On 29 October, the United States (US) embassy in Khartoum issued an interesting statement, welcoming Sudan’s removal from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) list of countries which are not playing their part in combatting money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The FATF is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 to combat such crimes.
The US embassy noted that last month FATF had taken Sudan off its watch list because of its ‘significant progress … in addressing the strategic anti-money laundering (AML)/counter-terrorism financing (CFT) deficiencies earlier identified by the FATF…’
The embassy also noted that ‘the rise of violent extremism poses a shared threat to the Sudanese and American people … and welcomes the opportunity to work with Sudan on future counter-terrorism efforts, such as denying safe haven to terrorists, blocking access to financial resources, and disrupting the flow of foreign fighters.’
This statement pointed the way to possible significant shifts in the hitherto combative relationship between Washington and Khartoum.
Sudan remains under comprehensive US sanctions and also, along with Iran and Syria, on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Former US president Bill Clinton imposed the comprehensive trade sanctions against Sudan itself and the blocking of the Khartoum government in November 1997, when Sudan was still harbouring Osama bin Laden.
|There are important signs that the Obama administration will start easing up on Khartoum
The reasons he gave were Sudan’s ‘continued support for international terrorism, ongoing efforts to destabilise neighbouring governments, and the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom…’ In March 2005, then president George Bush added targeted sanctions against the property of individual Sudanese who were deemed to be responsible for violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Darfur.
When Khartoum allowed South Sudan to secede in July 2011, it said it should be rewarded by the lifting or at least easing of sanctions. This did not happen. And the US, which holds the key to the World Bank granting the debt relief that Khartoum badly wants under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, still has its finger hovering over the veto button.
Nevertheless there are important signs that the Obama administration – and the West at large – will now start to ease up on Khartoum. One of those signs was removing Sudan from the FATF list, mentioned above. Another was the failure of human rights defenders to get Sudan returned to the so-called ‘Item Four’ category of human rights offending countries at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva last month.
The activists wanted Sudan punished for a recent surge in alleged atrocities by government forces in Darfur as documented in Human Rights Watch’s recent report, Men with no mercy. The report cites testimonies of many witnesses that the government’s Rapid Support Forces in particular have conducted systematic abuses of civilians, including murder and the widespread rape of young girls.
|Sudan finds itself in a strategically important position on a range of important issues for the West
For nearly two decades, Khartoum was classified under Item Four, meaning that its offences were a deliberate implementation of government’s policy. But in 2011, after it let South Sudan go, it was promoted to ‘Item 10’ classification, which focuses on ‘technical assistance and capacity-building’ and the need to raise awareness of the need for accountability.
The implication of this classification is the implausible assumption that a government is conducting human rights offences unwittingly and merely requires outside help to correct these mistakes.
The human rights defenders also failed in their attempt for the Human Rights Council to appoint a commission of inquiry into abuses in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where the government stands accused of indiscriminate bombing of civilians, among other offences.
The journal Africa Confidential has reported it was a ‘back-room’ deal between the US and Sudan in Geneva that thwarted these moves by Sudanese opposition forces and international human rights champions to tighten the screws on Khartoum. The journal said it was told by human rights activists ‘that Washington and Khartoum stitched up a deal and then passed it to the African group to sponsor.’
The quid pro quo for the US in this deal was supposedly greater intelligence cooperation from Khartoum, especially on Somalia’s al-Shabaab jihadist extremist group, which is trying to topple the African Union-backed government in Mogadishu and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Berouk Mesfin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa, though, thinks that Sudan would have more intelligence on the Islamic State, which some Sudanese have joined.
The human rights lobby is furious about the alleged deal between the US and Sudan. Africa Confidential quoted Sudanese human rights advocate Abdullahi Ahmed An Na’im, a professor of law at Atlanta’s Emory University, as saying, ‘The only consistency in the work of the UN Human Rights Council is its unfailing capacity to disappoint the lowest of expectations.’ An Na’im confirmed this quote to the ISS.
Yet it is not only the US that is easing pressure on Khartoum and not only for the sake of cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Mesfin agrees with an official from another Western country that the ‘enormous disappointment and fatigue’ caused by the disastrous civil war in South Sudan is also a factor in the quest for greater cooperation with Khartoum (therefore the easing of US and wider international pressure).
|Are geo-strategic considerations again trumping human rights concerns?
‘The South Sudan and Sudan country situations are closely interwoven and Sudan’s cooperation is key to return South Sudan to stability,’ the official says. ‘Sudan has the capability to “ignite” South Sudan into inter-communal and inter-ethnic strife, which would make today’s situation look like a tea party.’
The official also notes Sudan’s role in Yemen, supporting the Saudi-led (and largely US-approved) fight against the Houthi rebels. The official sees easing of pressure on Sudan as part of the Obama administration’s wider move to normalise relations with foes, such as Iran and Cuba.
‘Based on these considerations, the US is now more pragmatic than for a very long time in entertaining a dialogue with Khartoum on issues like terror listing, sanctions relief and debt relief.’
Sudan also plays a key role for Europe, the official notes, notably as a transit country for refugees from Eritrea especially, but also Ethiopia and Somalia. He recalls that Khartoum hosted a migration summit last year, a forerunner of the big European Union–African Union migration summit to be held in Malta later this month. Mesfin adds that Sudan can also play the role of a middleman between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as it has good relations with both.
So Sudan finds itself, rather fortuitously, in a strategically important position on a range of important issues for the West, and so with an unusually high degree of leverage. And, in this Cold War-like scenario, geo-strategic considerations are again trumping human rights concerns.
The irony is that the West and the African Union – which are otherwise cast as the antagonist and defender, respectively, over Sudan – now find themselves switching roles.
Last month in Khartoum, Sudanese President al-Bashir opened his National Dialogue, which is supposed to point the way to the political future. It was boycotted not only by most of the political opposition, but even by the African Union’s special envoy on Sudan – former South African President Thabo Mbeki. That was because al-Bashir’s government spurned conditions for participating in the Dialogue set by the opposition Sudan Call Forces coalition, including a neutral venue. Mbeki had agreed to those conditions.
‘I don’t think there are chances for Sudan’s political transformation as long as Bashir controls internal pressure,’ says Mesfin. ‘I also think Sudan’s removal from the FATF watch list means that the US and West are not going to apply external pressure.’
This turn of events, however, suggests – if only facetiously – a possible future strategy for the West in its eternal and mostly futile quest to win African backing in its fight against despotic African leaders – support them.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant