THE BLOG
01/16/2017 12:02 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2018

Sudan Sanctions: Obama, You've Been Played, Advantage Bashir

Dear President Obama,

Last week, I and twenty-five Sudanese and activists from around the world asked you not to lift sanctions on Sudan. On Friday, you announced that you were lifting some sanctions for a six-month trial period. Friday morning, your staff kindly allowed me to listen by phone to a briefing about this decision and it became clear to me how you arrived at the incorrect conclusion to reward a violent and oppressive dictatorship that works to destroy its people and its neighbors.

Laced throughout the briefing were statements like, "we need to get beyond zero trust between the U.S. and Sudan and beyond the 'moving the goal post' argument," "we are starting from a point of no trust in each other," "we work and they work to build more trust," "the government of Sudan needs to see changes," and "it is sequential, we need to see changes in the government and they need to see changes in U.S. policy."

It is probably worth pausing and noting that the current Sudan government is responsible for the deaths of 2.5 million southern Sudanese and hundreds of thousands of Darfuris and Sudanese from other regions of the country. It is also responsible for violently displacing millions of Sudanese people in order to change the racial makeup of the country and to steal the country's vast resources. The Sudan government is responsible for shutting down basic freedoms and arbitrarily arresting, torturing and killing those who bravely dare to resist. The government's crimes from Nubia through Khartoum to Abyei and from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile to Eastern Sudan are immeasurable and they are not a thing of the past. The government is responsible for recent attacks in Darfur, it continues to block international humanitarian aid from reaching the people it harms, it is providing support to South Sudan rebels, and its jails are full of innocent Sudanese.

The United States continued to impose sanctions on the Sudan regime for these crimes. The United States made it very clear what the regime must do in order for U.S. sanctions to be lifted. The State Department webpage for the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan states that the Government of Sudan must "cease indiscriminate bombing, the denial of unfettered humanitarian access and disregard of human rights and fundamental freedoms" and it must "address the legitimate political concerns of all of the country's diverse population." Over the course of the years, the United States has not "moved the goal posts" as the Sudan regime likes to claim. The regime does not get a pass for signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement while it is slaughtering its citizens in Darfur. The regime does not get a pass for "allowing" the South to secede while it continues to attack and displace its citizens in Darfur, begins a violent campaign against Sudanese living in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, fails to hold the Abyei referendum, continues to marginalize and endanger indigenous tribes in Eastern Sudan, displaces the Nubians and erases their archaeological heritage, and intimidates and harms people in the capital and surrounding areas who oppose its policies, which are a product of gross mismanagement. The goal posts have not moved. The regime intentionally chooses not to reach them, because those goal posts do not represent the vision and values of the regime and furthermore, because it isn't required to reach them in order to score points. The regime has perfected the art of manipulating the international community by exploiting its goodwill and interests.

Furthermore, the Sudan regime has successfully played the game of hard to get with the United States and while the U.S. is congratulating itself for coaxing the Sudan regime to engage with it, a theme I heard throughout the conference call on Friday, the Sudan regime, like most classic abusers, has successfully turned the tables and become the victim, blaming the U.S. and the Sudanese people for its problems. This is a tried and true strategy for the regime and as a result, we hear U.S. Special Envoys speak of the need for the U.S. to deliver cookies and stars and to engage in building trust as a prerequisite for the regime to stop killing and harming its people. It seems obvious, but perhaps it needs to be said that the U.S. is not responsible for the suffering caused by the Sudan regime's policies and practices, and it is under no obligation to build trust with a regime that commits genocide. If the regime wants sanctions to be lifted, they should operate in a way that benefits all of the Sudanese people and that builds trust with them, the U.S. and the international community.

I believe your intention in lifting the sanctions is to help the people of Sudan. Unfortunately, by lifting sanctions and breathing life into a regime whose intention and practices are to harm and steal from the people of Sudan achieves the opposite outcome. U.S. sanctions were the only consequence you chose to employ that put enough real pressure on the regime that would have forced it to change or to weaken significantly enough to allow the people of Sudan to reclaim their country. Remarkably the latter outcome is underway as political parties, labor unions, armed opposition, youth, women and other members of civil society are bravely coming together in different ways to envision a better future. It is only a matter of time before the people of Sudan forge a new Sudan. It is detrimental to the interests of the United States and it is deeply disappointing to me and the Sudanese, academics and activists who have responded below that your legacy will include a decision to impede rather than to support this important process and to reward an internationally indicted criminal rather than to end impunity.

  • "What's concerning for many pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders on the ground is that the outcome of the deal with Khartoum relegates improvements in humanitarian relief, human rights and basic freedoms to the background. In this situation, regime access to US investment, trade and banking facilities can only help benefit a kleptocratic genocidal dictatorship adept at securing its power by repression and imposing economic misery on its people. It is quite saddening that a President who championed the cause of the Sudanese people when a Senator, now leaves office handing them only a numbing sense of betrayal." - Ali Abdelatif, DAAM- Sudanese Pro-Democracy Activists Network Abroad
  • "It is shocking and outrageous to see the outgoing Obama Administration rewarding terrorists. You can't fight terrorism by rewarding terrorists! The Sudan Government is the cradle where all the terror of political Islam was born and raised. It continues to be so to this day. This is a government which lives and thrives on terrorism. To rid the whole world of the terror of political Islam you need to remove Bashir's government not reward it. The issue is as simple as that." - Ali Askouri, Chairman, Alliance of the Dam Affected Communities in the Sudan
  • "President Barack Obama, who recently regretted not doing enough to save lives in South Sudan, is about to commit a grave mistake by trying to, at the last minute of his presidency, reward the world's brutal killer and ICC indicted war criminal, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, with his decision to lift sanctions imposed on the Sudanese government for genocide in Darfur and the ongoing killings in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. As a survivor of the north-south Sudanese civil war and a proud American from President Obama's hometown of Chicago, and a committed activist who wholeheartedly supported President Obama for his first term election and second term reelection, including my appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show on the morning of his election in 2008 and joining him for his victory celebration in Grand Park on the night of November 4, 2008, I am deeply disappointed that my trusted President is turning his back on millions of supporters like me and the Sudanese who suffered for so long under Omar Al-Bashir." - Peter Magai Bul is a Former Sudanese Lost Boy and a committed member of the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois
  • "I believe that the Sudan government has done little to nothing to improve its poor records on human rights and rule of law in this poor country. The country is ruled arbitrarily by different pro-regime militias and security apparatuses where killing, kidnapping and looting civilians has become daily practices of the regime forces and elements, especially in Darfur. While I believe general economic sanctions are harmful for the citizens of Sudan, I believe that strict and specified sanctions on the regime leaders and elements involved in human rights' violations should be provided and implemented, not the opposite." - Adil Abdel Aati, Political and Civil Activist
  • "Sudanese people have stood up for change and against tyranny, yearning for democracy to exercise their basic rights to live in peace. It is time for the United States of America to extend a hand to the people of Sudan to bring about political change in the country. The sanctions have brought this regime to its knees, it is gasping for air, it is time to continue the pressure to stave off the government from any means to maneuver and execute another brutal military tactic to lock the country in new waves of violence. We urge the administration not to assist the genocidal regime run by a corrupt political oligarch. The sanctions against the regime should continue." - Hamid Eltgani Ali, Professor at the American University in Cairo
  • "Easing the US sanctions on Sudan is a catastrophic action. This will make the habitual genocidal killer more powerful. We are disappointed. There is no progress on human rights and humanitarian issues. The point of view regarding improvement is not accompanied with the truth. We must tell how it is." - Abdelrahman
