ISS Today: Are sanctions working in Sudan?


    First published  by
    ISS Today

    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 effort
    s – 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

    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

    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

    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
    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
    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

    “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

    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

    This episode illustrates the great dilemmas of

    – 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. DM

    Peter Fabricius is an ISS

    Photo: Young Sudanese
    children hold a banner reading in Arabic ‘Lift the injustice’
    during a protest against longstanding US sanctions on Sudan,
    outside the US embassy, Khartoum, Sudan, 03 November 2015.