October and November saw major shifts in U.S. foreign policy towards Sudan, despite the Sudanese government’s abysmal human rights record and the International Criminal Court’s outstanding arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Although a normalization of bilateral relations is not imminent, these shifts suggest that Sudan now has a path towards realizing this goal. While there are good reasons for improving relations with Sudan, U.S. officials must continue to push the government to strengthen human rights and to forge a lasting peace with the armed opposition in Darfur and the Two Areas (Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states along its southern border). Unless Sudan shows sustained and measurable progress on these issues, rewarding the government will only serve to embolden an already authoritarian regime while undermining U.S. foreign policy and national security.
Sudan Sanctions Removal (With a Little Help from Their Friends)
On October 6, the Trump administration revoked most U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Sudan, many of which had been in place since 1997. Although most sanctions are no more, those pertaining to the armed conflict in Darfur under Executive Order 13400 remain in effect. The administration postponed this decision in July, but ultimately decided to revoke the sanctions after concluding that Sudan had demonstrated “sustained positive actions” on the five tracks that the Obama administration identified for sanctions relief in June 2016. These five tracks are continued cooperation on counterterrorism, a cessation of hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas, improved humanitarian access throughout Sudan, ending its destabilizing interference in South Sudan, and working to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The sanctions removal became effective on October 12 and marks one of the few instances where the Trump administration followed a foreign policy approach initiated by the Obama administration. Last January, President Barack Obama temporarily lifted sanctions during the last week of his administration, but allowed for a six-month review for the incoming administration to decide whether to make this change permanent. At the end of the six months, the secretary of state, with input from other agencies, would present a report to the president assessing whether Sudan had maintained the progress necessary to justify lifting the sanctions.
After punting on this decision in July, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s October report found that Sudan had maintained these positive actions, concluding: “It remains in the U.S. national interest to recognize the [Government of Sudan]’s positive actions, and to build upon these actions to address other areas of concern in Sudan and the surrounding region.” A State Department press release echoed this conclusion, noting that Sudan had demonstrated 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.”
However, not all news was good news for the Sudanese government, as U.S. officials stressed the need for improvement on human rights and underscored that the U.S. could apply targeted sanctions should Sudan backslide on the progress that it has demonstrated. Further, the past and current violence in Darfur remains a clear obstacle for improving bilateral relations past a certain threshold. To emphasize this point, during a call with reporters following the announcement to remove the sanctions, U.S. officials reiterated their support for executing the ICC arrest warrant against President Bashir, stating, “we continue to call for all those responsible for crimes in Darfur to be held accountable and to support  justice for all the victims of the crimes in Darfur.”
While the sanctions decision marked the culmination of a long and concerted effort by Sudan to improve its relationship with the U.S., Sudan certainly received some help along the way. Most notably, Squire Patton Boggs received $40,000 a month from the Sudanese government to push for sanctions removal. On the day the sanctions were revoked, the firm announced that subject to a few exceptions, “Sudan is now open for business.” Despite the firm’s optimism, few expect a rapid turnaround for Sudan’s beleaguered economy. Technical issues, such as routing dollar and euro payments will continue to present a challenge until U.S. and European banks reconnect with Sudanese banks. More fundamentally, as long as the government continues to spend as much as 70 percent of the state budget on its military and security apparatus, while continuing to avoid addressing structural deficiencies and corruption, economic gains will prove marginal at best.
Assessing the Decision
Several Sudan experts supported the decision to revoke the sanctions. Alex de Waal called the decision “long overdue,” arguing that the sanctions did not contribute to human rights or democratization and that they lacked credibility as the U.S. had failed to remove them in the past after the Sudanese government complied with U.S. requirements for doing so. As De Waal noted, “If the sanctioning country changes the criteria every time the sanctions come up for review, they cease to be an instrument of policy and simply become a signal of condemnation.” United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy also welcomed the decision and criticized the sanctions program for disproportionately affecting Sudan’s vulnerable populations.
Within Sudan, many young people were especially critical of the sanctions, particularly as the government officials the sanctions were supposed to affect largely avoided the economic consequences of their actions. As one university graduate remarked, “Not a single member of the government suffered.” Numerous analysts agreed, noting the negative effect that sanctions have had on small Sudanese businesses unable to attract foreign investors or access the international financial system. These negative effects show through in the reporting of journalists such as Simona Foltyn, whose work illustrates how the government and other targeted entities maneuvered around the sanctions, as well as how the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) struggled to implement them.
