In 2003, Sudan’s leaders began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against civilians associated with tribes opposing the government’s policies. Over a period of several years, the government’s forces collaborated with militia groups to loot and burn villages, destroy crops, and rape and murder targeted populations in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. Millions of Darfuris — many of Black African descent — were displaced during the genocide, and hundreds of thousands died at the hands of the armed forces or of hunger and disease.
In 2005, as the humanitarian crisis continued to deepen, Mintz attorney Matthew Simpson was beginning his first year at American University’s Washington College of Law. There, at the invitation of Professor Paul Williams, who teaches international relations, Matt applied and was accepted into a program for students with an interest in public international law, including drafting and negotiating peace agreements. The US Institute of Peace contacted the program to ask if they would meet with Darfuri tribal leaders who wanted to engage in peace talks but needed advanced training on strategy and techniques.
For centuries, Sudan’s tribes resolved their differences on their own, without interference from a central government. With the involvement of Sudan’s government and military, tribal disputes had been exacerbated, escalating to armed warfare and leading to unprecedented destruction. Many of the Darfuris were ready to take steps to stop the bloodshed.
Matt, Professor Williams, and others developed a formal peace negotiation program, trained about 200 Darfuris in locations around the world, and put together a handbook covering everything from how to behave at the negotiating table to charting a negotiation strategy. About a year later, in 2010, the African Union and the United Nations initiated peace talks, funded by Qatar, and the Darfuri negotiators asked Matt and Professor Williams to advise them in the negotiations. For nearly two years, Matt — who had by then joined Weil Gotshal & Manges, LLP — and Professor Williams worked in Doha, serving as the only non-Darfuri accredited members of the Darfuri delegation.
After the first few months, Matt left the law firm and took a full-time position with the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), an NGO in Washington, DC founded by Professor Williams, leading their team focused on resolving the Darfuri conflict. “At times the job was very frustrating,” Matt said. “We were helping our clients navigate a peace process that was incredibly complicated, with various stakeholders exerting influence and often working towards competing goals.”
The peace talk’s co-sponsors — the African Union and UN — disagreed on the negotiation’s objectives, while the Qataris approached the talks from their own perspective. Disputes between African leaders introduced additional discord, and the risk of being targeted for retaliation was an ever-present threat to negotiators and their advisors. “Some of my clients were killed, both targeted killings and in battle, and colleagues in Kenya and Uganda were attacked as we were working on the agreement and related issues,” Matt said. “Once someone went to a meeting for me and was attacked in the street.”
At one point in the negotiations, Matt helped to orchestrate the first-ever surrender to the International Criminal Court — helping Darfuri rebel leader Abu Garda, then in hiding, reach the Hague, where he could get a fair trial. “The Sudanese government was rounding up Darfuri rebels and executing all of them within 24 hours of their sham trials,” Matt explained, “so we knew we had to help Abu Garda get to the Hague. It was the only way he was going to receive due process.”
In the end, the peace agreement cobbled together in 2011 was very flawed. “The document just didn’t hold together in a way that it needed to if it was going to stand a chance of being implemented,” Matt said. Although international parties urged Matt to get his clients to sign, he kept a key law school lesson in mind: the client determines the object of the representation. “At the end of day, the client has to decide whether to sign the agreement or not. It’s their attorney’s job to help them understand the terms and advise them in the process,” he said. “The 2011 peace agreement had many problems, and we advised our clients as much.”
Two of the three Darfuri rebel groups Matt was representing decided not to sign on to the agreement, which, unfortunately, proved incapable of implementation.
Years later, having returned to private practice and working at Mintz, Matt reengaged with PILPG and began to provide pro bono support through the firm. The Sudan military’s 2019 ouster of ruler Omar al-Bashir — accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court — had opened the door to a new peace process that all parties hoped would bring an end to armed hostilities in Darfur. PILPG was again advising negotiators, who were working to finalize a stronger agreement — several chapters of which were based on a thorough and more enforceable agreement that Matt and Professor Williams had drafted as an alternative to the flawed 2011 deal.
The new document was signed in Juba, South Sudan, on August 31, 2020. At over 150 pages long and very comprehensive, it was endorsed by all of the major negotiating parties and addresses issues such as power sharing, economic growth and development, the role of the military, the return of refugees, infrastructure development, and the sharing of natural resources.
In the fall of 2020, PILPG made Matt a senior peace fellow with the organization, and with the support of Mintz, he continues to counsel in a pro bono capacity, offering advice from time to time on the peace agreement’s implementation. “That’s where the document’s words really matter,” he said. The implementation of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement is facing its own set of challenges, as a military coup recently overthrew the interim government, but after working closely with Darfuris whose families and communities have experienced some of this century’s worst atrocities, Matt hopes the people of Sudan will find a path forward and together, will finally realize a lasting peace.