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US President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday easing but not eliminating sanctions against Sudan, in an eleventh-hour push to broaden talks with the long-estranged African government.
Exactly two decades after the US imposed economic sanctions against Sudan and with barely a week to go before Obama leaves office, the US is starting to reverse its position on one of Africa’s most impoverished, isolated and violent nations.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said the situation that led the US to impose and continue sanctions had changed over the last six months in light of Sudan’s “positive actions”.
The letter recognised “steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism.”
The eased sanctions will enable trade and investment to resume with Sudan, a US-designated terrorism sponsor whose leader has been indicted on war crimes charges.
But Obama built in a six-month waiting period before the benefits for Sudan come into effect.
By July 12, several US agencies will have to affirm to the White House – which will be controlled by President-elect Donald Trump – that Sudan is still taking positive steps before the sanctions are actually eased.
The penalties being suspended by the policy change could be re-imposed if Sudan backtracks on the progress made.
Fighting al Qaeda
US trade and financial sanctions were first imposed by former President Bill Clinton in 1997, a year after Osama bin Laden left the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he was based for four years after the billionaire Saudi jihadist was banished from his homeland.
Washington’s allegations that Khartoum was supporting violent Islamist groups were confirmed a year later, when al Qaeda militants conducted deadly attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Over the next two decades, sanctions were routinely extended primarily due to the conflict in Darfur, a vast desert region in western Sudan, where state security services and pro-government militias conducted a brutal, scorched earth counterinsurgency that killed around 300,000 people and displaced some 2.5 million citizens.
The Darfur conflict also led to genocide charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court) against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
The new easing of sanctions will not affect “al-Bashir’s war crimes nor does it lift the state sponsor of terror [designation],” a White House official told the AFP. Syria and Iran are also on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Fighting the Islamic State group
But over the past few years, Sudan has increased efforts to increase counter-terrorism cooperation with the US list, according to White House officials.
In a September 2016 statement, US State Department spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that Sudan had “taken important steps to counter ISIL [also known as the Islamic State group] and other terrorist groups and has sought to prevent their movement into and through Sudan”.
Contacts between the US and Sudan have also increased in recent months, with Secretary of State John Kerry meeting twice with his Sudanese counterpart and US envoy for Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth making several visits to Khartoum.
The Sudanese government had allowed two visits by American operatives to a restricted border area near Libya, US officials told the New York Times.
The easing of sanctions will allow Sudan to buy vehicles, spare parts for its crumbling infrastructure, as well as attract badly needed investments to boost an economy hit by crumbling oil prices and a raging conflict in its oil-rich provinces bordering South Sudan.
But they will not apply to the sale of military arms and equipment to the Sudanese government, according to US officials.
Advocacy groups slam a ‘premature’ measure
Reacting to the first reports of sanctions-easing, which came late Thursday, US-based advocacy groups called the measures “premature”.
“We will certainly seek to work with the US Congress to see some of these sanctions restored, modernised, and codified in the coming months,” John Prendergast, director of the Washington DC-based anti-genocide group, the Enough Project, told Reuters.
In addition to Darfur, where a simmering counterinsurgency campaign continues, Sudanese authorities are also actively engaged in conflicts in central and southern Sudan, particularly the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan province. Khartoum, in addition, is accused of financing and supporting rebels fighting a brutal civil war across its border in South Sudan.
Eric Reeves, a fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, told the New York Times he was “appalled” that the US government was easing sanctions. “There is no reason to believe the guys in charge have changed their stripes,” said Reeves.
It was also not known if incoming US president-elect Donald Trump’s administration would seek to reverse the easing of sanctions.