On January 13, 2017, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order revoking some economic sanctions that had been imposed on Sudan.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury cited several indications of “sustained progress” from the Sudanese government in areas such as counterterrorism and ceasing hostilities with conflicting parties within the country. Over the last two decades, Sudan’s government has committed mass killings, implemented systematic rape, bombed children and schools, starved civilians, and tortured and killed protesters and activists. The United States Treasury Department, however, asserts that Sudan’s government has demonstrated “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.” President Obama, in a letter to Congress, cited “Sudan’s positive actions over the past six months” as the motivating factor behind this historical reversal of U.S. foreign policy. The State Department also issued a statement describing increased cooperation with Sudan and attesting to the steps Sudan has taken to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
On November 3, 1997, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order imposing a trade embargo against Sudan. In April 2006, President Bush, in acknowledgment of UN Security Council Resolution 1591, froze the assets of certain persons in connection with the conflict in Darfur. Now, for the first time in twenty years, Sudan will be able to trade extensively with the United States but will still be officially labeled by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry is hopeful that through future cooperation, Sudan will no longer be classified as such.
The announcement of the sanctions lift has garnered significant dissent. The Enough Project called it “premature” and said “any easing of pressure on Sudan should be in exchange for resolving conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan, and ensuring humanitarian access to those affected by military blockades.” United States House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce stated, “while counterterrorism cooperation has increased, the government still abuses the fundamental human rights of the Sudanese people.” One of the few positive reactions came from Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, who argued that the sanctions had predominantly affected ordinary Sudanese people, and that the lift did not “reward” Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir.
Concern for the well-being of ordinary Sudanese people is not the only reason the Obama administration decided to revoke the sanctions. The administration felt that although Sudan has a long road ahead, a better relationship between the two countries can garner some clout in the region for the United States. Sudan is one of the poorest and most afflicted countries in Africa. The United States and Sudan are emerging from two decades of bitter relations, in which the latter has consistently expressed the desire to have sanctions and restrictions lifted. While sanctions are considered one of the most effective tools used by states to ensure compliance with international law, many consider Sudan as having made very little progress in the 20 years since sanctions were implemented.
Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for “charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur.” Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has documented, as recently as September 2015, “new, horrifying patterns of mass rape and other attacks” by Sudanese special forces in West Darfur. Amnesty International alleged in September 2016 that the government has used chemical weapons against civilians in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, causing between 200-250 deaths and more injuries. This evidence arose only four months before lifting of sanctions by the Obama administration.
Sudan has signed many UN Human Rights Conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. However, these Conventions may easily be violated by actions perpetrated by the Sudanese government, such as mass rape, the use of chemical weapons, and targeting specific ethnic groups in Darfur and South Kordofan. The Obama Administration decided to alleviate pressure on a country that is allegedly responsible for an attack on civilians in the Nertiti town of Central Darfur on January 1, 2017. The Sudanese government should protect its people and adhere to international law. Regardless of how friendly the United States and Sudan get, Sudan will never adhere to international law if the U.S. continues to secede to a government whose leader is charged by the ICC with ten counts of crimes. However, the administration could agree to permanently lift the sanctions if Sudan agreed to more over sight from the U.S. This hands on role could result in actual improvements from the Sudanese government.
The sanctions will lift in five months, after the Trump Administration assesses whether Sudan has continued to improve its human rights record and takes to steps to resolve political and military conflicts. Sudan was one of the seven countries included in Trump’s immigration ban.