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Obama’s Premature ‘Easing’ of Sanctions on Sudan

Khartoum’s Counterterrorism Role Shouldn’t Override Ongoing Atrocities

Sudan’s government has committed mass killings, forced millions from their homes, and used rape as a weapon of war. It has bombed children and schools, starved civilians as a counterinsurgency strategy, gunned down scores of protesters in Khartoum, its capital, and tortured peaceful activists. It’s done this repeatedly over more than 20 years, with no credible efforts to stop or hold perpetrators accountable.

Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir arrives to address the nation during the country's 61st independence day, at the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan December 31, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Yet on January 13, the Obama administration announced a change to decades-old US policy, stating that it is “easing” sanctions on Sudan – even though the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, is being sought by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Lifting certain sanctions — like those on the import of medical supplies and life-saving equipment – would be welcome on humanitarian grounds, as the Sudanese people would benefit. But the US Treasury Department’s announcement apparently lifts most of the sanctions, including on the oil industry, pending a review in six months.

The Treasury Department asserts that Sudan’s government has shown “sustained progress …  on several fronts, including a marked reduction in offensive military activity, a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, [and] steps toward improving humanitarian access throughout Sudan.”

This statement is inexplicable. Many Sudanese, and those, like me, who have followed Sudan’s developments the past two decades, will ask, “What sustained progress?” Sudanese government forces are waging brutal offensives targeting civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states. The government has broken innumerable promises over the years, so why not wait to lift sanctions until after there is real progress? What monitoring has been put in place to ensure these promises are kept?

The Treasury Department listed another reason for lifting sanctions, namely Sudan’s “cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism and addressing regional conflicts.” This may be the key. However, many of Sudan’s security and intelligence officials are responsible for crimes committed by their troops and subordinates.

Additionally, over the past two years Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented new, horrifying patterns of mass rape and other attacks by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary force deployed in Darfur and other conflict zones since 2013. Amnesty International recently alleged that the government has repeatedly used chemical weapons against Darfur’s rebel-held areas.

Moreover, Sudan has long obstructed United Nations and other humanitarian agencies from helping displaced civilians in need. In the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, for instance, the government has blocked basic assistance into areas where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been battered by years of bombing, deprivation, and disease. Children have died from measles for lack of vaccinations. A Human Rights Watch team visiting in December 2016 documented new attacks and serious shortages of food and other humanitarian needs.

It’s impossible to match Sudan’s reality with the Obama administration’s claims of “sustained progress.” Lifting most sanctions sends an appalling message to Sudan – and other repressive governments – that whatever crimes you commit, however many of your citizens you kill, rape, and torture, all will be forgiven as long as you cooperate on counterterrorism. 

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