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Sanctions, Not Smiley Faces

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By Julia Fromholz

Seven months and a day after President Obama appointed a Special Envoy for Sudan, his Administration has finally agreed on a policy toward that country. This morning's policy announcement, however, will be only another meaningless emission of words if the whole administration fails to ensure that the last seven months of engagement are finally matched by serious pressure on the Sudanese government. Fortunately for the Administration, a ready-made pressure point is available immediately: discussion at the United Nations of new evidence from experts monitoring the arms embargo on Sudan.

In 2005, the United Nations Security Council expanded a year-old arms embargo on Darfur to include the government of Sudan. Since then, the Sanctions Committee charged with monitoring and enforcing the embargo has dispatched successive expert groups to dig up detailed evidence on embargo violations. Despite scarce resources and obstacles erected by the Sudanese government--such as refusals to issue visas to Panel of Experts members--these expert groups have submitted hundreds of pages of solid evidence to the Sanctions Committee revealing numerous and flagrant violations of the embargo.

What actions has the Sanctions Committee taken in response? None. (In words familiar to President Obama, nothing, nada, zip.) Numerous countries, including China and Russia, have been cited for violations of a law created by the U.N. Security Council. Yet that Council has done nothing but furrow its collective brow about the violence caused not by bare hands but by arms and ammunition flowing into Darfur.

Last December, under President Bush, the United States spoke firmly about the need for the Sanctions Committee "to use responsibly the tools at its disposal in order to prevent further violence in Darfur." The U.S. then "encourage[d] members of the Sanctions Committee to allow for meaningful follow up to the recommendations made by the Panel of Experts . . . ."

The latest report from the Panel of Experts on Sudan is expected to be discussed at the Sanctions Committee this week. This is an ideal moment for the Obama Administration to show that it is in fact willing to apply pressure both to a government that has time and again broken promises while abusing its people, as well as to those who sustain that government. The embargo is in place and the Panel of Experts' mandate has already been renewed for another year. The Administration therefore faces only the challenge of enforcing existing law, not of negotiating tough new laws.

Ambassador Susan Rice should ensure that the discussion this week at the Sanctions Committee is thorough and detailed. She should seek to gather support for imposing consequences on those who have violated the embargo. If she has questions about the Panel's findings, she should seek more resources for the next Panel of Experts or task the Administration's own intelligence community with digging for more data. That is, she should do everything in her power to ensure that the evidence in this year's report is used for something other than taking up space on a shelf.

Imposing consequences on embargo violators would clearly show that President Obama is serious about the sanctions he mentioned this morning. His Special Envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, has been deriding sanctions at every turn over the last few months, talking instead about how engagement--like "gold stars and smiley faces"--is the key to change in Sudan. But some of the sanctions Gration dismisses--those imposed by the United Nations--have never been enforced. It should surprise no one that they haven't worked. Instead of tossing them in favor of the next great idea, however, the conversation should focus on ensuring that they are in fact implemented.

The policy announced today takes a middle path between the tough, interventionist statements of the Obama and Clinton campaigns and Gration's view that the savvy officials in Khartoum have been waiting all this time for the United States to play nice. But by taking the middle ground in articulating the policy, the Administration has moved the most difficult decisions to the implementation phase.

Today's policy does not appear in a vacuum. Envoy Gration started at a gallop out of the gate seven months ago and hasn't shown any signs of tiring. He can be applauded for his concentration and vigor, but he has rightly been criticized for his excessive generosity toward the government of Sudan, as well as for his condescending statements along the way. Gration's statements and actions during the past seven months have effectively made policy, so President Obama and his Administration must ensure that their man in Sudan does not simply continue with more of the same. Implementation of the new policy should begin with ensuring that laws already on the books are applied, not ignored.