How the U.S. and EU’s Cooperation with Sudan Rubberstamps Bad Behavior

Above: Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir

In recent months, the United States and the European Union have been hard at work rebuilding ties with Sudan and lifting sanctions, citing the African nation’s improved cooperation on counterterrorism efforts and other matters. While the decision to ease sanctions on Sudan has attracted criticism and commentary, including on Just Security (see here and here), there has been a lack of scrutiny of U.S. and EU support to security forces in Sudan who have been accused of committing serious human rights violations against Sudanese citizens and migrant communities.

By developing closer ties with, and providing assistance to Sudan in the name of “fighting terror” or “solving the migrant crisis,” the U.S. and the EU are taking a real risk of legitimizing human rights abuses and making themselves complicit in violations of international law.

U.S. and Sudan’s troublesome counterterrorism partnership

Though U.S. assistance to, and cooperation with, foreign governments and forces with questionable human rights records is nothing new, greater attention to the United States’ relationship with Sudanese forces is needed, particularly as the two countries move towards normalizing relations.

The Sudanese government has a long history of counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and other Western nations. In the 1990s, Sudanese intelligence officials cooperated with their French counterparts to arrest and deliver them Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as Carlos “the Jackal.” Sudanese intelligence also kept a close eye on Osama Bin Laden when he spent five years in Sudan, eventually seizing his assets, and offering to extradite him to Saudi Arabia or America after U.S. officials demanded that Sudan expel him.

The full extent of current U.S. assistance and cooperation with Sudanese authorities and forces is, however, opaque. Through a limited number of publicly available reports, it is clear that the United States has been working to warm up its relations with Sudan and its armed forces in particular. For instance, in early 2017, Obama administration officials disclosed to The New York Times that the Sudanese government had improved cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, citing as evidence that the Sudanese government “allowed two visits by American operatives to restricted border areas in Libya.” That same year, the United States and Sudan reportedly resumed a level of military cooperation when the military attachés of both countries returned to their respective embassies in Khartoum and Washington after a 28-year gap. In April 2017, Sudan was invited to participate in meetings at U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) headquarters in Germany, an invitation that was not previously extended due to Sudan’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” In August 2017, AFRICOM’s head of civil-military engagement, Alexander M. Laskaris, arrived in Khartoum to discuss counterterrorism cooperation with Sudanese armed forces and fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA.) That same month, Sudan was invited to join U.S. -Egyptian military training exercises.

U.S. engagement with Sudan endures despite the fact that Sudan’s National Intelligence Security Service (NISS), Khartoum’s main force in implementing counter-terrorism cooperation in the country and region, has a record of committing serious human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch for instance has repeatedly documented the “abusive tactics” of the NISS — including the use of torture against real or perceived political opponents, the detention of activists, students, lawyers, doctors, community leaders, and those perceived to be critical of the government. The U.S. State Department itself claimed in 2016 that “the NISS continued to show a pattern of widespread disregard for rule of law, committing major abuses, such as extrajudicial and other unlawful killings, torture, beatings, rape and other cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment.”

Despite knowledge of the NISS’ record, a former U.S intelligence officer in Sudan confirmed in 2010 that the U.S. government had been training the NISS and other Sudanese security bodies on counterterrorism, cyber crimes, and human trafficking. The same official suggested that trainings conducted by the CIA for NISS officers are not new, and that such cooperation started in the early days after September 11, 2001. More recently, in 2017, the then-director of the NISS reportedly said in a press conference that agency operatives were receiving “technical assistance” from their U.S counterparts, without providing any further details.

Sudanese forces and officials have also allegedly assisted the United States in military and intelligence operations against terrorist groups. As recently as 2016, Sudan’s former Ambassador to the U.S, Mr. Muawia Osman Khalid acknowledged that Sudan passed on critical intelligence information on terrorist groups in the region to the United States, and noted that Sudan could “increase support on the ground in conjunction with U.S. forces.”

The United States is also said to have relied on intelligence gathered by the NISS outside Sudan, mainly in Somalia, Iraq, and Syria. In one instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. relied on information provided by Sudanese intelligence’s informants among Iraqi insurgents in 2007. Sudan’s former foreign minister once said in an interview that “Sudan already has served as the eyes and ears of the CIA in Somalia.”

EU assistance to stem migrant flows

The partnership between Sudan and the European Union also demands further scrutiny. Thanks to Sudan’s strategic location, the EU has worked with Sudanese authorities to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. A key part of this cooperation is the Khartoum Process, defined as a “platform for political cooperation and regional collaboration on migration amongst the countries along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe.”

The EU’s arrangement with Sudan has attracted widespread criticism from human rights groups due to fears that it bolsters the legitimacy of Sudan’s infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF is a counterinsurgency forces that was formally integrated into the Sudanese armed forces in 2017, and has since been deployed to Sudan’s northern borders with Libya in an effort to stem migrant flows. While the RSF’s commander boasts about interdicting migrants on behalf of the European Union, his forces have been accused of directing attacks against civilians in North and Central Darfur and participating in the trafficking of migrants to Libya.

