Ambassador Irma van Dueren

Sudan is in transition and on a path to democratic elections, more rights for women and establishing a democratic state governed by the rule of law. This is an important process and the Netherlands is eager to lend a helping hand, said Irma van Dueren, the Dutch ambassador to Sudan. ‘A great deal can be achieved by sharing knowledge and bringing the right parties together. Especially in the area of food supply.’

Irma van Dueren

When did you first go to Sudan?

‘About fifteen years ago, when I was coordinator of the Sudan Task Force that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had at the time. After that I was in Eastern Congo and Burundi and then ambassador to Yemen. Sudan is now a totally different country than it was 10 or 15 years ago. In 2011 South Sudan became an independent state. Two years ago, dictator Omar Al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, was deposed following a popular uprising.’ Al-Bashir will be tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and genocide.

How would you describe the current situation in Sudan?

‘Sudan is in a period of transition. The temporary government wants to organise democratic elections within the next two years. A lot is changing: laws are being amended to improve the legal position of women. Economically, Sudan is in bad shape, but the IMF has cancelled a lot of the country’s debt. That offers possibilities. The country is building a democratic state governed by the rule of law. The Netherlands wants to make a contribution in all these areas.’

What is the most important issue in Sudan’s transition?

‘Food security for the people. Democracy is great, but many Sudanese don’t know whether they and their families will be able to eat today or tomorrow. So food security is essential for the country’s stability.’ 

How is the Netherlands contributing to that goal?

‘We support farmers by sharing expertise on new techniques and crops. Through other programmes, such as Orange Corners, we support women and young people who are starting their own businesses. We provide them with mentoring, for instance, in partnership with the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), other embassies and NGOs. We are also contributing to the establishment of a processing plant for gum arabic in Sudan. It’s a widely used raw material –it’s even an ingredient of liquorice – that has always been exported immediately after harvest. Setting up processing facilities in Sudan will create jobs.’

How has the embassy been affected by the pandemic over the past year?

‘Because of the pandemic, it was a strange start to a new posting for me. I had to self-quarantine when I arrived and wasn’t able to meet the staff for the first few weeks. Fortunately, everyone is vaccinated now, including the local employees, thanks to the Dutch vaccination programme. Video conferencing was a good alternative for some meetings. We had a big meeting at the embassy attended by people from the southern region of Darfur and the Sudanese agriculture minister. The Dutch partners participated by video conference. It went much better than expected.’ 

What’s the most memorable moment of your first year as ambassador?

‘I’m proud that we were able to bring the World Press Photo exhibition to Khartoum. The competition and the exhibition are Dutch, and a stunning photograph taken in Sudan in 2019 was named World Press Photo of the Year in 2020. It is a photo of a young man reciting a poem during a protest. People are holding up their mobile phones to illuminate him, because the former regime had cut off the electricity to disrupt the demonstrations. The photo has so much emotion in it: uncertainty after the change of power and hope for the future.’
‘We brought the exhibition to Sudan in February of this year. It was set up in the garden of the National Museum in Khartoum for several weeks. We had a video link with the Japanese photographer who took the winning photo and with the young man pictured, who coincidentally is studying in Maastricht now. It was great. Groups of schoolchildren and students visited the exhibition and everyone was really enthusiastic.’

What is it like living in Sudan?

‘I really enjoy drinking a cup of tea or coffee in the street. You can do that anywhere here. You sit at a little booth and chat with whoever’s there. It’s really warm here, between 35 and 45 degrees from March to September. I brought my Dutch bike with me, but you can’t cycle in this heat. You can barely even walk a short distance. And right now there are sandstorms. I enjoy the autumn more, when you can sit outside. The people are sociable and look out for each other. Even during a traffic-related incident, they remain friendly and try to work out a solution.’

Previously your work at the UN was in the area of sexual violence and women’s rights. How would you describe the position of women in Sudan?

‘In that respect, the change of power gives me hope. As I said, certain laws are being changed, giving women more rights. For example, they will be able to travel on their own without a male chaperone. In Khartoum there are clearly women who already have more freedom. The part they played in the uprising against Al-Bashir has empowered them. They want something in return.’
‘There is a big difference between urban and rural areas. On 8 March I went to the east, near the Eritrean border, to visit the Beni Amir. I wanted to be there on International Women’s Day. In this remote area, women take care of everyone’s basic needs and they have very little autonomy. They provide food, drinking water and firewood. They take care of the family, educate the children and provide healthcare. But there is very little in the way of services and infrastructure. There is a lot to be done there and the Netherlands wants to make a contribution.’