The government of Sudan's severe human rights abuses and ongoing support of international terrorist organizations has long put the country in the U.S. Treasury department's crosshairs. The Sudan sanctions program began in 1997 and has expanded ever since. While most would agree that these sanctions have played a role in weakening the government of Sudan and further isolating war criminals, it has come with some bad side effects.
One of the more prominent issues with Sudan sanctions presented itself in full in September of 2013 when virtually all internet traffic from Sudan vanished. At the time, widespread protests against Sudan's brutal central government were spreading rapidly throughout the country. As armed security forces led a brutal assault against those taking to the streets, the government pulled the plug on the country's internet access. The protesters had largely been organizing on social media and growing their ranks by sharing live photos of government abuse. When the country plunged into a digital darkness, activists fell out of touch with each other. The protests were crushed.
So What's This Have To Do With Sanctions?
A lot actually. The Sudan sanctions list is lengthy and gets pretty complicated the deeper you dive into it.
The public revolts in Sudan that were brutally surpressed and largely ignored by the world's media were actually a crucial moment in recent Sudanese history. The protestors were from a variety of different backgrounds and caught the government partially off guard. While it is unlikely they would have succeeded, there is no doubt they could have lasted a lot longer and grown far bigger than they actually did.
When internet access to Sudan was cut off by the government in the middle of the protests, activists literally had no resources to work around the internet and communications blockade they now found themselves up against. When internet did finally return a few days later, it was extremely slow and blocked some social media websites. The government's cyber warfare unit was on a full offensive though. Activist's email and social media accounts were being hacked at an alarming rate and there was virtually zero access to anti-virus and anonymity tools that would have allowed ordinary people to better protect their identities and fight back.
Without the appropriate tech tools and resources, future protesters will face the same obstacles. Until recently, U.S. sanctions kept the world's tech companies from providing those resources to individuals in Sudan. Now that is changing.
Communication and tech tools were placed on the Sudan's sanctions list years ago when most Sudanese couldn't access the internet, own computers, or have cell phones, although the government could. At the time, it made sense to keep a government guilty of war crimes and terrorism away from such tools. With the proliferation of technology though, as well as soaring internet penetration rates in Sudan, millions of Sudanese now have access to social media, email, and other online communication platforms that strengthen the backbone of a protest movement. Initially designed to pressure the government, these technology restrictions have become outdated and now inadvertently assist the Sudanese government by weakening protest movements.
Loosening of Sanctions May Help Activists In The Future
The recent update in Sudan sanctions focuses on Section 538.533. In short, the update allows for companies and individuals to provide web and software communication and social media platform services to individuals within Sudan. The update specifically cites “instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging” as the types of technology that can now be provided to individuals in Sudan. This means that personal devices such as computers, mobile phones, radios and digital cameras, and related software and services will now be available to individuals in Sudan.
It's important to note that prohibited Sudanese end-users whose "property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to OFAC authorities relating to WMD proliferation, terrorism, and human rights abuses." How the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) will continue enforcing these sanctions against such individuals is unknown though. While it is likely many of the major human rights abusers and terrorist supporters in Sudan will not benefit from this change in sanctions policy, there are many more individuals that are not on OFAC's radar that may be able to slip through the cracks.
That doesn't really matter though against the backdrop of the bigger picture. The Bashir regime has been able to work around many of these sanctions for years and already has access to many of these technologies. The regime also has a growing cyber warfare group and connections. While Sudanese activists have found creative ways of working around the sanctions, the regime has had a much easier time doing so. With Sudanese activists now being able to access these technologies in a more open way, they stand a better chance at protecting privacy, networks, and mobilizing on a larger and more effective scale.
Regardless, this could be a boon for Sudanese activist networks who desperately need safer communication platforms and better online networking access for future protests. As Sudan's economy continues to spiral out of control due to the government's rape of the country, mass protests are on the horizon again. With access to these new types of resources, Sudanese activists may finally find themselves better matched against government security services.