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Congress must support Sudan's transition

Congress must support Sudan's transition
© ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Sudan and the Trump administration have agreed to a landmark settlement that includes compensation for the victims of terror attacks sponsored by Sudan’s ex-President Omar al-Bashir. The agreement sets the stage for delisting Sudan as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (SST), strengthening Sudan as a security partner. The settlement may also accelerate an agreement between Sudan and Israel to establish diplomatic relations.

Sudan was a pariah under Bashir’s dictatorship. It was placed on the SST list in 1993 for supporting acts of international terrorism.

Bashir was ousted by pro-democracy demonstrators on April 11, 2019. The transitional government subsequently adopted measures aimed at turning Sudan into a civilian-led democracy. Khartoum has emerged as an ally fighting terrorism, cracking down on terrorist financing through anti-money laundering laws and policies.

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De-listing Sudan as an SST will have a huge impact on the country’s progress and reintegration into the international system, making Sudan a stable security partner at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. Sudan has done its part. Now Congressional action is needed to remove Sudan from the SST list and facilitate Sudan’s integration into the international community.

On Sept. 14, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators wrote the Senate leadership to commend Sudan’s settlement with the State Department. They wrote, “This settlement agreement is a critical benchmark for Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, which will move the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship forward, open doors for further regional opportunities, and enable Sudan’s transitional government to access international financing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Beyond consolidating democratic reforms, delisting will foster economic development by increasing foreign investment and improving business conditions for international banks and companies. Khartoum must also reduce its large external debt and arrears, which impede external financing and macro-economic stability.

After delisting, the U.S. can vote in favor of IMF and World Bank debt relief packages and other multilateral financing. Delisting will also have symbolic value, improving the perception of Sudan as a place for doing business.

Delisting could be a bonanza for U.S. companies. Not only is Sudan rich in hydrocarbons; it is also home to gum arabica that is harvested from Acacia trees by women’s cooperatives in Darfur. Expanding gum arabica production, widely used in food processing and cosmetics manufacturing, could be a windfall for companies like Coca-Cola, Chobani and Estee Lauder that require reliable and high-quality supplies of gum arabica.

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Most Sudanese mistakenly blame the SST listing for the country’s economic woes. However, the SST listing is just part of the problem. In fact, U.S. sanctions were largely lifted in 2017, except for prohibitions on weapons sales and travel restrictions for a few criminals associated with the former regime.

Khartoum must do more to revive Sudan’s economy through greater transparency. Strengthening the rule of law and better financial oversight would enhance banking supervision. Sudan’s Financial Intelligence Unit should open investigations and bring cases to the judiciary, prioritizing the spoilers of democratic and economic reforms.

It will take time for Sudan to address its large external debt and arrears. International financial institutions are ready to help. According to the IMF, Sudan is now eligible for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

The deal to delist Sudan could have geopolitical ramifications, catalyzing diplomatic relations between Sudan and Israel. Sudanese civilian and security officials, including Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman who chairs the Sovereignty Council, have expressed their willingness to follow Bahrain and the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel.

Sudan would open an embassy in Jerusalem and establish diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, including tourism, technology and energy cooperation. Commercial air travel between Sudan and Israel would result.

Sudan is on the cusp of a major transition. The U.S. must be proactive in helping Sudan, which requires Congressional action. If Sudan can democratize and establish relations with Israel, so can other countries that were previously impediments to peace and progress.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University where he chaired the “Two Sudans Project.” He was a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.