While Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who is currently advising presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, famously said that the estimated 500,000 children who died as a result of US sanctions on Iraq was “worth it.” It was, perhaps, a rare moment of candor from a politician, an admission that Washington is willing to support ostensibly non-lethal measures in such an all-encompassing fashion as to produce mass deaths of people who have no ability to influence the actions undertaken by their government. Sanctions are collective punishment, a blunt edged weapon used all too frequently by Washington to compel foreign governments to submit without having to go to war. There is nothing benign about them and Americans should regard them as potentially just as deadly as direct military intervention.
There are currently a number of countries that are subject to US enforced sanctions but only three fall under the category of “state sponsors of terrorism.” They are Iran, Syria and Sudan. That status entails a number of US Government sanctions including a ban on arms-related exports and sales; controls over exports of dual-use items; prohibitions on economic assistance; and imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. The financial measures require the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank or other international financial institutions and prohibit any US person from engaging in a financial transaction with a terrorism-list government without a Treasury Department license issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The license and other approvals are reported to be complicated and the process is extremely difficult to navigate, discouraging anyone from having business dealings with the targeted countries.
Other sanctions are not always directly related to terrorism. They sometimes target select individuals and organizations that are considered by the US government to be focal points of some aberrant behavior. A number of Russian officials have been sanctioned over Ukraine and even over the functioning of the country’s judiciary while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been sanctioned both for its involvement with radical groups and its support of Tehran’s missile program. But the most devastating sanctions are those which are directed against a country and nearly everything that it does economically, which was the case with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Currently, Sudan falls under that category.
I recently spent a week in Sudan as the guest of a NGO. The objective was to show a group of hopefully influential foreign visitors the devastating effect of sanctions on the local economy. We visitors were of course aware that we were being fed a line that was most favorable to the government position so we also spoke to other Sudanese who were not necessarily part of the program as well as to United States government officials working at the Embassy.
The status of state sponsor of terrorism was bestowed on Sudan back in 1993 after the Sudanese government invited Osama bin Laden to stay in the country. Subsequently it was also claimed that Khartoum was supporting radical groups in Africa and elsewhere, to include Boko Harum, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Since that time the conditions that led to the designation have changed dramatically. Bin Laden was asked to leave and relations with a number of militant groups were severed. Sudan has even severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
The latest edition of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism states that “Sudan remained a generally cooperative partner of the United States on counterterrorism. During the past year, the Government of Sudan continued to support counterterrorism operations to counter threats to US interests and personnel in Sudan.” Beyond that, the Sudanese intelligence service has been active in sharing information on terrorists in neighboring countries, to include Yemen, Uganda, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad and Libya. The information has been of such value that in 2010 the United States intelligence community advocated decoupling intelligence sharing from restrictions imposed on bilateral contact due to concerns over developments in Darfur.
In 2010 John Kerry, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, pledged to the Sudanese government that the terrorism designation would be lifted but failed to follow through. Later, in 2013, as Secretary of State, he was reminded of his promise by his Sudanese counterpart but apparently was thwarted in taking any action by advisers around President Barack Obama, most notably Susan Rice andSamantha Power. Both had in part made their reputations by writing and speaking to condemn Sudan. They were among the first to describe the conflict in Darfur as a genocide and are correctly perceived as hostile to any change in Sudan’s status.
The other sanctions on Sudan, referred to as a “comprehensive trade embargo,” blend claims of terrorism support with alleged human rights violations. They were imposed by Bill Clinton in 1997 and supplemented under George W. Bush in 2006. The last of these were linked to what has been described as a civil war starting in 2003 pitting the mostly Arabic speaking north of the country against the mostly indigenous black African south and west. The western media depicted the conflict in a racial context as well as in terms of religion, with Muslim pitted against Christian and animist, but the reality was much more complex than that with groups also dividing along linguistic, tribal and even occupational lines, sometimes featuring nomadic herdsmen against farmers.
Most sources agree that the various wars in and around Sudan have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese as well as between 14,000 and 200,000 who were reportedly “enslaved” in abductions carried out by both sides. The conflict in Darfur has been described as a genocide with a government supported militia known as Janjaweed and the rebels together having been accused of carrying out numerous atrocities. As a consequence, Sudan’s then-and-now president Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been on the receiving end of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.
Al-Bashir, it should be noted became president by virtue of a military coup, though he has now been elected to office three times, once in an uncontested election in 1996 and in 2010 in a multiparty election that was described as “highly chaotic, non-transparent and vulnerable to electoral manipulation.” The most recent election took place on April 2015 and was strongly criticized by the US, Britain and Norway, all of whom had sent observers. Al-Bashir heads the ruling National Congress Party, but in fact he rules largely by fiat. He is either very popular or very unpopular with the Sudanese people depending on whom one talks to.
Genuine moves towards Sudanese democracy through the mechanism of a currently ongoing National Discussion are promising but are likely to slowly evolve in reality. The country’s legal system is based on Sharia but there is general tolerance of other religions in practice if not in law. The National Museum has a section relating to Christianity in Sudan and there is a Christian hour on television every Sunday. The Roman Catholic cathedral is located near the government center and there is also an active Coptic community. Christian community leaders openly support the existing government, just as they do in Syria, perhaps recognizing that available alternatives might be much worse.
A cease fire with the southern states in Sudan in 2005 led to the involvement of a United Nations Mission and a referendum in 2011 resulted in secession from the north. South Sudan is now an independent country that is enduring its own birth pangs. There are some reports of continued violence possibly instigated by Khartoum as well as little noticed government repression in the southern Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which have been largely closed to the media and foreign NGOs pending yet another referendum to determine their future status.
