It’s remarkable how quickly the tables have turned in the Sudans. Just a few years ago the infant state of South Sudan was the pampered darling of the international community and its arch-enemy Sudan was the ogre.
Then the vicious civil war erupted in South Sudan with shocking levels of cruelty and violence, betraying the ugly reality behind the innocent façade of the country’s ruling Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Since then the images of the rival states have steadily transposed. As the political and ethnic killings, tortures and rapes continue unabated in South Sudan – despite intense regional and international peace efforts – Khartoum has quietly but steadily been coming in from the cold. This transformation only really came to the world’s attention last week when the United States (US), hitherto Sudan’s arch-enemy, announced it was lifting its main (20-year-old) trade and financial sanctions.
These measures were slapped on Khartoum for its alleged support of international terrorism, destabilisation of neighbouring governments and human rights violations. They were mostly introduced by president Bill Clinton in 1997 under Executive Order 13067 (with a few more added by president George Bush in 2006). The sanctions, which nearly crippled companies such as Sudan Airways, will formally cease today – 12 October.
President Donald Trump’s administration also recently dropped Sudan from the list of countries facing restricted travel to the US.
The role reversal is not complete by a long shot. A few low-ranking SPLM individuals have been targeted by the economic sanctions the Barack Obama administration introduced in 2014 after the eruption of the civil war. But the leaders and the country as a whole have continued to escape sanctions.
Meanwhile other US sanctions on Sudan – including targeted economic measures against individuals accused of political crimes in Darfur – remain. And the country stays, at least for now, on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, thereby being denied arms trade with the US. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also still a fugitive from the International Criminal Court, indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide during the protracted conflict in Darfur.
The lifting of parts of Executive Order 13067 is nonetheless a significant, though ambiguous, step – capable of several different interpretations. To some it’s simply a cynical realpolitik, Cold War-style manoeuvre to cement Khartoum’s role as a US ally in the fight against terror, regardless of its human rights abuses. In a similar vein, it was also widely reported by US media that Sudan’s cutting of ties with North Korea was the final trigger for Trump’s decision (though this is not clear). To others, dropping sanctions is simply an admission of their failure to influence Sudan’s behaviour.
To the Trump administration, though – and perhaps to Khartoum itself – it’s presented as a milestone along the route to Sudan’s rehabilitation.
The facts on which the decision was made, though, are disputed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained in a report last week that the measure was justified because for one, Khartoum had stopped meddling in the South Sudan conflict. (It had been supporting Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) faction against President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s.)
He said Khartoum was also helping the US fight Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (which it once supported), and had improved humanitarian access across the country. It had also ceased hostilities in its war against armed rebels in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and was helping the US counter terrorism, Tillerson said.
Improved human rights behaviour, as such, did not figure in either Obama or Trump’s formal conditions for lifting sanctions. But Tillerson said Khartoum’s termination of its notorious aerial bombardments in the three conflict zones had addressed a major US human rights concern.
And incidentally, he said, Sudan had responded a little to pressure from the US on other human rights issues, including by releasing a prominent human rights activist. Arguably Khartoum’s easing of past restrictions on the movement of humanitarian aid into conflict zones also has human rights implications.
Tillerson said Sudan still had much to do, especially regarding human rights, but also in ending the internal conflicts with armed opposition groups. But he said the US had retained several measures – including the Darfur and South Sudan sanctions orders and the state sponsor of terrorism instrument with which to punish Sudan for backsliding (or, presumably, to reward it for further progress).
Allan Ngari, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), was unimpressed by Trump’s decision, which he said portrayed ‘a measure of duplicity’. There was little support or evidence for the justification Tillerson provided, he said. ‘The humanitarian condition continues to deteriorate with little or no access by humanitarian organisations and CSOs into areas such as Darfur. There is documentation of ongoing violations of human rights and serious crime’.
Amnesty International reports on the use of chemical weapons by the state against Sudanese civilians as recently as 2016, for example, and the conflicts are continuing in the country’s west.
A recent Human Rights Watch report agrees that the human rights situation has not improved, saying ‘Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and aligned forces, notably the newly created Rapid Support Forces, have continued to attack civilians in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile with utter impunity.’ And it said government security agents continued to harass, arbitrarily detain and torture civil society leaders, human rights activists and students, to restrict civil society organisations and independent media; and to use lethal force to disperse protesters, ‘killing hundreds in broad daylight’.
‘This move is yet another self-serving Trump administration decision that affects other key global initiatives, including the fight against impunity for international crime,’ Ngari says. ‘This is a real pity for the victims in Darfur and Syria.’
Perhaps. But then again, Trump’s predecessor Obama made the assessment that Khartoum was improving its behaviour, just before he left office in January. As a result, Obama conditionally lifted the same sanctions, the decision to be confirmed if Khartoum continued to show progress over the next six months.
So is the US move a sign of cynical realpolitik? Or that sanctions can be effective, even in the most unlikely circumstances? Of course much remains bad in Khartoum’s behaviour. But that is not inconsistent with the carrot-and-stick approach that sanctions surely imply: partial improvements in behaviour are rewarded by partial easing of punishments. Perhaps that will encourage further improvements. Or perhaps not.
This of course is the crunch issue. Sudan expert John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, warned before the US lifted the sanctions that Khartoum was still committing countless human rights violations and that these would only increase if sanctions were eased.
After Washington announced it was rescinding the sanctions, Prendergast called on the Trump administration to replace them with a new policy framework of targeted smart sanctions. These would be against individuals and entities responsible for atrocities, rather than hurting the wider population.
This episode illustrates the great dilemmas of sanctions – how to maintain the delicate balance between carrot-and-stick and how to effect changes in behaviour of the culprits without punishing the innocent. Khartoum’s behaviour in the weeks and months ahead should help determine if the US sanctions regime is indeed working. Or if the sceptics are right.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant