Economic sanctions, though imperfect, can be a powerful tool to advance U.S. foreign policy goals, particularly if those sanctions are broad-based, employed over a long period, and are strongly enforced. That has been the case with U.S. sanctions against Iran and also against Sudan. One key goal of U.S. sanctions on Sudan is to pressure the Government of Sudan to stop making war against its people. Economic pressure from U.S. sanctions are having a powerful effect on Sudan's economy, particularly since the BNP Paribas paid a $8.9 billion penalty in 2015 for its illegal financial support of the Government of Sudan and has made financial transactions with Sudan more difficult. As a result, Sudan is even more isolated from the world's financial systems, inflation is up, and its economy is struggling. Sudan regularly complains about U.S. sanctions, but refuses to take the necessary steps to improve relations with the U.S., summarized by Secretary Kerry as "predicated on genuine and sustained improvements in how Sudan treats its citizens and adheres to its international obligations." Instead, the Government of Sudan chooses to perpetrate more crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Imagine what the Government of Sudan could do with its resources if it used them to help its people, rather than attack them. Imagine what the Government of Sudan would do with more resources, if it were not restricted by economic sanctions.
President Omar al-Bashir's objectives are three-fold: to maintain control of Sudan at all costs; to steal the resources of the country for his benefit and for the benefit of his narrow base of supporters and allies; and to change the multicultural identity of Sudan into a single Arab Islamic identity. Bashir has partially accomplished his objectives since seizing power in 1989 by instituting a policy of divide and rule among Sudan's diverse population that has allowed him to use the people of Sudan to kill and displace each other, freeing up resources for exploitation and land for occupation by Arab allies; by marginalizing and disempowering indigenous populations; and through massive corruption that has destroyed the state while enriching the foreign bank accounts of a select few. The international community's response to Bashir's policies has failed to stop the attacks, deaths, injuries and displacement of millions of people. The international community has provided significant though inadequate humanitarian aid, resources for peacekeeping missions that have failed for the most part to protect the people, countless failed mediation efforts, a great many statements of concern, condemnation and demands all of which are ignored by the Government of Sudan, a referral to the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Darfur resulting in arrest warrants for Bashir (and a few of his henchmen) that are not enforced, and sanctions.
While the response of the international community has achieved limited success in saving lives and altering how Bashir rules, it appears that economic sanctions may be Bashir's Achilles heel. It is noteworthy that the regime and its lobbyists put great effort into seeking to have sanctions removed. In order for Bashir to maintain a grip on the country, he must keep his supporters happy or at least well compensated, which is proving harder to do as Sudan's economy continues to constrict as a result of the implementation of sanctions, largely led by the United States. This continued pressure is welcome news for the majority of Sudanese people, who have asked for these economic measures to be taken in order to help create change that ultimately may provide more of an opportunity for the Sudanese people and future generations to enjoy justice, peace and prosperity.
The work of the regime and its lobbyists to remove sanctions for the benefit of the regime has swayed some individuals and institutions. For example, in a November Sudan Tribune article, Idriss Jazairy, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, raised concerns about U.S. sanctions and in particular, he identified the negative impact of sanctions on the health sector. In January, journalist Amy Maxmen quoted in a Foreign Policy blog a Sudanese in the Diaspora, who was unable to send medical supplies to Sudan, despite available exemptions for "articles intended to relieve human suffering, such as food, clothing and medicine", due to complicated requirements that donors were unwilling to follow, saying that because of sanctions, "a whole nation is deprived of access to high-quality medical technology and pharmaceuticals through no fault of their own" (one wonders if the countries that sell weapons to Sudan might provide these items.) Maxmen also quotes Ahmed Elsayed, a cardiologist, who suggests that Congress does not understand the ramification of its laws. Maxmen fails to note that besides being a cardiologist, Elsayed is a "torture doctor" who barely escaped prosecution in the United Kingdom following reports in the U.K. media by former victims.
Needless to say, the choices of the regime have created incredible and unnecessary hardships for the people of Sudan, but would removing the sanctions actually improve their lives or would it improve the fortunes of Bashir and his colleagues? The health sector provides an interesting case study. The regime has privatized healthcare, meaning that it is part of the regime's system of nepotism and corruption that allows its friends and followers to benefit from those who are sick and can afford healthcare. For those who are poor or who live in the marginalized areas, healthcare is clearly not a priority of the government as it bombs hospitals and either expels NGOs providing humanitarian aid or bars them from entering the country to administer vaccinations and other lifesaving treatments. Lifting sanctions won't change that. Lifting sanctions, however, will help the regime and its friends gain greater access to wealth and resources.
Fortunately, as noted in the Foreign Policy article, the United States seems to have a fairly clear understanding of the regime, "The goal of U.S. sanctions is to pressure the Government of Sudan to change the way it treats its people, as well as to renounce its role in state-sponsored terrorism." African Islamic University in Khartoum serves as a hub for training Islamists and extremists that operate in Nigeria, Somalia and in other parts of Africa and the Middle East; the regime supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Joseph Kony; and it provides arms to the Islamist rebels in Libya.
UN Special Rapporteur Jazairy suggests that some reward to the regime is warranted since the regime signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). This argument assumes that the purpose of the CPA was the independence of southern Sudan; however allowing the south to secede was a provision provided in the CPA if the regime failed to make unity attractive to southern Sudanese. The purpose of the CPA was democratic transformation, which the regime clearly had no intention of implementing, along with many other provisions of the CPA, including the Abyei referendum, which still has not taken place.
Jazairy also references the supposed "gradual improvement in governance issues and the launch of the national dialogue initiative." One has to wonder what improvements he is referring to given the ongoing restriction of freedoms and the assault on civilians throughout the country by government troops and its militia, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) just this month. On January 7th, the RSF killed, wounded and raped civilians in the Nuba Mountains; on January 10th, security forces killed at least 12 IDPs in El Geneina, who protested attacks by the RSF; on January 1st and January 9th the regime bombed farmlands in Blue Nile; and since January 15th, renewed aerial bombardment and ground attacks are occurring in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur that have killed, injured and displaced thousands of civilians. While the national dialogue initiative looks good on paper, like most initiatives involving the regime, it is going nowhere. The regime is not serious about implementing an inclusive process representative of Sudan's diversity or creating a conducive environment for dialogue, but instead it is intent on hoodwinking the international community, buying time and maintaining the status quo.
As the U.S. has indicated, the formula for ending sanctions in Sudan is not complicated. Until then, for the good of the people of Sudan, sanctions should stay in place, continue to be tightened particularly in the financial sector, and should be expanded to include targeted sanctions aimed directly at the leaders of the regime and its militia. In addition, European countries should not be lured into new openings with the regime based on an illusion of cooperation on migration issues. The people of Sudan have suffered terribly for decades because of the Bashir regime, and they should be able to expect a much more robust response from the international community. While sanctions represent the mildest form of intervention, based on the regime's response, the pressure seems to be hitting the mark.
Written by Esther Sprague for Act for Sudan.