The ongoing armed conflict between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan has been a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. The conflict began on April 15, 2023, when armed clashes erupted in the capital city of Khartoum. The conflict is primarily a result of a power struggle within the country’s military leadership, as both sides compete for control.

To classify, this conflict can be categorized as a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) according to the criteria outlined in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a non-international armed conflict is an armed conflict that takes place within the borders of a single state between its armed forces and one or more armed groups or between such groups only. The conflict meets the criteria of an armed conflict as it involves hostilities between government forces and a non-state armed group, the RSF.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is a paramilitary group in Sudan that was originally formed as an offshoot of the Janjaweed militias to help the Sudanese army quell the rebellion in Darfur. However, the RSF is also involved in other conflicts in Sudan and has been classified before as a non-state armed group. It is commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is also the deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council. Non-state armed groups are defined by international humanitarian law as armed groups that are not a party to a state’s armed forces and operate outside of state control. The classification of the RSF as a non-state armed group depends on factors such as the level of control it exercises over its members and whether it operates independently of the Sudanese government.

The criterion for the Classification of NIAC

To distinguish between banditry, civil unrest, and unorganized and brief insurrections, which are not governed by international humanitarian law, the ICTY in Milutinović et al. case noted that assessing non-international armed conflicts requires consideration of both the conflict’s intensity and the organization of the conflict parties. An internal armed conflict does not necessarily need to be “generalized,” meaning that the entire territory is involved in the conflict. Instead, evidence of prolonged and serious fighting in localized areas can satisfy the requirement of protracted armed violence.

  1. Level of Intensity Threshold

The level of intensity required for a conflict to be considered a non-international armed conflict is higher than that of internal disturbances, such as riots or sporadic acts of violence. Trial Chambers I and II of the ICC in Prosecutor v. Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo have adopted the ICTY’s assessment of intensity factors, which include the severity of attacks and the potential escalation of armed clashes, their geographic scope and duration, the number of government forces involved, the mobilization and distribution of weapons by both sides, and whether the conflict has garnered the attention of the United Nations Security Council, and if so, whether any resolutions have been passed.

Similarly, the ICTY Trial Chamber in Boškoski and Tarčulovski highlighted certain factors. These factors include the number of civilians who are forced to leave the areas where the combat is taking place; the weapons used, particularly the use of heavy weapons and military equipment like tanks and heavy vehicles; the siege or blockade of towns and the heavy shelling of these towns; the extent of damage and the number of casualties resulting from the fighting or shelling; the number of troops and units involved; the presence and changes in the front lines between the conflicting parties; the occupation of territory, towns, and villages; the deployment of government forces in the crisis zone; the closure of roads; cease-fire orders and agreements, and the efforts of international organizations to negotiate and enforce cease-fire agreements.

In Sudan the conflict has met the intensity threshold as both sides are using heavy weaponry, the conflict has quickly extended beyond Khartoum, with multiple locations in Sudan now experiencing fighting, there is a risk that the conflict could escalate into a full-scale civil war, particularly since the ceasefire is being disregarded with thousands of Sudanese having been forced to flee to safe areas. The conflict has attracted the attention of the international community and the United Nations has had to send the UN Relief Chief as the humanitarian crisis is at a breaking point.

  1. Organization of the Armed Group

Besides the condition that the violence must have reached a specific level of intensity and be continuous, Protocol Additional II’s Article I(I) specifies that armed groups must meet two additional requirements. Firstly, they must be under responsible command, which implies a degree of organization that enables them to plan and execute sustained and concerted military operations and enforce discipline in the name of a de facto authority, including implementing the Protocol. Secondly, they must have territorial control that allows them to undertake sustained and concerted military operations.

In Lubanga, the ICC concluded that organized armed groups involved in non-international armed conflicts must possess a sufficient degree of organization to sustain prolonged violence. Although Additional Protocol II’s Article 1(1) requires such groups to exercise territorial control and be under responsible command, Trial Chambers I and II in the Bemba case held that the requirement of territorial control is not included in the Rome Statute. Instead, when determining whether an armed conflict is non-international, Trial Chambers I and II held that the following non-exhaustive list of factors could be potentially relevant when assessing whether a group is an organized armed group: the internal hierarchy of the group or force; its command structure and rules; the availability of military equipment, including firearms; its ability to plan and execute military operations; and the extent, gravity, and intensity of its military involvement. None of these factors are conclusive on their own, and the test, along with these criteria, should be applied flexibly when determining whether a group is an organized armed group.

The RSF in Sudan are known for their flexibility and adaptability in their fighting. They have been described as a paramilitary group with a hybrid structure that combines elements of a traditional military force, a militia, and a tribal force. They are organized into several different units with varying capabilities, including infantry, artillery, and special forces. The RSF operates under the command of Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemeti.” Their tactics have been described by Human Rights Watch as brutal and include the use of indiscriminate violence against civilians. They are also known for their use of technicals, heavily armed and improvised vehicles mounted with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons, in their fighting.


Overall, the armed conflict between the Sudanese Army and the RSF in Sudan is a NIAC that meets the criteria outlined in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The classification of this conflict has important legal implications as it triggers the applicability of IHL and imposes obligations on the parties to the conflict. The parties to the conflict must abide by the provisions of IHL, which include the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and the prohibition of attacks against civilians and civilian objects.


Swaleh Hemed Wengo is a Law Lecturer at Prince Sultan University and the Director of operations & logistics at Firdaous Integrated Services (FIS). He holds a Bachelor of Laws from Kampala International Law, an LLM from Koç University in Turkey, and two Advance certificates on Freedom of Expression from the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford. His research area covers General Public International Law, International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law as well as Investment Law & Arbitration.

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