Darfur followed with its own peace agreement in 2006. It is relatively quiet though military operations against a final hold out group of rebels in the region continue. Humanitarian and UN affiliated groups are in Darfur to monitor the process of reconciliation and it is expected that there will be another referendum to determine the region’s final status. At least some of the continuing unrest has been attributed to the activity of radicals from Chad, who are able to freely cross the open 600 mile long border to enter Darfur.
Business leaders in Khartoum note that there has been considerable economic growth in Sudan in spite of sanctions, concentrated in the sectors of oil, agriculture and mining. Since 1997, Sudan has been working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to initiate reforms and create sustainable growth. There is, however, considerable official corruption and across the board poverty, largely among those in engaged in agriculture.
In spite of some positive developments, Washington’s sanctions have blocked almost all business with Sudan. Selling or buying anything to or from Sudan requires clearance by OFAC and is largely limited to agricultural, communications or medical products. The paperwork requires months to complete and the actual purchases have to be made through third parties, meaning that everything costs more and comes without warranties, service or support. This is because the United States has effectively shut down any banking transactions or extensions of credit with Sudan and when no one can get paid except by suitcases full of cash it becomes impossible to conduct business. Few foreign banks exist in Sudan and they are very careful about how they operate. Even the IMF is reportedly having difficulty in funding its own projects in country. It all means that Sudan cannot pay its bills through conventional correspondent banking arrangements as foreign banks are fearful of being fined by the United States. No one is willing to take that risk.
To be sure, part of Sudan’s economic woes come from its sustaining a war economy in response to the unrest in several regions. But beyond that no investment money coming in due to sanctions means no improvement in agricultural technology, which would benefit the poorest part of the population, or in health care or in education. Poverty has been increasing due to sanctions and attempts to evade the restrictions have resulted in smuggling, money laundering and an increase in unconventional banking to include hawala transfers that are not subject to normal bank controls. Because Sudan is currently not integrated into the international banking system its transactions cannot be monitored to prevent terrorist money transfers.
And there is also a human price to pay for inability to move money. Sudanese health care providers believe that many preventable deaths are attributable to persistent lack of medicinal suppplies or diagnostic equipment due to sanctions. Even if the numbers are overstated, that is almost certainly true. In a recent case three patients in Darfur died for lack of renal dialysis solutions.
I oppose sanctions in principle because I believe they are a blunt instrument that punishes innocent civilians when broadly construed while having no effect at all when directly targeting the country’s relatively wealthy and unreachable government officials. If sanctions are to make any sense they should be designed to achieve a quantifiable result but that is rarely the case and they frequently serve no purpose whatsoever beyond dishing out punishment. It has been claimed that sanctions actually worked in Sudan because its government has moved to meet some of Washington’s demands over Darfur and South Sudan, but that is a simplistic explanation for rather more complex phenomena that were likely driven by multiple constituencies and interests.
More often than not, sanctions harden a government’s resolve to resist, as they did in Cuba, and even become useful to the regime as an excuse for government failures. The explanation provided by George W. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios that sanctions “send a message…to start behaving differently when they deal with their own people. That’s what this is all about,” is hubristic imperialism at its finest. It is reported in Sudan that many young Sudanese hate the United States and it is not difficult to understand why.
And there are good selfish reasons for the United States to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Khartoum. Sudan is an autocracy but no worse than American allies like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt. It is active in fighting alleged rebels but is far more restrained than the current Saudi military intervention in Yemen. And though Khartoum has had sometimes ambivalent relationships with Islamic radicals it has been far less engaged in that fashion than Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So Sudan passes the smell test for being a disagreeable regime that is compatible with United States’ broader interests.
And those broader interests are clear, including allowing American companies to participate in the future development of the country. US sanctions have forced the Sudanese to turn to Moscow and Beijing for assistance. Russia is involved in gold mining and China is increasingly engaged in transportation, communications and energy projects. The Sudanese rail network and its international air carrier Sudan Air have collapsed due to lack of spare parts for their US made hardware, an opportunity for American suppliers to quickly reenter the market. It is not in the US national interest to create conditions favorable to competitors seeking to dominate the potentially large and developing Sudanese economy, ceding to them a significant foothold in East Africa by default.
Furthermore, Sudan is a bridge between Africa and the Arab world. It harbors no international terrorists and is a relative oasis of calm in a region in turmoil, well placed to monitor developments in neighboring Egypt, Chad, Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, Zaire, Central African Republic, Uganda and Yemen. It has made a significant contribution in counterterrorism and could do even better if properly motivated and provided with the tools needed, potentially playing a major role in the US sponsored Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism. Normalizing relations with Sudan’s banks could, inter alia, stop money laundering and shut down possible terrorist money transfers.
There is, in short, no good reason to continue the status quo apart from the objections of two Obama advisers who have a personal stake in depicting Sudan in the most negative fashion. Unfortunately US foreign policy has drifted away from supporting actual national interests and is mired in responding to various constituencies, in Obama’s case the “responsibility to protect” advocates. One can quite imagine that with something like a Marco Rubio it would revert to the mindless belligerency mode, but as both models seek to remake foreign governments they should equally be eschewed. Countries like Sudan and Iran should not be made to feel that they are permanently under the heel of the American jackboot. Nor should Washington feel compelled to play that role. Except in those rare situations where trade embargoes can inhibit flows of weapons to belligerents in a hot war, sanctions are useless, diminishing both those who apply the punishment and those who are on the receiving end. They should never be considered a serious instrument for foreign policy.
Reprinted with permission from the Unz Review.