As Khartoum tries to convince the Trump administration it's worth more as a counterterror partner than as a designated sponsor of terrorism.
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The Sudanese government, still designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and implicated in genocide, has just hired a prominent Washington law and lobbying firm to help permanently repeal severe U.S. sanctions that have been in place for two decades. That’s put the firm, Squire Patton Boggs, into the sights of human rights advocates.
For $40,000 a month, Squire Patton Boggs will help the Sudanese government “avoid ‘snap back’ of U.S. sanctions on Sudan” and “identify and implement strategies to improve Sudan’s investment climate,” according to disclosure forms the firm filed this month to the Department of Justice.
Squire Patton Boggs’s decision to represent the Sudanese government, and by extension its president, Omar al-Bashir, left some human rights watchdogs fuming.
Bashir, who has been in power since 1989, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on three counts of genocide, two counts of war crimes, and five counts of crimes against humanity including rape, torture, and murder, all related to the country’s bloody and unresolved conflict in its Darfur region. According to the U.S. government, Sudan is still a state sponsor of terror.
“It’s legally possible for [Squire Patton Boggs] to do this. But the question is, is there a line somewhere on K Street you just shouldn’t cross?” said John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide organization. “In my view this is blood money.”
Squire Patton Boggs declined to comment on the specifics of its partnership with Sudan when Foreign Policy reached out. “For decades, we have represented foreign governments and foreign government institutions engaged in a productive dialogue with the United States or with which the United States government has taken steps to deepen or renew relations,” a company spokesman wrote in email to FP.
Sudan hired the firm this month, just as a key deadline on U.S. sanctions loom. Former President Barack Obama eased U.S. sanctions on Sudan in his final days in office in January, citing some progress in areas of countering terrorism and other U.S. priorities, giving Sudan a six-month reprieve. The decision lifted some restrictions on Sudan’s oil industry and other trade sectors.
But starting on July 12, the Trump administration can decide to permanently roll back the sanctions if it thinks Sudan has made enough progress in five areas: Ceasing hostilities in the Darfur region; ending meddling in war-torn South Sudan; improving cooperation on counterterrorism; boosting humanitarian access to war-ravaged regions of the country; and cracking down on an infamous rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will submit a recommendation on whether to fully repeal the sanctions to President Donald Trump by July 12 at the latest. A State Department official declined to comment on the progress of the review, and said the State Department “will make the final determination in July with input from a range of interagency partners.”
No matter the outcome, the decision won’t fully lift all sanctions; Sudan will still be subject to Darfur-inspired legislative sanctions and sanctions applied to official sponsors of state terrorism. Those, along with Sudan’s desperate need of national debt relief, could be further points of leverage for Washington, said Princeton Lyman, former U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.
While the debate plays out in Washington, Sudanese government-backed militias continue to ravage some parts of the country, human rights groups and local reports say.
“It legitimizes the [Sudanese] government to relieve these sanctions. It’s disheartening and demoralizing,” said Ryan Boyette, an American activist who has lived in Sudan for nearly 15 years. Boyette started a local reporting outfit, Nuba Reports, in 2011 to document the government’s ongoing atrocities. “I’m on the frontlines as these people are running from bombs and their villages are being burned. It’s really disheartening to see our government … ready to relieve sanctions.”
“From a moral point of view, you cannot lift sanctions on a genocidal government,” said Frank Wolf, a former congressman from Virginia who was active on human rights during his time in Congress and the first member to visit Sudan after genocide erupted in the early 2000s. “To lift sanctions on a genocidal government would be such a moral stain that I don’t think anybody around the world, anybody around Africa, could ever understand it,” he told FP.
Yet some former senior U.S. officials encourage a sanctions repeal. They argue that two decades of sanctions haven’t influenced Bashir at all and that the sanctions regime is outdated, hurting Sudanese citizens while leaving senior government leaders flush with cash in offshore accounts unscathed. They also point to the progress Khartoum has made in recent months to adhere to the five tracks of progress, particularly in counterterrorism — a top priority for the new administration.
Lyman said relieving sanctions could encourage the regime to change after years of isolation. “It is to me a preliminary way to move forward,” he said.
Another former senior U.S. official, Cameron Hudson, who worked on African affairs in the George W. Bush White House, agreed. “If you view sanctions as a tool for changing behavior, there’s value in every few decades assessing whether or not the tools you’ve been employing are changing that behavior,” said Hudson, now at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
But Hudson worried Sudan was far from a priority for the Trump administration, particularly with no high-level appointees in place at the State Department to keep day-to-day dialogue going with Khartoum. “There’s not a lot of value if any change of policy with respect to sanctions is not supported and backed up by a really robust diplomatic effort,” he said. Without that, “lifting the sanctions feels very unstrategic.”
The Embassy of Sudan didn’t immediately respond to request for comment on the issue.
Trump and Tillerson have made clear they prioritize national security and hard geopolitics over human rights issues. Though Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden for four years in the mid-1990s before he decamped for Afghanistan, the country is marketing itself as an ally in Trump’s renewed fight against terrorism. It is fielding troops for the Saudi-led proxy war in Yemen and cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies to track Islamic terrorists.
That emphasis seems to be working, Prendergast said. “Sudan has played it very smartly. They know exactly what we want,” he said. “They’re playing us like a violin.”
Wolf, who spent 34 years years in Congress, is no stranger to K Street, but expressed disappointment at Squire Patton Boggs’s decision to represent Khartoum.
“I know a lot of people at [Squire Patton Boggs]. They’re good people,” he said. “They’re better than this, I think it must have been a mistake .. .that slipped in. They’re better than this.”
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