Obama's upsetting decision to lift sanctions on Sudan

In a surprising move, President Obama, with only a week left in his presidency, has made the decision to lift sanctions and open up trade with Sudan; a regime that has and continues to commit genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against its own people. The announcement is due to be made public today.

Since 1997, the United States has imposed economic, trade, and financial sanctions against Sudan due to its support of terrorism, and since 2003 due to the gross human rights violations in Darfur. Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir—an indicted war criminal and génocidaire—has led Sudan’s armed forces and militias to rape, pillage, and kill the non-Arab populations of Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Never wavering from his steadfast extermination strategy, Bashir has been able to consistently evade justice and strong international pressure to end the assault on civilian populations.

ADVERTISEMENT

Warming relations and lifting sanctions with a genocidal regime in the final days of President Obama’s term in office is not only deeply upsetting to rights advocates, it is a slap in the face to all those who suffer under Bashir’s reign of terror, the hundreds of thousands who have been killed, and the millions who have been displaced.

Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Sudan is not new, but is a far departure from his pre-Presidency rhetoric.

As a senator, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's sloppy launch may cost him Nagging misconceptions about nudge theory The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' MORE was a staunch advocate for bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur. In 2006, Sen. Obama spoke at the Save Darfur Rally to Stop Genocide. He said, “Today we know what is right and what is wrong. The slaughter of innocents is wrong. Two million people driven from their homes is wrong. Women gang raped while gathering firewood is wrong. Silence, acquiescence, paralysis in the face of genocide is wrong.” Mr. President, lifting sanctions and opening up trade with a genocidal regime is wrong.

Two years later, when Sen. Obama was campaigning for President he said, “We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again. And as President of the United States, I don’t intend to abandon the people, or turn a blind eye to slaughter.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he has done.

A departure from his harsher 2008 campaign rhetoric, normalization quickly became a cornerstone of President Obama’s Sudan policy, articulated in his earliest days in office. In 2009, then United States Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Scott Gration was famously quoted saying the U.S. needed to give Sudan “cookies,” gold stars” and “smiley faces.” The anti-genocide advocacy community pushed back hard against Gration’s remarks and Obama’s policy, and for a time the notion of normalizing relations seemed to wane.

But, in the past few years, the plan to normalize relations seemed to once again be a top priority for President Obama. In his first major policy address in 2014, U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth, spoke about normalizing relations with Sudan. In 2016, the State Department issued a series of statements praising the Sudanese government for their efforts associated with the national dialogue process and efforts to improve humanitarian access—both deeply flawed and mainly cosmetic efforts unlikely to be fully implemented.  

In September 2016, it was reported by Haaretz that Israel was strongly lobbying the U.S. and European allies to “bolster relations with Sudan,” mainly because of Khartoum’s apparent break away from Iran—a country Sudan previously had close ties to. A couple of weeks later, the State Department issued an uncharacteristically glowing and positive statement about cooperation with Sudan on counterterrorism efforts.

In the past, when the administration did discuss the policy to normalize relations with Sudan it was almost always accompanied by clear conditions that Khartoum would have to definitively end conflicts and gross violations of human rights in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Violence still rages, people remain displaced, humanitarian access remains cut off, and despite the latest national dialogue proceedings, Sudan is no closer to peace then when Obama took office.

To be clear, sanctions are not a policy, they are a tool; a tool that can only be effective if part of a larger policy. President Obama has not had a Sudan policy, if he did it was one of complete disarray with no focus towards bringing peace to Sudan, or ensuring one of the worst human rights abusers in the world would ever face justice. It is unfortunate that President Obama would make such a drastic move in his final days in office, leaving little points of leverage for incoming President Trump to use against Sudan.

So now that this decision has happened, what next?

Leaders in Congress should immediately issue a strong statement in support of the Sudanese people, and in support of peace and justice for the victims of genocide and mass atrocities. Standing against genocide, and supporting peace is a bipartisan issue and strong bipartisan leadership is needed to show the Sudanese people that the United States has not forgotten them. An absence of such a statement gives tacit approval to President Obama’s decision.

It is unclear what President-elect Trump’s policy will be towards Sudan, but it will likely be heavily influenced by whomever President Trump appoints as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. One frontrunner for the position, J. Peter Pham—the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center—has been a staunch advocate for lifting sanctions on Sudan, arguing that they have been ineffective. On the other hand, Dr. Walid Phares—a foreign policy advisor to President-elect Trump—and another possible candidate to fill the role, has vowed President Trump would not lift sanctions on Sudan saying, “Lifting the sanctions on Bashir’s regime is not acceptable."

The fact is, despite any counterterrorism cooperation that the administration feels the U.S. will gain from warming relations with Sudan, President Obama’s actions are another case of the U.S. sacrificing the human rights of others at the expense of our self-interest—a practice the president has derided in the past.

During a speech before the African Union to the people of Africa, President Obama said, “leaders in Sudan must know their nation will never truly thrive so long as they wage war against their own people -- the world will not forget about Darfur.”

The world has not forgotten about Darfur, but apparently the president has. 

Mike Brand is the Director of Advocacy and Programs at Jewish World Watch (JWW), an organization dedicated to preventing genocide and mass atrocities around the world.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.