The lobbying campaign to lift sanctions on war-torn Sudan is shifting into high gear now that the White House has delayed a decision on the policy until October.
K Street lobbyists and human rights organizations are working alongside diplomats in the administration to try to reach a final agreement on what any future restrictions on Sudan will look like.
As it stands, President Trump’s executive order gives Sudan a three-month window to show it has made improvements in five areas, including “addressing regional conflicts.”
It was a move that many in the foreign policy community expected, as Trump has not yet appointed people to the posts at the State Department or the White House’s National Security Council that handle Africa issues.
“We now have a three-month blitz to get people up to speed, but I can’t tell you what will happen if we get to October and we still don’t have the right people” in place within the Trump administration, said a person familiar with Sudan’s advocacy efforts.
The Obama administration first credited Sudan with making improvements in several areas related to sanctions and established five so-called tracks where further improvement was needed — including allowing more access to humanitarian workers in war zones, working with the United States on fighting terrorism, ceasing funding for rebels in South Sudan and working to reduce the conflicts throughout the country.
Former President Obama’s executive order, signed in January, granted a six-month easing of sanctions against Sudan that could be made permanent in the next administration.
The Sudanese were disappointed by Trump’s decision to extend a temporary easing of the sanctions, arguing that they had made enough progress on the benchmarks.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ordered the “suspension of the committee that was negotiating [the lifting of the sanctions] with the United States until October 12,” according to the official SUNA news agency.
One source told The Hill that others in the government are trying to walk back Bashir’s comments so that they can work with the U.S. on lifting the sanctions.
It’s a posture that may make diplomatic relations between the United States and Sudan difficult moving forward, but there is a sense of optimism among some working on the issue.
“There are decades of mistrust between both governments churning behind all of this. And because of that, the current rapprochement — while striking — is delicate as both sides struggle to build confidence in one another,” said the person familiar with Sudan’s advocacy efforts, who emphasized the government is prepared to address its human rights record.
Human rights groups see the Trump administration’s delay as an opportunity to push Sudan’s government on recognizing human rights and religious freedom — two subjects not addressed by Obama’s executive order.
State Department and National Security Council officials held a discussion at the White House last week emphasizing that those two issues would be top of mind, said Omer Ismail of the Enough Project. Since they did not appear in Trump’s executive order, Ismail said he was pleasantly surprised.
Ismail says the current sanctions should be lifted and replaced with “smart, targeted sanctions,” in addition to a way to monitor progress, and ensure the Sudanese should know that they don’t have “carte blanche to do whatever they want to do.”
“The implementation of sanctions is as important of the sanctions itself,” he said. Imposing sanctions “is not a policy; sanctions are a tool [used within] policy. They need implementation in such a way that they work.”
The Enough Project is part of a group of organizations working in both the United States and networks in Sudan that includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Humanity United, among others.
In 1993, Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terror by the State Department.
Sweeping sanctions on Sudan were first imposed by President Clinton in 1997 because of a suspicion that it was funding international terrorism in connection with allowing Osama bin Laden to live in Sudan’s capital as a guest of the government. In 2007, President George W. Bush slapped additional sanctions on individual state-run companies due to Sudan’s actions in the Darfur conflict.
The Netherlands-based International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Bashir related to charges of genocide and war crimes committed during the conflict in Darfur.
The lifting of sanctions is a potential policy shift that helped spur the government of Sudan to ink a $40,000 per month lobbying contract with one of K Street’s largest firms, Squire Patton Boggs.
The contract filed in May lists two priorities: working to “avoid ‘snap back’ of U.S. sanctions” and bolster the investment climate in Sudan.
Actor George Clooney and human rights activist John Prendergast penned an op-ed in Time magazine prior to Trump’s decision blasting Squire Patton Boggs and three prominent former lawmakers under its employ — former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE (R-Ohio).
“Squire Patton Boggs is a respected firm, and John Boehner, Trent Lott and John Breaux are all honorable men. The question of their firm working in the service of such a brutal and vile regime can only be answered by the simplest of terms. Probably, they just don’t know,” the op-ed concludes, ending a list of atrocities in the country. “But now they do.”
Squire Patton Boggs released a statement saying that the work would be helping Sudan meet the requirements set out by the United States.
“While we recognize and respect that others may have different views, our firm will be working with Sudan as it seeks to continue to meet the expectations of our government,” a spokesman said in response to the op-ed.
Law firm Cooke Robotham has also represented Sudan’s government since February, signing a contract worth $300,000 to help the country obtain debt relief.
Meanwhile, several former ambassadors and National Security Council officials released an in-depth report for the Atlantic Council arguing that the Sudan sanctions had not worked and that the U.S. government should instead increase diplomatic efforts.
“It doesn’t work to say, ‘When you’ve completely changed, we’ll lift the sanctions.’ It’s not the way change comes about,” said Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan who took part in the Atlantic Council report.
The Atlantic Council held an event in Washington last week to roll out the report.
“We have been waiting for the Sudanese economy to collapse, waiting for [Bashir’s government] to fall, waiting for the popular uprising to begin, but it hasn’t,” said Cameron Hudson, a former aide to Lyman in the Obama administration, during the discussion.