Decision To Lift Sudan Sanctions Is Premature

cited progress on the ground is severely lacking

Posted by Mark Hackett on January 15th, 2017

With only one week left in his presidency, the Obama Administration has made the unsettling decision to most likely lift major components of U.S. sanctions against Sudan. This move is already being met with widespread criticism from Congressional offices, human rights groups, and Sudanese communities who have borne the brunt of the dictatorship's genocidal and oppressive policies. 

The deplorable nature of Sudan's dictatorship is well-known because it is well-documented.

Since seizing power in 1989, the Bashir regime has spent most of its time engaged in brutal wars against its own people and supporting international terrorist organizations with complete impunity.

In many areas of the country where the dictatorship has failed to gain the upper hand, it has resorted to starving civilians, bombing schools and medical facilities, and mass raping women and children as part of a broader strategy of seige warfare against civilian populations. 

These war crimes have been relentlessly committed for more than two decades. And there have been few credible efforts to stop or hold government perpetrators accountable.

Background Of U.S. Sanctions Against Sudan

Sudan is listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. The country has been on this list since 1993, when the Bashir regime turned Sudan into safe haven and training hub for international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was provided safe haven in Sudan for five years until he was expelled by the Sudanese government in 1996.

Starting the following year, the United States began to impose economic, financial, and trade sanctions against Sudan due to its support of terrorism.

In 2006, additional economic sanctions were added due to ongoing and horrific human rights violations in the western Darfur region


Why Are Some Sanctions Being Lifted?

On Friday, January 13, 2017, the Obama Administration made the extraordinary announcement that it was preparing to lift some sanctions on Sudan.

The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control provided a brief and vague determination why. President Obama's letter to Congress also provided few details. Later on the same day, a more specific press statement was provided by the State Department, although it lacked details in a number of areas.

The argument for lifting sanctions hinges on Sudan reaching undefined "benchmarks" over the last six months in five key areas as provided by the State Department. The U.S. government expects the Sudanese government to make additional progress in the next six months:

  1. An end to government offensive military operations.
  2. An improvement of humanitarian aid access in conflict areas.
  3. An ending of Sudan's destabilizing role in South Sudan.
  4. Taking action against terrorist organizations.
  5. Ending the threat of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

The State Department then goes on to provide only a few specific examples related to some of these areas:

Our engagement with Sudan under the plan has had multiple benefits for U.S. interests, the region, and the people of Sudan. It has had a positive effect on reducing conflict and addressing Sudan’s humanitarian crisis. For example, in December, Sudan revised national regulations that govern humanitarian action, bringing them into line with international standards for the first time. Moreover, for the first time in five years, Sudan opened access for humanitarian aircraft to reach Golo, Central Darfur, and allowed a needs assessment to occur that will inform assistance efforts in Golo and other previously inaccessible areas. Regionally, Sudan has stopped providing arms to South Sudanese opposition groups, is cooperating with the United States to address the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and has begun working with the United States to combat wildlife trafficking. Finally, Sudan has become an important partner in countering the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) and other regional terrorist threats.

There are a number of issues here. Let's begin with some of the broad ones before diving into some of the specifics. 

Interview In Yida by Operation Broken Silence on

Photo: Our media team interviews a young man who fled government aerial bombing of civilian areas in the Nuba Mountains. Photo taken May 29, 2016 by Katie Barber in Yida Refugee Camp. 

Broad Issues With This Approach

First and foremost, it should be made clear that the Obama Administration has had no real policy towards Sudan since July of 2011, when South Sudan became the world's newest country.

The wheels were already coming off of the policy wagon before then, but the U.S. government had a clear objective of ensuring South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan. Since then, the administration has largely ignored critical events over the last several years on the ground in Sudan that highlighted the need for an actual policy.

It was only a year ago when the Sudanese government launched a massive scorched-earth campaign in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur that witnessed mass rapes, mass murder, and over 100,000 people fleeing for their lives. As has been the case in preceding incidents such as these of many different sizes, U.S. policy was not reviewed, adjusted, tweaked, or updated. 

