Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed an executive order granting a three-month delay before his administration makes a decision on permanently lifting most sanctions on Sudan. This delay led Sudan to abruptly break off cooperation with the U.S. on negotiating sanctions relief. The review comes after the Obama administration conditionally lifted most sanctions on Sudan in January, after months of meetings with Khartoum. The January executive order mandated a July review, which would make the removal permanent if the Sudanese government had continued to improve its human rights and counterterrorism record. The Trump administration’s decision was prudent, and going forward, the U.S. should continue to uphold a sanctions regime so as to not surrender its most important leverage.
Sudan has long been a country at odds with U.S. values and interests, as reflected in its 1993 listing as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. In the 1990s, the country harbored Osama bin Laden as he plotted to destroy U.S. embassies. Sudan also developed long-lasting connections to Iran and myriad terrorist groups. In the mid-2000s, President Omar al-Bashir’s government launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arab tribes in Darfur, an act Secretary of State Colin Powell labelled as genocide in 2004. The campaign claimed the lives of up to 300,000 people, and atrocities have continued. For his role, al-Bashir was charged with crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court in 2009. He continues to rule Sudan today.
Support for sanctions over Sudanese crimes has been bipartisan. In 1997, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Sudan over offenses including “support for international terrorism,” fomenting regional instability, and violating human rights, including rights to religious freedom. In 2006, the Bush administration expanded the Sudan sanctions, placing particular emphasis on the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur.
The Obama administration sought to lift most Sudan sanctions as part of a five-track plan built largely on a cessation of hostilities, expanded humanitarian access, and better counterterrorism partnering with the U.S. Discussing the temporary relief in January, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power lauded Sudan for providing “much more cooperation” with counterterrorism efforts, fighting the “monstrous movement” of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and ending its “horrific and obstructionist” acts towards aid groups. Likewise, a press release from the State Department, which was issued to coincide with President Trump’s executive order, said that Sudan “has made significant, substantial progress.”
However, despite opposition from the UN, there is ample reason for the U.S. to maintain pressure on Sudan. Communities in the besieged Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan fear the sanctions relief will fuel the government’s war machine, and described “no improvement in the humanitarian situation.” Journalists have reported Sudanese government jets flying over the mountains, suggesting a return to indiscriminate bombing could be imminent if sanctions are lifted. Amnesty International has documented signs of chemical weapons attacks on villagers in Darfur as recently as 2016, though the joint African Union-UN mission denied seeing corroborating evidence. Indeed, lingering concerns over persecution in Sudan led the U.S. Embassy to express concern over the country’s human rights record less than two weeks ago. Above all, sanctions relief could entrench al-Bashir’s regime without a sustainable plan for the regime to maintain its positive steps, which include breaking ties with Iran and no longer facilitating the arming of Hamas and other terror organizations. Citing these concerns and “unavailable or inconclusive” evidence, 53 U.S. congressmen issued a letter in June advocating for delaying the decision on making sanctions relief permanent.
The Trump administration need not take an all-or-nothing approach. Issuing limited general licenses that allow the U.S. to unwind sanctions slowly, as conditions are met while Khartoum’s positive actions continue, would be a better approach. The Treasury Department could also revise and modernize its existing sanctions framework for Sudan, including by targeting more al-Bashir-owned companies. Treasury has not added any Sudanese entities since 2007.
These actions would provide the U.S. with leverage to continue pressuring the Bashir regime. With sanctions on Sudan inducing the government to negotiate, Washington should seize the opportunity and look to foster continuous improvements rather than temporary changes. This would provide the Trump administration the best opportunity to secure a meaningful and lasting deal with Sudan.
Alex Entz is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance.