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Sudan Hopes for Sanctions Repeal as Deadline Looms

Khartoum hopes to get a permanent lifting of sanctions now that it’s playing ball with Washington in the fight on terror.

A picture taken on August 3, 2017 shows Sudanese foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour (L) attending a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart (unseen) in the capital Khartoum. / AFP PHOTO / Ashraf SHAZLY        (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on August 3, 2017 shows Sudanese foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour (L) attending a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart (unseen) in the capital Khartoum. / AFP PHOTO / Ashraf SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

With the clock ticking on an impending Oct. 12 deadline for the permanent lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions on Sudan, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour arrived in Washington on Thursday in an attempt to clinch the deal with U.S. authorities. 

His wasn’t the only attempt at persuasion: About 50 members of the Sudanese community from all over the United States gathered outside the Capitol in Washington to urge the Trump administration to keep sanctions on Khartoum. The sanctions, slapped on Sudan in the late 1990s, bar trade between Sudan and the United States and put some economic fetters on Sudanese leaders.

In January, then-President Barack Obama tentatively lifted significant elements of U.S. economic pressure on Sudan, including allowing U.S. firms to trade in Sudan, as a reward for improved behavior from the once-rogue regime. Obama highlighted improvements “related to bilateral cooperation, the ending of internal hostilities, regional cooperation, and improvements to humanitarian access,” but he made the final lifting of sanctions contingent on continued compliance by Khartoum over a six-month review period.

With the clock ticking on an impending Oct. 12 deadline for the permanent lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions on Sudan, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour arrived in Washington on Thursday in an attempt to clinch the deal with U.S. authorities. 

His wasn’t the only attempt at persuasion: About 50 members of the Sudanese community from all over the United States gathered outside the Capitol in Washington to urge the Trump administration to keep sanctions on Khartoum. The sanctions, slapped on Sudan in the late 1990s, bar trade between Sudan and the United States and put some economic fetters on Sudanese leaders.

In January, then-President Barack Obama tentatively lifted significant elements of U.S. economic pressure on Sudan, including allowing U.S. firms to trade in Sudan, as a reward for improved behavior from the once-rogue regime. Obama highlighted improvements “related to bilateral cooperation, the ending of internal hostilities, regional cooperation, and improvements to humanitarian access,” but he made the final lifting of sanctions contingent on continued compliance by Khartoum over a six-month review period.

This summer, the Trump administration extended the review period until Oct. 12, citing a need for more time, though analysts said a deficiency of key appointees was the cause. Ghandour, on his way to New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, was expected to make the case that a more cooperative Sudan deserves sanctions relief.

Indeed, some observers say there have been improvements over the past year that could justify relief. Last summer, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that Sudan has shared intelligence with the U.S. for counterterrorism purposes for years and appears to have ceased sending military aid to insurgent groups in South Sudan.

Permanent sanctions repeal, argued Magnus Taylor, an analyst for ICG’s Horn of Africa project, is “a pragmatic policy that recognizes that Sudan has changed since the first sanctions were imposed.”

But rights groups welcomed the delay this summer, pointing to continued human rights violations by the Sudanese government — especially its scorched-earth tactics in Darfur, restrictions on the movements of aid groups and peacekeepers, and the detention of human rights activists.  

Omer Ismail, a senior advisor at the Enough Project, an advocacy group that conducts research on African conflict zones, called for the imposition of “smart sanctions” on those responsible for human rights abuses in Sudan.

Ismail, who helped organize Thursday’s protest as a part of a group calling itself Concerned Sudanese American Citizens, said that government attacks on regime critics, such as the detention of human rights activist Mudawi Ibrahim Adam — faced with charges carrying the death penalty — show the fragility of progress in Sudan.

“If they were behaving like this with the sanctions on, the fear among the Sudanese is that this will give them a carte blanche that the U.S. administration does not care about the Sudanese people,” Ismail said.

But other experts cautioned that maintaining the broad economic sanctions that have been in place for years would do little to punish the regime but instead hit ordinary people the hardest.

“It is not so much the Sudanese government or the absolute elite that has suffered under the sanctions,” said Harry Verhoeven, a professor specializing in the Horn of Africa at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Rather, he said, it’s Sudanese students and academics who cannot access foreign scholarships to go to universities or get visas to attend conferences, farmers who cannot get spare parts for their machines, and hospitals that struggle to import medical supplies.

Photo credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images 

Martin de Bourmont is a journalist based in Washington. He was formerly an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MBourmont

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