UK ‘tried to suppress criticism’ of alleged UAE role in arming Sudan’s RSF militia

<span>The aftermath of an attack on Abu Shouk camp near El Fasher last month, when more than 100 people died.</span><span>Photograph: Darfur Network for Human Rights</span>
The aftermath of an attack on Abu Shouk camp near El Fasher last month, when more than 100 people died.Photograph: Darfur Network for Human Rights

UK government officials attempted to suppress criticism of the United Arab Emirates and its alleged role in supplying arms to a notorious militia waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Sudan, sources have told the Guardian.

Claims that Foreign Office officials put pressure on African diplomats to avoid criticising the UAE over its alleged military support for Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) will intensify scrutiny of the UK’s relationship with the Gulf state.

The RSF, a paramilitary group accused of carrying out crimes against humanity by rights groups, is besieging the city of El Fasher in Darfur, a sprawling region in western Sudan.

Fighters have encircled the city, amid evidence they are targeting and murdering civilians based on their ethnicity. The siege has prompting warnings that if El Fasher falls it will precipitate a large-scale massacre and possible genocide.

Yonah Diamond, an international human rights lawyer, said that during informal talks earlier this month in Ethiopia – to explore the possibility of legal action against the UAE over its alleged role in the fighting – he was told by senior African diplomats that the UK was actively dissuading some states from condemning the emirates.

Fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on 15 April 2023 as an escalating power struggle between the two main factions of the military regime finally turned deadly.

On one side are the Sudanese armed forces, who remain broadly loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto ruler. Against him are the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias who follow the former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Hemedti’s power struggle with Burhan can be traced back to 2019, when the dictatorial president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted following countrywide protests. Bashir had deployed the Janjaweed, the forerunners of the RSF, to crush a rebellion in Darfur in 2003. Analysts trace many of the roots of the latest conflict back to the appalling violence and human rights abuses – possibly genocide – committed in the region at that time.

The conflict has plunged Sudan into “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”, according to UN officials. It has created the world’s worst displacement crisis, scattering more than 8 million people internally and across Sudan’s borders. Nearly 2 million people have fled into neighbouring countries, putting mounting pressure on Chad and South Sudan.

Officials from the UN’s World Food Programme warn that nearly 28 million people across the region face acute food insecurity, including 18 million in Sudan, 7 million in South Sudan, and nearly 3 million in Chad.

Diamond, a senior legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said: “They told me that the UK was discouraging states from criticising the UAE.”

It prompted accusations among diplomats that the UK had prioritised its relationship with the UAE over the fate of civilians trapped in El Fasher, home to 1.8 million people.

Diamond’s talks in Addis Ababa involved officials from the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country east African trade bloc, along with other diplomats.

He said: “We were looking to build support for a civilian protection mechanism [in Darfur] and moves to hold the UAE accountable in the international court of justice or elsewhere in the region.”

Diamond, who co-chaired an independent inquiry that found “clear and convincing evidence” the RSF was committing genocide in Darfur, said: “We were following on from the implications of those findings, breaches of the [UN] genocide convention and the need for states to comply with their obligations.”

However, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) strongly denied the claims. A spokesperson said: “These accusations are categorically untrue. The UK is using its diplomatic influence to support efforts for a durable peace.”

The role of the UAE in Sudan’s brutal 14-month civil war between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces is hotly contested.

The UAE has repeatedly denied involvement in sending military support to any of Sudan’s warring parties.

On Tuesday, Sudan’s army-aligned government and the UAE clashed at the UN security council with the latter dismissing claims it was supplying the RSF as “ludicrous”.

However, UN sanctions monitors have described accusations that the UAE provided military support to the RSF as “credible”.

Last week the Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) at Yale University revealed images of a cargo plane flying over RSF territory near El Fasher, matching an aircraft type seen at locations in neighbouring Chad where lethal aid has allegedly been transferred to the RSF.

The findings have raised questions over potential arms resupplies to the RSF by the Gulf state, though it is not known who operated the Ilyushin IL-76 plane.

Nathaniel Raymond, HRL executive director, said: “It needs to be investigated by the UN security council, who can ask the UAE whether they are involved.”

The UK is the UN security council’s current “penholder” on Sudan, meaning it leads the council’s activities on Africa’s third-largest country.

In response to the claims, FCDO officials also pointed to a UK-led UN security council resolution last Thursday calling on the RSF in Sudan to “halt their siege” on El Fasher, the last city in western Darfur not controlled by the RSF.

The resolution “calls on all member states to refrain from external interference which seeks to foment conflict and instability” and to comply with the Darfur arms embargo.

Critics, though, say the text should have made explicit reference to the UAE as well as Iran, which is accused of supplying the opposing Sudanese Armed Forces, which has also faced allegations of war crimes.

Some say such an intervention arrived too late, accusing the west of dragging its feet as the RSF offensive on El Fasher unfolded.

Questions over UAE support for the RSF arose during a meeting in London on 13 June between the FCDO and members of the UK’s Darfur diaspora, which was prompted by the Guardian’s revelation of secret talks between Britain and the RSF.

Abdallah Idriss Abugarda, leader of the Darfur Diaspora Association, accused the FCDO of putting its relationship with the UAE above that of civilians’ lives. The claim was denied by officials.

Abugarda said: “We are very concerned about the British interests. It’s not beneficial that the UAE appears to have leverage over the UK. The UK doesn’t care about its moral obligation.”

His association represents 30,000 people in the UK and is thought to be the biggest such organisation in the world, unusually representing Darfur’s nine African ethnic groups.

Related: Children ‘piled up and shot’: new details emerge of ethnic cleansing in Darfur

Kholood Khair, Sudanese political analyst, said geopolitical dynamics explained any attempt to protect the UAE. “The UAE has made itself indispensable to the west, in particular the US, as a guarantor of its strategic objectives in the region,” she said.

Khair added: “The UAE has been helping the US stave off Chinese dominance in Africa by outspending Beijing and in return gets US security guarantees.”

Human rights groups point to economic ties and close links with the emirates of key British figures, such as the foreign secretary, David Cameron.

In 2013, as prime minister, Lord Cameron set up a secretive Whitehall unit specifically to court the oil-rich sheikhs of the UAE, with the aim of persuading them to invest billions in the UK.

In January the defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said he expected the UK to raise tens of billions of pounds of investment from the UAE.