Sudan-type conflicts will likely increase in the years ahead. In the interest of world peace and security, the Security Council needs to get its act together quickly, so that it can carry out the critically important responsibility assigned to it in the UN Charter. If it continues to demonstrate unwillingness—or inability—to do so, then in short order, the global community will have to start thinking seriously about finding alternate mechanisms to help deal with these emerging threats more effectively.