Sanctions on their own do not make a policy. Sanctions are just a tool and, when used correctly and leveraged, can be an effective part of a policy. President Obama has renewed sanctions against Sudan every year and consistently recognized that the Sudanese dictatorship poses an "extraordinary threat" to the national security of the United States, nearby governments, and the Sudanese people. This is not a policy adjustment, just a weakening of the U.S. government's most effective tool to date with regards to crippling the regime and forcing it to come to the table in a serious way. 

It appears that key people and groups with vast knowledge of the situation in Sudan — and how the regime operates — were not consulted in this decision.


U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power made this clear in her last press conference on January 13 (start at 50:00). Ambassador Power states that the decision to lift sanctions was an agreement reached "behind-the a discreet way" between the U.S. and Sudanese governments, no one else. 

U.S.-based advocacy groups that focus on Sudan were caught off guard by the decision. Larger and well-respected organizations such as Human Rights Watch pointed to extensive documentation showing that progress has not been made as stated by the Obama administration. Most disturbingly, the Sudanese people were left out of the process. The people who face aerial bombing, rape, murder, and destruction of their livlihoods were not consulted. Shocking. 

Lastly, the timing of this decision-making process does not take into account the historical context of how systematic campaigns of brutal government violence against civilians plays out in Sudan. In his letter to Congress about why sanctions are being lifted, President Obama states the following:

"I have determined that the situation that gave rise to the actions taken in those orders related to the policies and actions of the Government of Sudan has been altered by Sudan's positive actions over the past 6 months. These actions include a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism."

While there are a number of issues with these claims, the most clear-cut one concerns his declaration that there has been a marked reduction in military activity by the Sudanese government over the last six months. This is true, but not for the reasons the President provides in his letter. 

The Sudanese dictatorship historically launches its major military offensives against civilians between January-March due to the departure of the rainy season. In widespread parts of Sudan's conflict areas, poor road conditions only worsened by seasonal rains means that the government's heavy ground weaponry cannot be easily moved and used. There has been a reduction in violence the past few months just like there has been every year for this very reason. As expected, violence is already on the uptick as the dry season has begun. Less than a week ago and despite a ceasefire declared by the Sudanese government, government forces attacked a rebel position in Arum in Blue Nile State.

But there is another timing issue here: the Obama Administration is doing this on the way out of the door. That means the Trump Administration will actually be in charge of this issue moving forwards. As of right now, there are no known Trump staffers with extensive experience concerning Sudan. There is a serious danger that no real review of the effectiveness of lifting sanctions will take place. If the situation in Sudan continues as it has, sanctions may not be reinforced and leveraged for real change. 

Those are just a few of the broad issues. They are all obviously concerning, but let's move on to a few of the specific examples the State Department provided as reasoning for lifting sanctions. 

January 2016 Relief Mission by Operation Broken Silence on

Photo: An unexploded bomb is partially buried outside of a school in the Nuba Mountains. The school was targeted by a government warplane. Photo taken in January 2016. 

Specific Issues With This Approach

At least for now, the State Department has provided the most specific reasoning for lifting sanctions, even though that remains insufficiently vague. State provided five specific examples (paragraph 2) to back up the argument that the situation is improving in Sudan:

  1. The regime's very recent revision of national regulations concerning humanitarian actions.
  2. The smallest of improvements in humanitarian access in Golo, Darfur 
  3. An end of support to South Sudanese opposition groups
  4. Joint cooperation with the United States on addressing the threat posed by The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)
  5. Joint cooperation with the United States to combat wildlife trafficking
  6. Joint cooperation with the United States in countering the Islamic State and other terrorist threats

Let's take this point by point as far as we can. The U.S. government has provided no hard evidence on a few of these points, so some we will be unable to address. 

The first point of the regime-revising national regulations concerning how humanitarian assistance is managed in the country is true. But since these changes went into effect in December 2016, very little has actually changed on the ground. Changing rules is one thing, implementing them is another. Areas outside of government control in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state, which is the focus of all of our organization's on the ground programs, remain subjected to a full humanitarian ban by the regime. Blue Nile state to the east, where the dictatorship is also waging a war against civilians, is also underneath a full humanitarian blockade of areas outside of government control.

