Comprehensive dropping of sanctions against Sudan would be a terrible mistake

It is too soon to permanently ease sanctions on the Sudanese government. While President Trump’s eleventh-hour Executive Order issued this week extending the review period of the current temporary easing of sanctions is a welcomed announcement, we are still on a perilous track to lift sanctions.

If we do not immediately correct this course, the United States will lose leverage over one of the world’s most abusive governments and strengthen impunity across the globe. We would lose a desperately needed opportunity to work towards a more targeted sanctions system that relieves the Sudanese population of the stranglehold of the current regime, while also maintaining pressure on the most abusive elements of the Sudanese government.


Instead of permanently casting off sanctions, the Trump administration should use the three-month delay in the review period (which now ends Oct. 12) to still monitor compliance as well as construct new targeted sanctions with aggressive human rights benchmarks. Only after substantial and sustained progress should it consider permanently lifting sanctions.

Given history, a human rights angle to sanctions against Sudan is necessary. Beginning in 1997, the United States instituted broad economic sanctions against the Sudanese government in response to a vicious cycle of human rights abuses, which included the enslavement of women and children, indiscriminate bombings, torture, enforced disappearances, and, among others, the denial of religious freedom.

Nearly a decade later, the United States imposed additional sanctions, plus some targeted individual sanctions, for atrocities perpetrated by the government in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have been killed. The litany of abuses is long and horrendous and includes targeted and indiscriminate killings, rape and looting of civilians. Forced displacement has also been a hallmark of the conflict where millions were forced into camps.

In March 2009, Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes.

But the war in Darfur is not over: Humanitarian access remains limited at best in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and accountability remains elusive.

The comprehensive sanctions program initially put into effect by the U.S. had many negative unintended consequences on the citizens of Sudan and members of the Sudanese civil society. Fearing running afoul of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations, financial institutions and grant-makers simply chose to disengage from any business with Sudanese individuals and organizations, despite the exceptions made for humanitarian organizations. The fear and bureaucracy drove them away and, with them, critical funding and support for civil society groups. Comprehensive sanctions have also made it difficult to import life-saving medical equipment and medicines, which disproportionately impacts the poorest of Sudan’s citizens.

Nevertheless, the sanctions have likely limited the regime’s ability to commit atrocities against people of Sudan, as well as have played a role in piquing the regime’s interest in seeking a negotiated peace with the South, which culminated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The program did not, however, prevent what then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called a genocide against the people of Darfur; but it is not inconceivable that those murderous campaigns would have still left Darfur devoid of human life if the regime was more financially comfortable.

Recognizing the role that the sanctions program played, many in Sudan supported it wholeheartedly, enduring its negative unintended consequences and holding onto the hope of light at the end of the tunnel—the hope for the fundamental transformation of the human rights situation and a persecution-free Sudan.

Thousands poured their sweat and blood, in the most literal sense, into the protection of those human rights and the hope of a more cohesive society. Dedicated activists spent hundreds of thousands of hours preaching to youth against poisonous, extremist ideas mandated by Sudan’s school curriculums. Yet, the government just turned the multitudes into targets of their oppression. Activists, for one, braved the brutal manifestations of the repressive Sudanese state, which included arbitrary and unlawful detentions, ill-treatment in detention, restrictions on freedom of expression (like expansive censorship), the use of lethal force against protestors, and sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape.

And that all continues today.

Given their sacrifice under the sanctions regime, many Sudanese viewed as a betrayal the Jan. 13 announcement by the Obama administration to temporarily end the nearly 20-year old sanctions, pending a six-month review. Quite simply, the progress the Obama administration rewarded by announcing the relief of sanctions was nominal at best, and not what the people of Sudan patiently endured two decades of negative sanctions side effects to achieve.

While the sanctions have made life more difficult for Sudanese, a sanction-free government of Sudan would reap the benefits of intransigence, granting its murderous leaders legitimacy they do not deserve. Smarter, targeted sanctions would prevent that from happening.

Beyond the betrayal, the dropping of comprehensive sanctions is a bad deal for the United States. Under the current framework, the United States plans to lift its comprehensive sanctions against one of the world’s most abusive governments for virtually nothing in return. While some targeted sanctions for abuses associated with Darfur will remain in place, significant pressure will be relieved without any real progress. The Trump administration should therefore seize the opportunity to renegotiate this deal and impose more targeted sanctions on the most egregious offenders.

Pursuing a national policy that rests on a sanction-free, Bashir-led Sudan is dangerous and will likely imperil the lives of millions of people in Sudan. And it will weaken the United States who, in stripping away economic sanctions, will lose a critical leverage over the murderous regime whose depravity has not ended.

Richard Weir is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a board member of The African Middle Eastern Leadership Project. Mohamed Abubakr is a Sudanese human rights activist and the President of The African Middle Eastern Leadership Project. Views expressed are their own.

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