Many governments and regional organizations also supported this decision, including the European Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and UNAMID, the hybrid African Union-UN Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan. The UN Country Team in Sudan also welcomed the decision, as did key African states such as Ethiopia.
In contrast, several human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Sudanese Observatory for Human Rights opposed this decision, characterizing it as “premature,” and calling Sudan’s progress on the five tracks “superficial.” The decision also received considerably less support from Congress, as several lawmakers expressed significant reservations about this policy change. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also called the decision premature and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) stated that the decision was “just one step in a long process of determining U.S. policy toward Sudan” before characterizing Sudan’s government leaders as “corrupt and criminal actors.” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) took a more nuanced tact, noting the progress made by Sudan, but also stressing that future engagement should emphasize strengthening human rights.
Counterterrorism Cooperation and the Pyongyang Factor
Sudan’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on counterterrorism played a key—and arguably oversized—role in lifting the sanctions. Sudan’s government had already permitted the CIA to open a large office in the country, and less than a week before the Trump administration lifted the sanctions, the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) held its annual meeting in Khartoum. This meeting is the flagship event for government security agencies in Africa and all but three security agency chairs throughout the continent attended this event. A CIA delegation also attended.
Sudan has demonstrated that it will continue to be a significant player in African intelligence, as the head of Sudan’s notorious National Intelligence and Security Services, Mohamed Atta Abbas, is the incoming Chair of CISSA. President Bashir gave the keynote to the October conference and offered to finance a CISSA training academy in Sudan. In late November, Abbas travelled to Addis Abba to preside over his first CISSA meeting as Chair.
U.S. officials also used the sanctions decision as an opportunity to isolate North Korea, which has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities. Although Sudan’s relationship with North Korea was not one of the five tracks, Secretary Tillerson’s report stated, “We have also used our expanded bilateral relationship to engage the [Government of Sudan] to fully implement all UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea, a critically important issue for U.S. national security.” Effectively, this statement served as a promise from the Sudanese government that it would not pursue arms deals with North Korea.
Sudan reiterated its commitment to refraining from dealing with North Korea when Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan traveled to Khartoum for bilateral talks on November 16. Following these meetings, Sudan agreed to sever all trade and military ties with North Korea, furthering the administration’s efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
A State Sponsor of Terrorism?
Despite the diplomatic gains made by Sudan, the country remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list. Along with Iran and Syria, and now North Korea, Sudan has been on the SST list since 1993. The U.S. placed Sudan on the SST list for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden, along with an assortment of other militant organizations, throughout the 1990s. The sanctions decision did not include removing Sudan from the SST list, and inclusion on this list has significant consequences, as Sudan cannot receive direct food aid from the U.S. or, perhaps most importantly, enter the UN debt relief program. Sudan’s debt is more than $50 billion, or about 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
How long Sudan will remain on this list is an open question. The Sudanese government began pushing for its removal almost immediately after the U.S. revoked the sanctions. This possibility now seems much more likely after the bilateral meetings in November, as Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan said that the U.S. was willing to consider removing Sudan from the SST list. Several analysts have also hinted at this outcome. And, while the Sudanese government deserves strong condemnation for its atrocious human rights record, at this point, there is little evidence that it still fits the legal criteria for inclusion on the SST list.
Normalized bilateral relations between the U.S. and Sudan are unlikely to occur soon. At the very least, the Sudanese government will need to improve its human rights record substantially for U.S. policymakers to entertain this possibility. Moreover, as long as President Bashir remains in power, it is doubtful that full normalization would ever be palatable for some U.S. leaders. Nonetheless, Sudan’s perceived transformation from international pariah to something of a reliable partner for the U.S. and the EU is remarkable. Normalization is undoubtedly the ideal outcome for many within the Sudan government; still, a bilateral relationship that in many ways approaches de facto normalization is hardly a poor consolation.
The decision to revoke most of the economic sanctions against Sudan was a substantial foreign policy accomplishment for Sudan’s government and removal from the SST list would be just as consequential, if not more so. Although removing the outdated and largely ineffective sanctions was the correct decision, if U.S. officials do not press their Sudanese counterparts to improve on a number of issues—especially human rights and humanitarian access—it will become a lost opportunity for pushing the regime to do better when it finally has some leverage to do so.