Sudanese activists fear lifting sanctions will 'greenlight' regime atrocities

Sudanese activists fear lifting sanctions will 'greenlight' regime atrocities
In-depth: Sudanese activists have told The New Arab of their fears the Sudanese regime will step up human rights violations now US sanctions have been lifted.
5 min read
11 October, 2017
Protests in Darfur on September 21 were met with state violence [AFP]
The United States on Friday lifted decades-old economic sanctions imposed on Sudan, prompting jubilation among the Sudanese establishment – but condemnation from human rights campaigners who fled the oppressive regime of Omar al-Bashir.

"If I have cancer and I stop suffering headaches, you still cannot say I'm improving," Yasir Harmouda of the diaspora group, Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad, told The New Arab.

"Stopping bombardments is only a side-effect. The chronic issues are still there."

Justifying the decision to allow bank transfers and trade between Sudan and the United States, a spokesperson for Donald Trump's State Department cited "sustained positive actions to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan," plus improved humanitarian access and co-operation in the war against terror.

Despite this trumpeted co-operation against "the threat of terrorism", along with Iran and Syria then Sudan remains one of three nations designated a 'state sponsor of terror' by the US.  As such, it will continue to be barred from debt relief and arms sales. Other targeted sanctions also remain in place, targeting the president, his inner circle, and the troubled Darfur region.

Nonetheless, the Sudanese government has already published a list of $42 billion worth of infrastructure loans which they hope to see come through in the aftermath of the easing of sanctions.  

Hamouda and other activists believe the decision to lift trade embargoes is motivated by economic and geopolitical self-interest, and will line the pockets of powerful while making no difference to the lives of those still being persecuted and starved across the Sudanese region.

A spokesperson for the Sudanese Embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

"The government stopped bombarding people, stopped killing people, but their rights are still being violated," said Harmouda – himself a survivor of torture at the hands of the feared National Intelligence and Security Service, prior to claiming asylum in the UK in 2011.

Opposition clampdown

Limiting himself to examples from the days since the decision to lift sanctions was announced on Friday 6 October, Harmouda pointed to the government's refusal to allow opposition factions to attend a political conference in the Nuba Mountains and the travel ban handed to an opposition politician as she attempted to fly from Khartoum to Paris.

More generally, up to 800,000 Sudanese people are currently living under starvation conditions following a total blockade on aid and a medicine drought across the Nuba Mountains and neighbouring areas. An uneasy ceasefire between the government and rebel forces was only reached five months ago, and it is difficult to imagine benefits of these multi-billion dollar trade deals will reach those suffering famine and cholera outbreaks in the besieged Mountains. It is only a year since the government allegedly used chemical weapons against its own citizens.

Osama Mahmoud, the press officer of diaspora campaign group the Darfur Union, pointed out that five internally displaced Sudanese were shot dead in a refugee camp just weeks ago after peacefully protesting a propagandising visit from President Al-Bashir. "Will people in these camps get any benefit?" he asked. "It's highly unlikely.

Using the example of an aid group offering to build a hospital to support war victims, only to be told that fifty per cent of the project should be reserved for private healthcare, Mahmoud further added that there is "no way you can be a business doing your own business without the intervention of the Islamic Party." In 2016, Sudan was ranked as one of the ten most corrupt nations in the world.

Of course, these challenges are common to any attempt to shift a country out of punitive isolation to and rehabilitate it on the world stage. But the decision to drop sanctions after almost exactly 20 years ago does not seem motivated by any sea change in Sudan's appalling human rights record. Rather, it is Sudan's assurance it will not make an arms deal with North Korea, and a shift in its regional allegiance from Iran to key United States ally Saudi Arabia, which seem to have provoked the detente.

The sanctions may be a green light for Sudan to continue with even worse atrocities

When the news broke that sanctions were to be lifted, President al-Bashir placed a phone call not to Donald Trump but to Saudi Arabia's King Salman. The Sudanese president – who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity alleged to amount to genocide –  thanked the Saudi monarch for lobbying the United States on his behalf.

In return for this lucrative favour, President al-Bashir has allowed his armed forces to be used as "the stick that Saudi Arabia is using to punish the Yemeni people", as Harmouda put it.

Over 400 Sudanese soldiers have died in Saudi Arabia's bloodsoaked proxy war in the Arab peninsula's poorest country – while Mr al-Bashir's government has received $2.2billion from Riyadh for their troubles.

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"[The Sudanese government] are celebrating because they know now they can move their money freely and pump it into the international financial system and legitimise everything they do."  Meanwhile, the Trump administration will "let the Sudanese government do whatever they want except [where it interferes with] money, business, or the international terror fight."

Far from encouraging the Sudanese government to curb its violent repression of its citizens, the sanctions may "be a green light to the government of Sudan to continue doing even worse atrocities," Mahmoud said.

While believing that a carefully-managed rollback of sanctions could one day benefit his compatriots in Darfur, he feared Friday's concession would be taken as a sign that the West was prepared to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, leaving ordinary Sudanese citizens worse off than before.

According to Sudan's foreign ministry, "the leaders of Sudan, the government of Sudan and the people of Sudan welcome the positive decision taken by American President Donald Trump of removing the economic sanctions completely."

But when the leader and the government are engaged in the violent repression of the people, it is hard to see how their interests can align.