Many will have welcomed the U.S. government’s decision last month to impose sweeping sanctions on 271 employees of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research CentER, which is believed to have made the nerve agent used in the Assad government’s chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun earlier this month. The move reflects President Trump’s bid to take a tougher foreign policy line than his predecessor, much criticised for failing to act following a poison gas attack in Syria in 2013.
The move reflects President Trump’s bid to take a tougher foreign policy line than his predecessor, much criticised for failing to act following a poison gas attack in Syria in 2013.
But, somewhat awkwardly for Trump, the Syria sanctions come as his administration is preparing to lift its embargo against the Sudanese government, which was accused of deploying chemical weapons against civilians in Darfur as recently as 2016.
The decision, presented as a reward for Khartoum’s recent cooperation with U.S. forces in improving the local security environment, appears to set this goal at the expense of the human rights agenda and risks setting back progress on the latter.
Lobbying against the loosening of measures is expected to increase over the next two months, putting pressure on the Trump administration to demonstrate that its adoption of a more conciliatory approach, despite these misgivings, has yielded concrete results in Khartoum.
The outgoing Obama administration’s decision in January to end its trade embargo and significantly curtail its sanctions program on Sudan for a license period of six months – pending their final removal in July – has been the subject of widespread criticism as allegations of serious human rights abuses continue to emerge from the country. NGOs and human rights campaigners, who doubt the willingness of the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to work to improve human rights, have pointed to continued allegations regarding mass killings and torture by security forces.
In South Sudan, Khartoum has been accused of supporting militant factions in the ongoing civil war, with U.K. Minister of Overseas Development Priti Patel describing the situation as genocide. The UN estimates that the conflict there has displaced more than 3 million people, making it the largest cross-border migrant crisis in Africa since the Rwandan conflict.
Earlier this month, Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, testifying before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a Congressional body, called for the initial six-month license period to be extended until the Sudanese government presents convincing evidence of its intention to curtail human rights abuses. In July, the Trump administration could re-impose sanctions if it deems that Sudan’s conduct has not met expectations.
Concerns over the ongoing abuses appear to have been taken on board by U.S. officials, who have made it clear that the loosening of trade restrictions does not alter their view that al-Bashir should face justice in the International Criminal Court for crimes committed during Sudan’s Civil War. The country also continues to be designated by the U.S. as an international sponsor of terrorism.
Those who support lifting the embargo argue that now might be the time to demonstrate the benefits of a more open relationship between Sudan and its international partners. The hope is that as the al-Bashir government continues to work with the U.S. in the security arena, it can be persuaded to extend its cooperation in other spheres, including allowing increased access for aid groups; taking a less aggressive approach to its internal rivals; and abandoning its continued involvement in the conflict in South Sudan.
There is also an argument to be made that the effectiveness of the embargo as a penalty is now severely limited, due to the impact of international isolation and ongoing civil conflict on the country’s economy over the past two decades. Sudan has been subject to a comprehensive U.S. sanctions program since 1997 when the government of President Bill Clinton designated the country an international sponsor of terrorism.
In the intervening decades, Khartoum has continued to involve itself in hugely traumatic internal conflict, including the genocide in Darfur and the civil war which culminated in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. The prospect of a return to normal relations with the U.S. is a new area of potential leverage which can be deployed in negotiations with al-Bashir’s government.
The economic benefits of an improved relationship with the U.S. may take some time to emerge. Sudan’s long period of international isolation has coincided with a proliferation of national and international regulations and legal norms of which Western investors are increasingly mindful. For the country to become a significant recipient of direct investment from the U.S. and Europe, it will need to continue working closely with organisations such as the Financial Action Task Force and the World Bank to build a robust regulatory and legal environment.
Such work may take years, creating room for hardliners opposed to greater engagement with the West to seek a return to old habits – especially if the internal conflict continues. Western investors would also have to compete with rivals from Asia and the Gulf, which have been of huge importance to the Sudanese economy during the embargo.
These concerns aside, attention will continue to focus on the willingness of al-Bashir’s government to work with international partners to improve the human rights situation. Its success in this area, and the Trump administration’s reaction to it, will be of particular interest to senior figures in other sanctioned regimes seeking an insight into U.S. priorities.
The Trump administration’s approach to the issue over the coming year will provide an important indicator of whether it is willing to take a strong position on human rights, even at the possible expense of security considerations.
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