On the afternoon of 7 November, the day after US Midterm elections, the US State Department released a statement to the news media, "Sudan commits to strengthening meaningful cooperation and reforms," announcing "Phase II" in its new relationship with Sudan. The statement put in writing what a spokesperson told three journalists the night before: The US would, under certain circumstances, lift its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Sudan has long wanted off this list to become eligible for international loans and debt relief. With its economy in tatters, this gift could not come at a better time.With all eyes on Midterm elections, few noticed the announcement. But it marked a significant evolution in US-Sudan relations, which have long been strained. As the ruling Islamic National Congress Party came into power after a military coup in 1989, the international community began to disengage. The US, citing Sudan's willingness to harbour terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal, put Sudan on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list in 1993 and withdrew its ambassador three years later. In 1997, the US imposed comprehensive economic sanctions, cementing its policy of disengagement.
During the 90s, Sudan's brutal and abusive tactics in its civil war against the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which had been going on since 1985, further damaged its poor reputation. The Sudanese government and its proxies fought the southern rebels, from non-Arab and mostly non-Muslim communities, in the remote swamplands of what is now South Sudan. For over two decades, government attacks, especially around oil concessions, destroyed towns and villages, killing and maiming civilians and forcing millions to flee. The long civil war ended with the internationally mediated Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005. But even as Sudan's leaders were negotiating that agreement, which paved the way for the South's independence, they were busy overseeing a new civil war, this time against rebel groups drawn from largely African Muslim communities in the western region of Darfur. Sudan's counter-insurgency tactics there were similar: Government forces and allied Janjaweed militia bombed and torched villages, killed thousands of people, and drove millions into camps for displaced people or to refugee camps over the border with Chad.
Concluding that the Sudanese government bore responsibility for atrocities in Darfur, the US secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, accused Sudan of genocide in 2004. The US imposed additional sanctions on Sudan and backed deployment of African Union and United Nations peacekeepers to Darfur. In 2005, the United Nations Security Council referred the situation to the International Criminal Court, which issued arrest warrants for several commanders, including President Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Al-Bashir, other government officials and affiliated commanders have evaded arrest.
As the war in Darfur simmered, Sudan became mired in a third civil war - in the so-called "two areas" of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile - when rebels from those areas took up arms against the government following South Sudan's independence in 2011. There, too, government bombing and attacks killed and maimed people, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee north or to refugee camps in bordering countries. Fast-forward to 2017. Against this grim background, in January the Obama administration started a process of normalisation with Sudan by promising to lift the economic sanctions if Sudan made "sustained progress" in five areas, which included reducing offensive military operations in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Sudan was also to improve access for aid groups and to cooperate with the US on counter-terrorism and other political goals in the region. In October 2017, the US decided that Sudan had made enough progress in those areas and revoked those sanctions permanently.
The January 2017 policy did not require any progress on human rights at all, despite well-documented, ongoing abuses. At the time, Human Rights Watch pointed out that while Sudan did reduce its bombing of civilians in Darfur and the Two Areas, its forces continued to attack civilians and open fire on peaceful protesters, as it did in late 2013, killing over 170 people on the streets of Khartoum and other towns. We proposed benchmarks that include obvious, easy-to-measure changes. For example, Sudan should reform its draconian security apparatus, with broad powers of arrest and detention, which has continued to detain activists and bring trumped-up criminal charges, and to torture and ill-treat detainees. We proposed changes to the law governing the media and the government's practice of censorship, and the repeal of certain provisions criminalising actions like apostasy, punishable by death.
Now, just under two years later, the US' "phase two" offers Sudan revocation of its state sponsor of terrorism designation with continued progress in six areas that include some of the previous five areas, such as cooperation on counter-terrorism. The US "phase two" policy finally does mention human rights, but it still does not say how progress will be measured in this area.
Given how non-transparent the US determination will be, one wonders if the US wants Sudan to do anything at all? After so many decades of responding to Sudan's human rights crises, the US seems to have thrown in the towel.