These regime-enforced humanitarian blockades have existed for over five years now. They remain in place right now despite the U.S. government's plan to lift sanctions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Sudanese government has pressured the South Sudanese government and U.N. to shut down Yida Refugee Camp, which is one of the only access points for humanitarian relief to flow into areas of the Nuba Mountains suffering underneath the blockade, despite the blockade. When humanitarian and advocacy organizations question what Ambassador Power meant when she said there has been a "sea of change" with regard to humanitarian aid access, this is what we are talking about. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese are being denied access to humanitarian services daily. There have been no changes whatsoever in these two areas.

January 2016 Relief Mission by Operation Broken Silence on

Photo: A relief mission supported by our organization to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Official humanitarian aid access to the region remains blocked by the Sudanese government, which means relief missions must remain small to avoid detection. Photo taken January 2016. 

The second point of minor improvements of humanitarian access to Golo, Darfur is one that is highly controversial. The State Department says:

Moreover, for the first time in five years, Sudan opened access for humanitarian aircraft to reach Golo, Central Darfur, and allowed a needs assessment to occur that will inform assistance efforts in Golo and other previously inaccessible areas.

While this is an important and good development if true, it is only part of the picture. Radio Dabanga, one of the few independent news agencies reporting daily on Darfur, has confirmed through multiple sources that Golo and the surrounding areas are experiencing severe humanitarian issues after being ethnically-cleansed from their homes by government forces last year.

This is a key fact that the Obama Administration has seemingly forgotten: the needs in Golo and the surrounding areas are so great because of Sudanese government actions. January 20, 2017 will mark the first anniversary of a joint Sudan Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces massacre in Golo. During that massacre, government aligned forces executed 42 civilians in the streets and in their homes. Survivors promptly fled for their lives. 

The massacre in Golo was just one of the many horrific war crimes committed during the Sudanese government's scorched-earth campaign in Jebel Marra. Within a mere six weeks after the Golo massacre, the Sudanese government had overseen the systematic destruction of an estimated 150 communities in the area. Evidence has emerged since then that government forces used chemical weapons against civilians during this time period and well into the time period it was in negotiations with the U.S. government to lift sanctions. Many of the tens of thousands who fled Jebel Marra have not returned home for fear of being killed and are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. This is not progress.

The remaining points are much harder to judge. The U.S. government has not made public any hard evidence concerning progress towards the Sudanese government ending support to South Sudanese opposition groups, cooperation around anti-LRA operations, or cooperation in combatting wildlife poaching, an illegal trade which National Geographic proved the government of Sudan had an enormous role in. Based on the simple fact that the Sudanese government has provided large suppport to South Sudanese opposition groups and the LRA in the past, there is plenty of reason to be concerned that not much actual progress has been made. 

And that leads us to what many believe is the real reason this decision was made: the regime's growing cooperation with the U.S. government on counter-terrorism efforts. 

As Human Rights Watch notes"many of Sudan’s security and intelligence officials are responsible for crimes committed by their troops and subordinates." Sacrificing the human rights and aspirations of the Sudanese people for potential short-term gains in counter-terrorism in partnership with individuals who are responsible for terrorizing the Sudanese people is counterproductive to the many goals the U.S. government should have with regards to foreign policy towards Sudan. 

Nuba Reports, a media organization covering life in the war-affected Nuba Mountains, makes this point most clear in a recent article:

Observers have said the State Department was motivated almost entirely by Sudan’s counter-terrorism assistance. Deputy State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner says Sudan is helping the U.S. in countering the terrorist group the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) among other regional terrorist threats.

But this is the fear of many Nuba people: The U.S. may be using the carrot instead of the stick for short-term gains while sidelining the concerns of the war-affected populations in Sudan. With Khartoum blocking media access to the conflicts in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, this makes these populations even easier to forget.

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The people of Sudan are overcoming two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: war and genocide. Operation Broken Silence is working to accelerate their ability to generate lasting change through storytelling, education, advocacy, and emergency relief programs.

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