Bashir and the Americans: sanctions and regime survival in Sudan

With sanctions, as in politics, it is only a slight exaggeration to say, paraphrasing Gladstone, that timing is everything. Altering U.S. policy on Sudan now, and not six months or a year or five ago, is more about Obama’s impending departure from office than due to any dramatic difference or reform in the Sudanese regime. The regime continues to prioritize the security state over effective governance and service delivery, attack legitimate political opposition and expression, systematically and indiscriminately use the tools of repression, and more (see, for example: Continuing judicial harassment of 5 defenders from TRACKs and the Director of ZORD; Silencing Women Rights Defenders)

None of these are new patterns, nor has Khartoum been discreet enough to avoid further incidents in recent weeks. Mudawi Ibrahim, one of Sudan’s best known human rights activists, was detained in Khartoum on December 7. Human rights lawyer Tasneem Ahmed Taha was detained in El Fasher on December 26. Access to Jebel Marra and many parts of the Nuba Mountains remains extremely limited.

But it does not follow that comprehensive U.S. sanctions are a solution to these or Sudan’s many other problems, or that progress on all of these fronts should have been a precondition to the initial easing of sanctions. The blunt force of the policy of the last twenty years has clearly harmed ordinary civilians, including civilian opponents of the regime. The easing of personal communications equipment sanctions by the U.S. government in February 2015 was recognition, in part, that Sudanese civil society, and ordinary civilians, suffered much more than any Sudanese government elite in being prevented from using modern technology.

There is not much to suggest that U.S. sanctions have compelled those ruling Sudan to consistently moderate their behaviour over the last twenty odd years. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control noted in a 2009 report: ‘assigning causality between the threat or imposition of economic sanctions and regime-level behavioral changes is fraught with peril,’ while going on to argue, through a few rather unconvincing examples, ‘that U.S. sanctions against Sudan have applied constructive pressure that has affected key Sudanese officials’ decision-making calculi.’ Affected, perhaps, but to what extent? Even Treasury’s own statement announcing the easing of sanctions this month seemed to unwittingly accept this ineffectiveness: ‘our sanctions were intended to pressure the Government of Sudan to change the way it treats its people.’ Intent does not equate to results.

Herein lies the problem with both critics and proponents of this policy shift: sanctions – their imposition and their removal – are not a strategy; they are merely tools, in service of a strategy. And the alternative strategy remains sorely lacking.

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Considering the future of U.S. relations with South Sudan

The leading U.S. government voices on South Sudan will soon be out of office. Over the last eight years, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and USAID Administrator (and formerly, Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director at the National Security Council) Gayle Smith have given the South Sudan file prominence and attention in Washington that the South Sudanese government scarcely appreciates. To the long list of things in flux in American foreign policy in 2017, we can probably add: a decline in U.S. attention towards South Sudan.

Many in the increasingly repressive and intolerant Juba government were quick to publicly gloat at the election of Donald Trump. The defeat of the Democrats was further occasion to express disdain at the Obama administration and what Juba perceives as its championing of policies unjust to South Sudan.

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Scenarios of genocide in South Sudan

Although it remains in doubt, if the United Nations Security Council finally imposes an arms embargo on South Sudan this week, the international community may feel that it has responded to the dire warning of genocide made 19 days ago.  But the ingredients for genocide in South Sudan are already assembled, and even if the resolution is passed, putting in place the practicalities of an effective sanctions regime will take too long. It is already too late for the embargo to play a fully preventative role in future atrocities.

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Misplaced focus: a regional protection force in South Sudan is not a substitute for a political process

 The international community will be confronted with hard choices: do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the United Nations and tragic failure for the people…

These words could easily have been said about the anticipated Regional Protection Force (RPF), now the international community’s primary policy prescription to address the crisis in South Sudan. Instead, they date from 2007 and Jean-Marie Guéhenno, then head of the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations, describing the challenges of what would become the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

There are at least three important parallels between the experiences of UNAMID and the RPF. First, as in Darfur, the RPF is intended to enhance the capacity of an existing, under-performing and repeatedly outmanoeuvred peacekeeping operation. Second, the host government opposed, and then accepted with conditions, the RPF, and has and will continue to shift the goal posts on the composition and operational parameters of the force. Third, the RPF will take months to fully deploy, if indeed it ever does. Most crucially, even if this force deploys, it will not address the most crucial security and political problems in South Sudan. The greatest security risk to civilians in the city of Juba today comes from the government’s armed forces; the RPF will be outnumbered and outgunned by those same forces the government refuses to withdraw. With the bulk of SPLM/A (IO) forces having now fled Juba, the argument that the RPF is there to interposition between rival forces no longer holds; the moment at which a third party security force would have been of greatest benefit has been missed.

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