  • "It is so sad that Obama has rewarded the genocidal regime in Khartoum, who is advancing their genocidal strategy now. The outgoing administration can say anything to justify its harmful move. Nevertheless, the facts on the ground remain as they are. (1) The regime continues its massacres and using food as a weapon against the civilian populations in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile. In Darfur, massacres have already occurred this year in Nertite on January 1 and in El Geneina on January 5. (2) The regime is still committing gross violations of human rights all over Sudan. Darfuri students and political and civil society activists are still languishing in their horrible detention cells and subjected to severe torture by the notorious NISS. (3) It is true that the regime banned Riek Machar from entering Sudan, but it isn't a secret that the regime continues its support to various rebel commanders of South Sudan. No doubt, Bashir will continue his strategy of destabilization of South Sudan. (4) On counter-terrorism, let us not forget that when the Sudanese regime decided to cooperate on counter-terrorism it did it for its own survival tactics. In other words, its cooperation with the US was not out of a genuine change of policy or behavior or ideology. At the time, Bashir and his clique were scared, so they wanted to avoid imminent military attacks and other harsh measures by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks! The regime/NISS is playing a double game with regard to the issue of terrorism. Sometimes NISS puts some terrorist elements in prison just to mislead and show the US and other Western governments that the regime is fighting against terrorist and extremist groups. In reality, they are not taking any real measures against extremist groups. In fact, Bashir is creating the environment within which these groups are growing and expanding." - Ahmed H. Adam, Visiting Fellow, Institute for African Development (IAD), Cornell University
  • Video Response: "It is unbelievable that the Obama Administration rewards a regime that commits genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people." - Niemat Ahmadi, Founder and President, Darfur Women Action Group
  • "The need for accountability for crimes against humanity does not diminish with time. History has repeatedly shown us the deep value of justice in peace building. If sanctions are eased, what other measures are being taken to hold the Government of Sudan responsible for their horrific actions against their people?" - Pam Omidyar
  • "The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 which led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011 also included a range of provisions for bringing peace to three main areas, north of the new frontier, which had participated in the national struggle of the SPLA. These were Abyei, South Kordofan (including the Nuba Mountains) and the Blue Nile. However, the implementation of the CPA provisions has been severely neglected, with the result that the people of these regions have seen only political stalemate since 2011; along with military escalation (including aerial attacks), severe displacement in key places, and intolerable suffering among civilians. It is astonishing to hear that the United States is planning to improve relations with Khartoum by relaxing sanctions at this point." - Wendy James, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford
  • "I became part of the anti-genocide movement in 2005 to stand up against the violence in Darfur. Now, a dozen years later, that tragedy continues unabated despite global awareness of Bashir's atrocities against his own people and despite the voices calling desperately for an end to this atrocity. Millions have been uprooted from their homes and their lives; hundreds of thousands of innocent people have perished through bombing, torture, starvation, and disease; and towns and villages have been completely destroyed. The perpetrators have impunity for the terror they cause. When you became president, I had great hope that you would be a leader on the world stage to advocate for law, not war; for justice, not impunity. You have failed the people of Darfur - and the people of Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, and so many places on the planet." - Ellen J. Kennedy, Executive Director, World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law
  • "For a bystander country, the only thing worse than never taking action against mass violence is taking action for a time and then stopping even though nothing has improved. If, to an indicted genocide perpetrator, the former signals indifference, the latter conveys unambiguous approval. If the United States ends its sanctions now, Omar al Bashir will not just understand this to mean that the US has no intention of any kind of intervention in the future against the horrific human rights violations he is committing now, but he will take it to mean that he is free to commit even more violence without any negative consequences. The end result of US policy of the past two decades will be that it has made things yet worse for the millions of human beings in Sudan who suffer under al Bashir's genocidal butchery, forced starvation, campaigns of rape, and more. For an out-going US President concerned about his legacy, I can imagine little that would be worse." - Henry C. Theriault, Professor of Philosophy, Worcester State University, Co-Editor, Genocide Studies International
  • Article: "The Final Betrayal of Sudan: Obama administration's lifting of economic sanctions; UN Ambassador Samantha Power justifying the move, claiming a 'sea change' of improvement in humanitarian access" - by Eric Reeves, The Huffington Post, January 17, 2017
  • "'Why is a man punished for killing another man, yet the killing of a million is a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?' Raphael Lemkin's question is, unfortunately, as pertinent today as it was decades ago. Omar al Bashir and his genocidal regime must be held accountable for their heinous crimes against the people of Sudan." - Paul Slovic, The Arithmetic of Compassion
  • "Thousands of brave Sudanese dissidents will be profoundly disappointed by President Obama's actions. They have looked to the United States as a beacon of democracy and freedom; they have been inspired by the history of American civil rights campaigners; and they believed President Obama stood with them against the corrupt and authoritarian Khartoum regime. Now they are horrified that America is turning a blind eye to gross human rights abuses against Sudan's minorities." - Rebecca Tinsley, author of When the Stars Fall to Earth, Founder, Waging Peace, London, UK
  • "How can we abandon 'the least of these'?" - Karen Henderson
  • "We Americans, friends of the Sudanese people who are suffering genocide under the regime of Al-Bashir, share the feelings of Rep. McGovern: "I am angry and deeply disappointed that the last act by the Obama Administration on Sudan policy is to ease sanctions against a genocidal regime when there has been little to no change on-the-ground in the human rights and humanitarian crises suffered by the Sudanese people." The act was made without consultation with the Lawmakers, and it now becomes clear that it is up to Congress to take the moral leadership, create legislation that will end the killing and provide the desperately needed humanitarian access." - Al Sutton M.D., African Freedom Coalition
  • "The lifting of sanctions against Sudan should be attached only to real, concrete progress on the ground. Full government humanitarian blockades in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and Blue Nile remain in effect. Government-orchestrated violence against civilians continues. Millions of Sudanese still cannot return home for fear of being raped or killed. The progress cited by the Obama Administration is non-existent on a large scale. Sanctions relief only buys the regime more time to pursue its disastrous policies even further. The simple fact that this deal was made in secret between the U.S. government and a genocidal regime without the input of the Sudanese people and experts with on-the-ground experience in the conflict areas is deeply unsettling. This decision only benefits the dictatorship and, because of that, it should be reversed." - Mark C. Hackett, Executive Director, Operation Broken Silence, obsilence.org
  • "It is deeply saddening that Obama has chosen, as one of his last acts as president, to lift sanctions on the genocidal government in Sudan. Equally devastating is Ambassador Samantha Power's open support. Power has long been an advocate for victims of genocide and mass atrocities. Whatever progress that the US has seen in their "behind the scenes [engagement] with the government of Sudan in a discreet way", the Sudanese people are witnessing that the Government of Sudan's "ceasefire" just means that the Sudanese army can massacre civilians like they did in the January 1st attack in Nertiti. What message is the US trying to send to the world about oppressive regimes when they reward a government like that of Omar al Bashir's? This carrot and stick approach will only encourage human rights abusers throughout the world. Shame on you Mr. President. Shame on you Ambassador Power." - Lauren Fortgang, Policy Director, Never Again Coalition
  • "'In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.' Martin Luther King, Jr. | Dear President Obama, At the close of your Presidency, how will the men, women and children of The Republic South Sudan, Darfur and the Nuba Mountains remember you?" - Joan Hecht, President, Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan
  • "The last act by the Obama Administration on Sudan policy is a double-edged sword because the partial lifting of sanctions against Sudan is mostly motivated by the cooperation with the United States on counter-terrorism, despite the on-going dire situation of the Sudanese people. The Treasury Department mentions 'Sudan sustained progress' on several fronts, but it is clearly ignoring the tragic recent events (Nertiti massacre), brutal offensives targeting civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and the continued detention, torture and trials of activists and human rights defenders in Sudan. More than ever we must do everything possible so this 'goodwill gesture' lifting the embargo will benefit the Sudanese people, empower civil society organizations, boost the economy and ensure a long, lasting change in the country by pressing Sudan on human rights, peace and democracy. Accountability is mandatory to this new carrot and stick policy and no compromises should be accepted. Optimists will see the glass half full, but previous experiences already taught us the risks coming from a compromised carrot and stick policy, whitewashing crimes with no consequences for the perpetrators but for the populace." - Max Dana, Founder of The MagkaSama Project