The Cable

U.S. Finally Lifts Sudan Sanctions, Citing Better Cooperation on Counterterrorism

Rights advocates, fearing loss of leverage over Khartoum, are dismayed

Sudanese President and Commander in Chief Omar al-Bashir salutes during a ceremony to mark the 53rd anniversary of the creation of the Sudanese armed forces in the northern Sudanese city of Merowe, on August 14, 2007. Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images)
Sudanese President and Commander in Chief Omar al-Bashir salutes during a ceremony to mark the 53rd anniversary of the creation of the Sudanese armed forces in the northern Sudanese city of Merowe, on August 14, 2007. Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States Friday afternoon lifted economic sanctions on Sudan, completing a process started by then-President Barack Obama in January. Though Sudan remains on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terror, the termination of sanctions will end a trade embargo, and unfreeze Sudanese assets in the United States.

Citing improved bilateral cooperation, particularly on counter-terrorism, improvements in humanitarian access, and “the ending of internal hostilities,” the Obama administration began allowing U.S. firms to trade in Sudan as a reward for improved behavior. However, Sudan had to show continued improvement during a six-month review period to win full repeal of the sanctions. That period was meant to end this past summer, but was pushed back by the Trump administration, likely owing to an absence of key appointees.

“Sudan’s actions during the last nine months show that it is serious about cooperating with the United States and has taken significant steps to stop conflict and improve humanitarian access within Sudan, and to promote regional stability,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in a statement on Friday.

Nauert specified that further normalization of ties between the United States and Sudan was contingent upon continued progress in key areas: further expanding humanitarian access, improving Sudan’s human rights and religious freedom practices, and ensuring that Khartoum is committed to the full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. Regarding the latter, Sudan has assured Washington it would no longer engage in arms deals with North Korea.

While the process has been underway all year, Sudan’s green light comes at a perplexing time: The United States just included Chad — one of America’s closest counter-terrorism partners in Africa — in its updated travel ban. The move left many analysts confused and worried that future cooperation between the two nations would be damaged.

Rights groups saw the delay in the final lifting of sanctions as a last opportunity to press Washington to reconsider and perhaps even impose targeted “smart sanctions” aimed at human rights abusers. Rights advocates and some lawmakers bemoaned the Trump administration’s final decision to lift all the sanctions, and cautioned the United States not to further reduce its own leverage when it came to pressing Khartoum on human rights issues.

John Prendergast, the founding director of the Enough Project, a human rights group focused on African conflict zones, called for targeted, financial sanctions that would spare ordinary Sudanese yet maintain pressure on Khartoum in order to achieve human rights improvements.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, warned in a statement Friday that the Trump administration’s decision could legitimize human rights abuses committed by the Sudanese government and its security forces.

“President Trump and President Bashir should understand that much more progress is required and any backsliding will likely result in Congress reinstating sanctions,” he said.

Photo credit: Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 10, 2017: Rep. Jim McGovern is the co-chair of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the commission as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Foundation.  

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. @MBourmont

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