(Washington) – United States policy makers should insist that Sudan take tangible actions to improve the government’s deplorable human rights record before permanently revoking sanctions, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.
“Sudan has a long record of demonstrating disregard for the most basic human rights,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The US government should not pass up this crucial opportunity to press Sudan for meaningful, lasting, and genuine reforms.”
Human Rights Watch and others have for decades documented grave violations of both international human rights and humanitarian law by the Sudanese government. Sudan’s armed forces have conducted widespread, indiscriminate air and ground attacks on civilians in Southern Sudan, Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile. President Omar al-Bashir is among five men wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of grave crimes, including alleged genocide in Darfur.
A January 2017 executive order by President Barack Obama temporarily lifted decades-long economic sanctions that blocked all US trade and business in the country. The order required the State Department to take action to reinstate the sanctions by July or else they would be permanently lifted. Under the order, the decision depends on Sudan’s progress in five areas: a “reduction in military offensives, a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, steps toward improving humanitarian access throughout Sudan, cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism and addressing regional conflicts.”
But the order does not explicitly require progress on longstanding patterns of human rights violations, and a six-month period is too short to evaluate meaningful improvement in these five areas, Human Rights Watch said. More specific benchmarks should be adopted, including ending attacks on civilians and indiscriminate bombing; sustained, unimpeded aid access to all conflict-affected areas; cooperation with the ICC; and releasing arbitrarily held detainees and ending torture and ill-treatment.
Comprehensive sanctions were first imposed in 1997, in response to Sudan’s role in supporting known terrorists and atrocities committed by the Sudanese government during Sudan’s long civil war, which led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. More were added in 2006, in response to grave crimes by government actors in Darfur – which the then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, called genocide – including targeted sanctions against individuals alleged responsible for crimes.
The US pointed to some progress when suspending the sanctions in January 2017. For instance, Sudan has allowed aid groups to access government-controlled parts of Jebel Mara, Darfur, where government forces attacked villages in 2016 and displaced more than 100,000 people. The government has also eased the bureaucratic process for aid group staff seeking to travel within the country. But government forces, as well as the armed opposition forces in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, have failed repeatedly to agree on delivering life-saving aid to rebel-held areas of those two states since war broke out in 2011.
Given Sudan’s long history of obstructing aid, it is essential for Sudan to facilitate sustained and unfettered access by independent and impartial aid agencies, and permit independent investigators and organizations to monitor progress on the ground, Human Rights Watch said.
It should also show progress reversing other patterns of abuse. Sudan’s sprawling national security agency detains political opposition members, human rights activists, protesters, and community leaders, some since November 2016, without charges. Some are being held for apparently no other reason than alleged links to human rights organizations. Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim, a well-known civil society leader detained since December, has yet to be charged with a criminal offense.
National security officers abuse detainees with impunity. In December, a British journalist and his American-Sudanese translator, who entered Darfur to investigate Amnesty International’s report that Sudanese security forces had used chemical weapons against civilians in Jebel Marra, were detained for nearly two months and severely tortured with beatings, electric shocks, and mock executions.
Security forces clamp down on public protests, including in recent weeks. In April 2017, security officers beat and arrested activists protesting a gold refinery in Northern state, and other security personnel prevented various public events, including a women’s rights rally in Omdurman. Authorities regularly censor newspapers and harass editors and journalists.
Instead of making needed reforms to repressive laws – particularly the National Security Act of 2010, which includes sweeping powers of arrest and detention – Sudan’s parliament has approved constitutional amendments that bolster national security services’ current broad powers and draft laws that further restrict civil society.
Sudan should also cooperate with the ICC, including through surrendering suspects, and genuinely investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses.
“Sudan’s record has to be viewed in its totality, not on the basis of what may be temporary lulls in fighting, or promises to do things in the future,” Lefkow said. “The US should delay any final decision about revoking sanctions, and take more time to insist on tangible improvements in human rights.”