Will Lifting Sanctions improve Human Rights in Sudan?

The recent decision by the United States (US) to lift two decades of sanctions on Sudan has been welcomed by some international actors, but received criticism from human rights organisations, campaigners and Sudanese opposition politicians.

The significance of this achievement for the government of Sudan cannot be understated.

Sudan has invested heavily in efforts towards the lifting of sanctions, including bringing the African Union on board and supporting the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. The mandate holder is tasked with investigating the human rights impact of economic measures applied by one State to change policy of another State. After the creation of the role, the Special Rapporteur’s first visit was Sudan, where he advocated for the lifting of US sanctions.

The recommendation to lift sanctions was based on ‘sustained positive actions’ by the government of Sudan on the five tracks which were: the cessation of hostilities in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur; an improvement in humanitarian access throughout Sudan; addressing the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an end to negative interference in South Sudan, and cooperation on counter-terrorism.

Human rights organisations would disagree with this glowing assessment. Rather than taking positive steps towards upholding and promoting human rights, in many cases the government has temporarily halted the most egregious abuses, such as bombing in the Darfur region.   And as the first US dollars make their way into the Central Bank of Sudan, the question that remains is whether there will ever be tangible improvements now that sanctions have been lifted.

Giving too much for too little progress

Several commentators have stated that the US gave too much away for too little progress, and focused on the wrong issues.

For example, while aerial bombardment in Darfur has reduced, reports of sexual violence remain high. In May, the Ministry of Justice revealed that 35 reports of rape against children had been filed in South Darfur during April and May. The announcement followed the Secretary-Generals report on conflict related sexual violence in which the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) documented 100 incidents of sexual violence affecting 222 victims during 2016.

In terms of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the US government listed many areas of concern, stating that it would continue bilateral discussions on these issues. However, when it comes to FoRB, there have been few signs of positive action.

Fundamentally, the human rights situation in Sudan will only improve when the political will to protect the rights of all Sudanese nationals has been established.

Maintaining pressure on the government

When the decision to partially lift US sanctions on Sudan was initially announced by the outgoing Obama administration, the criteria did not include any explicit improvements on human rights.

Between the announcement and continuing bilateral talks with the US, some developments were pushed forward, such as the presidential pardons issued to prisoners of conscience, including Reverend Hassan Abdulraheem, Mr Abdulmonem Abdumawla and, more recently, to human rights activist Mr Mudawi Ibrahim Adam. However, the responsiveness of the Sudanese government during this period can hardly be taken as evidence of ‘sustained progress.’

FoRB violations continued during the bilateral talks, including the demolition of two churches in May 2017 and the killing of a church elder in April.

However, the government of Sudan did prove more responsive to criticism. For example, following the demolition of the sole remaining property in the Soba Aradi district of Khartoum State, the US made strong statements of condemnation, both on its own and in coordination with other embassies in Khartoum. The government of Sudan also rushed to guarantee publicly that it would investigate the issue, and while there has been no remedy for the church that was partially demolished, there was at least a clear attempt to condemn the action within the Sudanese administration.

In the months between the church demolition and the anticipated sanctions decision on 12 July there were no recorded FoRB violations. However, immediately after the Trump administration decided to postpone the decision by three months until 12 October, there was an instant uptick in FoRB violations, which would appear to suggest that any progress was opportunistic rather than evidence of a change of policy within the Sudanese government.

The decision by the Khartoum State Ministry of Education to force Christian schools to open on a Sunday was soon followed by interference in the internal affairs of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) and the arrest of ten members of its leadership committee. Land disputes with the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC) also continued, accompanied by the forced eviction of the religious leaders from their church-owned homes.

On the 6 October, the US decided to permanently lift sanctions on Sudan. Just three days later, 60 Muslim and Christian parents bravely demonstrated outside the Council on Ministers in Khartoum against the forced opening of Christian schools on Sundays.

The need for political will

The overwhelming majority of human rights violations in Sudan are perpetrated by the state and could be remedied easily, if there was the political will to do so.

A human rights activist recently told CSW: “It is only at a time when the government is under pressure that there is relative freedom. Back in 2005 there was a real awakening. Freedom to express and explore plurality of ideas was present until the crackdown in 2010”.

During president Bashir’s recent visit to Russia, he criticised US interference in the Middle East, stated that Sudan’s internal conflicts were caused by US policy and asked President Putin to protect Sudan from US.

The President’s view that US policy was responsible for the cessation of South Sudan and the war in Darfur is troubling as it shows a complete abdication of responsibility for the effects of his domestic policies and a lack of political will to address Sudan’s internal challenges.

It remains to be seen whether the new direction adopted by the international community vis-a-vis Sudan will ultimately lead to a period of prosperity and freedom for the Sudanese people. For now, there are no real signs of progress and the easing of sanctions increasingly appears to have been an extremely premature decision.