Rosalind Marsden
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
The next phase of Western engagement should focus on human rights, peace and democracy.
A Sudanese soldier walks in a procession during President Omar al-Bashir's tour in Darfur on 21 September. Photo: Getty Images.A Sudanese soldier walks in a procession during President Omar al-Bashir's tour in Darfur on 21 September. Photo: Getty Images.

After decades of isolation and tense relations with the West, Sudan seems to be coming in from the cold.

The US announced that 20-year old economic sanctions would be permanently eased with effect from 12 October because of Khartoum’s ‘positive actions’ on five tracks, including a sustained cessation of hostilities in the conflict areas of Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, improved humanitarian access and cooperation with the US on counterterrorism and addressing regional conflicts. This followed a provisional lifting of sanctions by President Obama in January. 

President Omar al-Bashir and his officials are jubilant at what they see as a major political victory and an important step on the path to normalization of relations with the US. Western governments also welcomed the US move, which they think will enable them to continue to engage with Sudan on counterterrorism and migration, exert more leverage on the peace process and human rights and open up new opportunities for Western companies. Speaking at Chatham House following the fourth meeting of the biannual UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue, the Sudanese Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs pitched hard for British investment.

But it remains to be seen whether the government of Sudan’s ‘positive actions’ will be sustained following permanent easing of sanctions. President Bashir continues to be the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Sudan remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

While the government may continue to collaborate on external issues such as counterterrorism and migration to the extent it considers necessary to appease the West, it is unlikely that there will be any improvement in human rights or opening of democratic space, particularly if Khartoum thinks that this is not a priority for the Trump administration and that the EU is primarily concerned about curbing migration.

The US Department of State has stressed that any further normalization of ties would require more progress on these tracks as well as improvements in human rights and religious freedom practices and commitment to full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. They have also warned that the US was ready to use additional tools, including targeted sanctions as appropriate, to apply pressure if the government of Sudan regressed on progress in these areas or took other negative actions.

US diplomatic efforts have yielded some results in terms of closer cooperation on counterterrorism, a cessation of indiscriminate aerial bombing by government forces in Sudan’s conflict zones, some improvement in humanitarian access in government-controlled areas and curtailment of support to armed opposition groups in South Sudan. However, as the US State Department acknowledges in its report, progress to date has been limited in a number of areas, including failure to reach a negotiated and monitored ceasefire with the main opposition armed groups, continued violence against civilians in the conflict zones by Sudanese security forces and armed militia, the continued denial of humanitarian access to opposition-controlled areas and impunity for past atrocity crimes. The operating environment for humanitarian organizations, though somewhat improved, also remains challenging.

US and UK officials say that they have used their improved relations with Khartoum to raise human rights issues, but activists think the Obama administration should have focused more explicitly on human rights in their five-track approach. They point to the human suffering of refugees and those living in the conflict zones, including 2.5 million displaced people in camps in Darfur, and Sudan’s poor human rights record more generally, including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, restrictions on political, press and religious freedom and the increased targeting of opposition party members, human rights defenders, trades unionist activists and university students (especially Darfuris), by the security service. 

There are differing views on the likely economic impact of lifting sanctions. The regime has for years blamed US sanctions for its economic difficulties. Yet since sanctions were provisionally lifted in January, inflation has risen further and the Sudanese currency has continued to depreciate. The UK and Norway hope that permanent easing of US sanctions will lead to ‘more inclusive economic development’. For Sudanese companies it will mean a new opportunity to access Western equipment and technology, particularly in key sectors such as aviation. But most foreign banks are unlikely to return as long as Sudan remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. An IMF staff mission to Khartoum in September concluded that the economic outlook hinged on implementing bold and broad-based reforms.

This begs the question of whether bold economic reform will be possible without political reform given systemic corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability and heavy spending on the military and security apparatus. Many of the Sudanese companies that have just been removed from the US sanctions list are controlled by members of the ruling party or the security organs. Several Sudanese economists have predicted that Sudan after sanctions will be much the same as Sudan before sanctions and that any economic benefits will go to those close to the regime instead of the broader population.

It is crucial that in the next phase of their engagement, in addition to making clear that there will be consequences if there is any backsliding, the US and other Western governments insist on prioritizing benchmarks for human rights and a comprehensive and just peace leading to democratic transformation. For Sudanese people, this is the only track that really matters.

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