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.