RSF violations have also been documented in numerous reports, including several by the United Nations. The U.N. Panel of Experts on Sudan for instance, reported that the RSF has engaged in large-scale operations in Darfur, attacking hundreds of civilians and destroying villages. A Human Rights Watch report stated that the RSF killed many civilians in Darfur when they refused to leave their homes or give up their livestock, or when they tried to stop RSF fighters from raping them or members of their family. In September 2017, the RSF announced that it killed smugglers in clashes along the Sudanese-Libyan border, but it is unclear whether any civilians were killed in the process as the RSF has refused to disclose the status of those it killed. A 2017 U.N. Panel of Expert report on Sudan casts further doubt on the Sudanese government claims that RSF forces killed human traffickers, when it noted that the RSF personnel killed 17 members of a rival group of Arab militias.

In spite of claims from Brussels that no EU support would go towards the Sudanese government or the RSF, there have been reports that the EU plan entails sending cameras, scanners, and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime, as well providing training to Khartoum’s border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants.  Additionally, Oxfam analysis found that of the €400 million allocated through the EU fund, only 3% percent went towards developing safe and regular routes for migration – the rest was spent on migration control.

(The RSF is not the only Sudanese security force tied to documented rights violations against migrants. A number of asylum seekers, the majority of which were from Ethiopia and Eritrea, were violently dispersed and beaten by Sudanese police after peaceful protests in Khartoum last year.)

A troubling narrative linking terrorism to migration

Troublingly, Sudan, the United States, and EU-member states are employing a narrative that has directly and indirectly merged both terrorism and migration. Sudan and the United Kingdom have, for instance, engaged in a “strategic dialogue” to address migration and terrorism as part of the same process. A meeting in 2016 between Sudanese and Italian foreign ministers focused mainly on border security, but also addressed terrorism issues.

Dealing with trafficking, smuggling, migration, and terrorism under the same framework and enforcement body as the­ “fight against terrorism” poses significant risks to migrants, including the lessening of legal protections that should be afforded to migrants and refugees. Though a government may have legitimate concerns that terrorists may exploit gaps in border security, there is a limit to what border control efforts and migration policies can do to prevent domestic acts of terrorism. Instead, such policies can lead to further alienation or discrimination against vulnerable groups that extremists can exploit. As Ben Emmerson, the former Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights noted in his report on the impact of counterterrorism measures on migration, “there is little evidence […] that terrorists take advantage of refugee flows to carry out acts of terrorism or that refugees are somehow more prone to radicalization than others, and research shows that very few refugees have actually carried out acts of terrorism.” Thus, the narrative which securitizes migration policies and links it to countering terrorism only makes it easier for countries such as Sudan to deploy agencies such as the NISS and RSF to deal with migration flows to Europe thereby putting migrants and refugees in even more vulnerable place.

The impact of US-EU assistance on the human rights situation in Sudan

Greater support to Khartoum by the United States and the European Union only helps legitimize an authoritarian regime and further establishes how human rights can be secondary to narrowly-defined national security interests.  The effective dismissal of human rights concerns by the U.S. and other Western nations threatens to bolster harmful policies and practices that erroneously conflate counter-terror measures and migration control. The tradeoff can already be seen with public criticisms of Sudan’s record either muted or waning. Indeed the regime continues to engage in repressive tactics including by curbing political pluralism, arresting dissidents, discriminating against religious or ethnic minorities, restricting women’s rights through strict moral laws, and engaging in corruption.

The tendency to compromise on human rights in the name of countering terrorism and during migration control efforts is not unique to Sudan. But continued support of a government engaged in rights abuses does pose a serious threat to fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law that both the United States and countries that make up the European Union profess to uphold. Further assistance to Sudan without effective oversight or measures to prevent abuse may only strengthen an illiberal regime and increase instability.

These concerns, in addition to potential abuse stemming from counterterrorism and border control activities, should cause U.S. and EU officials, who may be at risk of complicity in Sudanese force abuses, to demand a higher level of scrutiny of how their assistance is being used.

Questions that Congress and the European Parliament should ask about relations with Sudan:

In principle, cooperation among states to fight terrorism or any sort of threats to life is highly desired. However, the level of secrecy and lack of transparency combined with the unchallenged record of human rights abuses by Sudanese authorities all make a good case for observers to be concerned and call for further scrutiny.

Going forward, the U.S. Congress and parliaments in European states should ask their government the following questions about assistance to Sudan:

  1. In what ways has the Sudanese government improved its counterterrorism efforts and cooperation with the United States?
  2. What is the extent and nature of the cooperation with the government of Sudan in the areas of counterterrorism and migration?
  3. What types of assistance are provided to Sudan?
  4. Are there any processes in place to assess potential risks or benefits of assistance prior to providing support to Sudan?
  5. Are there any conditions attached to the types of assistance that the United States or the EU provides to Sudan?
  6. What forces or units in the Sudanese armed forces is the United States currently providing training and support to?
  7. Is any assistance currently being directed to the Rapid Defense Forces or the National Intelligence Security Service?
  8. What oversight or mitigation measures are currently in place to ensure that U.S. and E.U. support will not assist or contribute to human rights abuses by the Sudanese government in the name of countering terrorism or curbing migration?
  9. Are there any processes in place to cease providing support if the Sudanese government fails to adhere to international law principles and violates the rights of Sudanese citizens and migrants in the name of countering terrorism or enhancing border security?

Photo by LIU JIN – Pool/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Mohammed Osman

Aryeh Neier Fellow at the Open Society Justice Initiative working on international justice issues.