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Sudan: The case for and against lifting economic sanctions

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]

As the deadline approaches for the lifting of sanctions, Sudan may still have not done enough to win the sympathies of the members of the US Congress and other US agencies who will make the final decision on 12 July. There are a number of factors that might work against the East African country's full re-entry into the international community and the complete lifting of economic sanctions but equally there are several positives that might persuade the United States to make the historic decision that could propel Sudan into economic prosperity and even make it an important player on the world stage.

On the negatives, there are the on-going conflicts in three different parts of the country, the independent human rights experts who are still making negative reports about the lack of media and freedoms and there's the outstanding arrest warrant for war crimes against the Sudanese President, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague to the head of a country still officially regarded by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism.

If we consider the on-going conflicts it's agreed that Sudan has made progress in allowing international bodies like the UN and the African Union oversee the peace accords agreed with rebel groups but its military strength gives the impression that it is bullying and dismissive of the demands of the groups in question. Last Friday's attack by rebels in Darfur was seen as a deliberate attempt to derail Sudan's sanctions removal bid. Amin Hassan Omer, Sudan's peace envoy for Darfur said:

The timing of the attacks was designed to bear maximum pressure on the government to support the case of those who wish sanctions to continue, but the government's top priority is to stop the war.

The demand for a secular state from the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdul Wahid and Mini Minawi (SLM–MM/AW) is not one that has much popular support but the tension between Arab and African identities makes Khartoum guilty, by default, of trying to imposed its rule in areas where minorities are either aligned to the independent African South Sudan or where the demand for semi-autonomy, like in the Nuba Mountains, is being ignored. The recent assessments of both the UN Security Council and the African Union's Higher Implementation Programme (AUHIP), headed by Thebe Mbeki, of progress in Darfur have been appreciative of Khartoum for its substantial improvements and its openness to cooperation.

Vice President of Sudan, Amin Hassan Omar (2nd L) and Sudan Liberation Movement-Second Revolution (SLM-SR) leader Abu Al Qasim Imam (2nd R) sign a framework peace agreement in Doha, Qatar on January 23 2017 ( Ahmed Youssef Elsayed Abdelrehim - Anadolu Agency )

Vice President of Sudan, Amin Hassan Omar (2nd L) and Sudan Liberation Movement-Second Revolution (SLM-SR) leader Abu Al Qasim Imam (2nd R) sign a framework peace agreement in Doha, Qatar on January 23 2017 ( Ahmed Youssef Elsayed Abdelrehim – Anadolu Agency )

However, the good image that Khartoum was nurturing took a blow when an accusation of a chemical gas attack on the Darfur region was made. Although German experts and the UN observers (UNAMIS) on the ground expressed scepticism about the reports, accusations that the government is preventing journalists from entering the area continue; giving the impression that the Sudanese government has something to hide. Calls by the opposition groups to delay lifting the sanctions have so far fallen on deaf ears but veteran Yassir Arman, the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N), renewed the demands this week. On the one hand his request may be viewed as the plea of a rebel leader who wants to buy time to regroup following major splits in his movement's ranks. On the other hand, it might sit conveniently with the calls of a number of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and actor George Clooney's Enough Project to delay the lifting of sanctions.

Director of Enough, Brad-Brooks Rubin, argued on 26 April in front of Congress that sanctions lifting should be tied to an improvement in Sudan's human rights record.

A visit by an independent human rights expert from 11-21 May and his preliminary findings have not been encouraging for Khartoum. Aristide Nononsi was critical of the lack of press freedoms, the incarceration by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) of journalists and an accusation that religious freedoms, including the mowing down of two churches, paints a picture that Sudan is not doing enough to safeguard the freedom of religious minorities.

The relentless pressure about human and religious rights seems not to bother the Sudanese government unduly. It has been dismissive of media reports regarding two priests who, according to Khartoum, were raising funds for armed rebel groups. A presidential pardon is the Sudanese way of diffusing the external media frenzy but the charges and period of detention suggest the Sudanese authorities wish to be seen as tough to the internal Sudanese audience. Likewise, the destruction of the churches in the Soba Al Aradi district of the capital appears not, as reported, targeted on religious minorities but is rather part of the capital's urban development plan that involved the knocking down of a number of other properties (including mosques) as well as the unlicensed churches in question.

St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Khartoum, Sudan. [Petr Adam Dohnálek/Wikimedia]

St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Khartoum, Sudan. [Petr Adam Dohnálek/Wikimedia]

But perhaps the stickiest of all the negatives against Sudan's chances of getting the sanction lifted is the indictment for war crimes and the arrest warrant which hangs over the President of the Republic, Omar Al-Bashir. Crucially the conditions for removing sanctions or indeed the listing as a terrorist state does suggest that there had to have been substantive changes in the government of a country upon which sanctions have been imposed.

Human rights activist and western diplomats are the first to point out that the leader responsible for guarantying freedoms is to all intents and purposes the same person who would be able to continue to abuse his power as commander in chief of the army and the militias accused of killing in the region of 300,000 people. A claim consistently denied by Sudan. Indeed, it was Al-Bashir's status as a war criminal that led him to quote "personal reasons" for not attending the Arab-American-Islamic summit in Riyadh this week after Western diplomatic pressure declared him unwelcome. Although regional organisations like the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have said that they will not impose the arrest warrant against a sitting head of state, the non-compliant stances still do not clear Al-Bashir of the charges or allow him to resume a "normal" life if he decides to relinquish power or even if he chooses to run for another term in office.

On the positives, Sudan can count on the support of regional organisations including the European Union which has already enlisted Sudan's cooperation in the fight against human trafficking and indeed the British who are looking for new business opportunities in the Brexit era. At the beginning of last month, Sudan captured five notorious traffickers of various nationalities after clashes near the border with Egypt and Libya. Despite opposition from rights groups, the EU granted €100 million ($111.8 million) to Sudan to address the root causes of irregular migration from Sudan following Khartoum's pledge to prevent migration to the North. Using its Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Sudan appears to be keeping its side of the deal. Hundreds of the RSF militia, now integrated into Sudan's army, have been deployed in the remote desert of the Northern state.

In addition, the British Ambassador in Khartoum, Martin Aron, has been keen to position investment partners in the new Sudan with regular meetings with political leaders and the foreign ministries. British business discussions have been continuing since the beginning of 2017 when the temporary lifting of sanctions was announced. A second phase of strategic meetings was concluded at the end of March.

Image of migrants being rescued while travelling on the Mediterranean sea on 7 May 2017 [Iker Pastor/Anadolu Agency]

Image of migrants being rescued while travelling on the Mediterranean sea on 7 May 2017 [Iker Pastor/Anadolu Agency]

Sudan can also rely on regional parties to put in a good word like Saudi and the UAE after Khartoum's sterling performance in the Yemeni civil war. Also crucial is the strategic assistance Sudan provides to the US intelligence services and to international trade. If sanctions are lifted, it would be a reward for the work Sudan has done over the years on counter-terrorism and the arrival of the CIA office in Khartoum appears to be recognition of the close cooperation. This could mean that the deal has already been done, as US interests are genuinely the most persuasive factor in the US "America first" policy agenda.

Whatever the case, there is a view that Sudan's public image is changing and its role in the geo-politics of the region can no longer be overlooked or considered marginal, given that it's the third most populous country in the Arab League with an huge potential if it is able to diversify its economy. But it remains to be seen whether the lifting of sanctions, democratic changes, political pluralism and economic freedoms change the political landscape not just for Sudan but for the Arab and Middle Eastern region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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