Sudan is still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism – so why did the US just lift sanctions?

Earlier this month, the US government decided to lift economic sanctions on Sudan. These sanctions have been in place since 1997, and were put there for some pretty serious offenses, such as harboring Osama bin Laden and committing crimes against humanity and genocide.

So why has the US government decided lift these sanctions now?

This has been in the works for a long while. It was back in January that, according to Holland & Hart LLP, “President Obama conditionally lifted sanctions on Sudan authorizing a wide array of activities previously prohibited… with a path to a permanent revocation of sanctions in six months if certain conditions were met.” This temporary easing of restrictions unblocked frozen Sudanese assets and allowed business between the US and Sudan to operate more freely. Trump extended the temporary suspension and the deadline to make a decision on them until October 12, when the US decided to revoke sections of previous executive orders that restricted transactions between the US and Sudan.

Another way in which this decision is not all that sudden is that Sudan has been lobbying for years to get the sanctions lifted: In 2011 Sudan hired an American international trade lawyer to represent their interests in the US, and in 2015 they sent at least two high-profile delegations to Washington to lobby for the removal of sanctions. In the months leading up to Trump’s deadline to make a decision on sanctions, the Sudanese government was reported by Bloomberg to have hired Washington law firm Squire Patton Boggs LLP at $40,000 a month to lobby on its behalf for the permanent removal of sanctions. (The Sudan Tribune reports that the Sudanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs denies the government hired the firm.) With the new investment opportunities that would come with the removal of sanctions, argued Sudan’s ambassador to the US in an interview cited by Bloomberg, “That would open a door to heaven between the two countries… I can assure you too that many major US companies are knocking on the door right now.”

So there’s no doubt that Sudan’s lobbying is part of why and how the US has been leaning toward lifting sanctions. But as Sudan’s ambassador implies, the role of trade and investment incentives – for both Sudan and American companies – should not be underestimated. Sudan is an oil-rich country and the world’s largest producer of gum arabic – a natural adhesive that is used in countless products, from soda to all sorts of candies and confectionary. It is the only Sudanese export exempted from the US sanctions, and the World Bank has been working with the country at least since 2009 to revitalize the industry. This indicates the prominence of business interests and their potential to override political priorities; so part of the US moving toward lifting sanctions is undoubtedly economic.

But how can all this be reconciled with the fact that Sudan is still designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States government? And the fact that Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide committed in the western region of Darfur?

It is important to note here that there are several mechanisms through which sanctions are imposed on Sudan. Among these are the November 1997 Sudanese Sanctions Regulations (SSR) and Executive Orders 13067 (November 3, 1997), 13412 (October 13, 2006), and 13400 (April 26, 2006). According to the Department of the Treasury, as of October 12, only some sanctions will be lifted. The sanctions related to the conflict in Darfur (EO 13400 of April 26, 2006) and the declared national emergency in EO 13067 (of November 1997) are to remain in place. These include restrictions on the provision of aid and a ban on weapons sales.

So while some sanctions will remain in place, including those related to Darfur, the official line in the most recent decision to allow the easing of sanctions on Sudan is that the country has made progress in several key areas. These include, in particular, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism; allowing humanitarian access; and bringing an end to ongoing violent conflicts. One can argue about whether or not the government of Sudan has in fact made satisfactory progress in any of these areas, and human rights groups are certainly opposed to the lifting of sanctions on the grounds that ongoing conflict and past crimes should mean that they should be kept in place. On the other hand, there is the question of who sanctions actually hurt more – the government, or ordinary Sudanese citizens. According to Voice of America, some rights groups “argue the Trump administration should create a completely new policy framework to address the core issues that led the regime to be sanctioned in the first place.”

What all of this glosses over is that first key area of progress – intelligence sharing and counterterrorism. Indeed, as some rights groups argue according to Bloomberg, “the US may let Sudan off the hook because it’s seen as too important in counterterrorism efforts to risk reimposing sanctions and jeopardizing the burgeoning relationship.” While the US public is kept busy with controversies at home and can barely even pay attention to the dangerous situation being fomented between the US and North Korea, the 2003 – 2006 level outrage over Darfur has all but dissipated and the political justification for lifting sanctions based on those key areas of progress has appeared, so far, to be largely either acceptable or off the radar for most Americans.

However, Washington’s relationship with Sudan has been defined and complicated by Sudan’s geopolitical importance in terms of counterterrorism for more than 20 years; so this critique is not new, either. Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism has never kept the US government from tapping it as a source of intelligence, and since the 1990s, at least, there has been a paradoxical tension between political priorities and American security concerns. For example, even as the George W. Bush administration was coming under pressure to take action on Sudan as a result of the war in Darfur, the CIA was collaborating with the Sudanese intelligence agency on counterterrorism.

So in a way, this latest move to lift sanctions is significant in some ways and not in others. On the one hand, it’s an unprecedented decision since sanctions were first imposed in 1997. On the other hand, Sudan has not been un-named as a state sponsor of terrorism; and this selective removal of sanctions can be seen as the latest move in a decades-long balancing act that both countries are trying to perform with respect to each other.