How to respond to the protests in Sudan? The case for a responsible approach to armed intervention

Nearly nine years on from the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller prevented from selling vegetables by state officials, that kickstarted the ‘Arab Spring’, protests are once again gripping several Arab countries. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco have seen protests. Demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan have ousted the authoritarian leaders of their countries – Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika on 3rd April, and Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator, on 11th April.

In Sudan, protests continue as civilians call for total regime change. Sudanese security forces have reportedly killed tens or hundreds of peaceful protesters, with rape and other methods of torture used as an act of repression, in violation of international law. A transition agreement between protesters and the army looks shaky, and the risk of conflict escalation remains high.

The British public and MPs have joined international calls for action in Sudan to protect civilians. Should tensions escalate, the international community could be pushed towards intervention by the UN’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’ commitment. However, for the UK government, lessons from their failures the Iraq War and intervention in Libya are still fresh. How can the UK learn from these lessons whilst continuing to stand up for international law and norms? 

Military Intervention?

Since the British invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the mass public opposition that accompanied it, the UK government has been reluctant to spearhead protracted international interventions into other countries. During the Arab Spring, for example, whilst the UK and France were the primary backers of the NATO coalition’s intervention in Libya to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which called for a cessation of violence and an implementation of a no-fly zone, they were quick to withdraw. The coalition withdrew in October 2011 following the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, after the UN Security Council voted unanimously to end the military operation. 

The NATO coalition has since drawn criticism for lacking a well thought-out plan for the post-Gaddafi transition of Libya, as the National Transitional Council, and subsequent Government of National Accord, which have lead the opposition in Libya, have struggled to retain control over the country, leaving it divided by warring factions. 

These criticisms have left the UK government and public opinion reluctant to support armed intervention. In 2018, 52% of British adults said they opposed military intervention in other countries, with only 27% in favour. 2019 polling conducted on behalf of the BFPG found that only 16% of British adults view war as an important international issue. Despite the protracted and brutal civil war in Syria, for example, UK intervention has been limited to air strikes against ISIS and attacks on Syrian chemical weapons facilities. 

However, the government has continued to uphold its commitments to UN peacekeeping missions and other international coalitions. The UK currently has about 600 personnel deployed on UN peacekeeping operations and is the sixth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. Illustrated on the map below, as of July 2019 the British Armed Forces have troops deployed on operations or based across every continent on the planet – a feat that only France and the USA have the capacity to do.

Further, a petition calling for the UK government to stop the use of excessive force by the Sudanese government and militias, and a second calling for the UN to investigate the 3rd June suspected human rights violations by the military, have collectively garnered nearly 800,000 signatures. This suggests that the public would sanction a UN-backed operation. Indeed, much of the controversy behind UK involvement in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, was that the interventions were not backed by the UN Security Council, and thus breached the UN Charter. The 22nd July announcement that the UK is to send 250 troops to boost the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has been largely met without criticism, giving further credence to the suggestion that intervention in the name of peacekeeping and backed by international law would be acceptable both in government and in public. 


UK military presence including bases, training, and peacekeeping operations (as part of UN, NATO, or other international coalitions)


Towards a responsible approach 

What more can the UK do to protect civilians in Sudan and similar situations and uphold commitments to international norms of peace and civilian protection? First, it could help to increase national awareness both of the UK’s commitments to these norms and of the UK’s capacity to enforce them. In a 2018 YouGov survey which asked UK adults what it means for the UN to authorise military action, only 7% of respondents chose the correct response. The UK has a privileged position as a permanent member of the Security Council, and it could use this to lobby for and seek international support for missions to protect civilians. Britain’s military and geopolitical strength could be an asset in this respect – the Henry Jackson Society’s Audit of Geopolitical Capability 2019 ranked the UK as the second most powerful country in the world, suggesting it has the capacity to join and lead international coalitions, and lobby other powerful states to contribute to the protection of civilians worldwide.

Secondly, care and responsibility could be taken to ensure missions are well-executed and structures are put in place for military withdrawal and transition. By maintaining a focus on the transition period after military intervention, the UK can avoid repeating the mistakes of the Libyan conflict and increase the chance of a successful democratic transition or regime change. 

Finally, in order to strengthen its international position and ability to act in instances like the Sudanese demonstrations, the government could benefit from the development of a long-term Middle East Strategy. Both in reacting appropriately to the escalation of conflict, and in proactively avoiding international pressures from instability such as migration and terrorism, a coordinated Middle East strategy would be useful. This will enable foreign policy to respond more strategically to crises in the region, and allow Britain to begin to look at the region from a long-term perspective, rather than a crisis-to-crisis reaction. The Court of Appeals’ recent ruling that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful is indicative of a lack of joined-up government focus on the region, as the FCO has focused on implementing peace talks in Yemen, whilst permitting the arms sales that have fueled the conflict. Developing an in-depth and coordinated knowledge base of the region could prevent these issues arising in future and allow for the better executed-missions suggested above.

Broader movements from across government and related civil society groups could also be incorporated into this strategy to improve civilians’ lives in affected countries. Organisations such as the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy are already joining international coalitions to improve the situation. In Algeria, the British Council, International Labour Organisation, and World Bank have started an initiative to encourage economic diversification, youth employment and education; and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has partnered with the United Nations Development Agency, National Democratic Institute and BBC Media Action to improve political inclusivity and the media in Algeria.

By harnessing the best of our international capacity and hard and soft power reserves, the UK has the potential to become a world leader in standing up for international law and the protection of civilians in dangerous and high tension situations like Sudan. The government’s response must be well-planned, strategised, and sanctioned by the UN or else it risks repeating old mistakes.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.