U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Khartoum Steven Koutsis: Dishonest, Tendentious, Misleading

The Trump administration State Department is evidently content to allow recently appointed Charge d’Affaires Steven Koutsis to remain the senior U.S. diplomat in Khartoum, serving as the primary interlocutor on a day-to-day basis with the genocidal National Congress Party regime, which is now celebrating the 28th anniversary of the military coup that brought it to power—as the National Islamic Front, whose ideology the NCP has never abandoned, only trimmed as circumstances warrant.

In his brief tenure (he was appointed only last year) Koutsis has been the spokesman for views that are disingenuously framed, typically misleading, and alarmingly tendentious. Most alarming are his comments of June 24, first reported by Agence France-Presse (El Daien, East Darfur | June 24, 2017), but subsequently by many other news organizations. Referring to those expressing grave concern about Khartoum’s increasing repression and continuing violent suppression of political dissent, religious intolerance, its abysmal human rights record, and its continuing deployment of brutal militia forces in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, Koutsis declared:

“None of these other issues were the point of sanctions, and none of these other issues, therefore, should be linked to the lifting of sanctions.”

Here Koutsis is so egregiously in error that we must question his basic diplomatic competence in dealing with the Khartoum regime. U.S. economic sanctions imposed by President Clinton in 1997 are explicit about why they were being imposed; in the Preface of his Executive Order, Clinton declared:

We must wonder what part of “the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom” escaped Koutsis’ understanding. Rather more to the point, we must ask whether it was an unforgiveable ignorance of this language in the 1997 Executive Order—or a cynical belief that no one would call him on the outrageous inaccuracy of his statement.

Steven Koutsis, the cynical diplomatic ignoramus representing the Trump administration State Department in Khartoum

Does Koutsis think that “human rights violations” in Sudan are a minor issue, merely a tag-on to U.S. concerns about Khartoum’s support for international terrorism, support that has kept the NIF/NCP regime on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” for 20 years? Sudan, Syria, and Iran are the only three countries in the world that remain on this list, and for good reason.

But that fact in no way diminishes the appalling nature of human rights abuses by the same regime in its treatment of its own people: torture by the security services is commonplace; the denial of press freedoms only grows more rigorous; suppression of demonstrations has taken the form of regime orders to “shoot to kill” demonstrators (September 2013); political power-sharing and democratization has been relentlessly subverted; bombing of civilian and humanitarian targets by the regime’s military aircraft has been a primary tactic in its wars against marginalize populations living in Sudan’s peripheries (see | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Pv ); chemical weapons were used against civilians in Jebel Marraduring the savage military offensive mounted by the regime’s regular and militia forces in 2016 (established conclusively by Amnesty International | September 29, 2016 | https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/chemical-weapons-attacks-darfur/ ).

Infant dying from chemical weapons attack in Jebel Marra by armed forces of the Khartoum regime (Amnesty International, September 2016)

Koutsis would evidently have us believe that none of this matters, or bears on the decision about whether the U.S. should lift sanctions on the regime—sanctions actually strengthened under the Bush administration in 2006 in response to the regime’s continuing genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur. President (and former self-promoted “Field Marshal”) Omar al-Bashir—installed in office during the 1989 military coup—is the target of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, charging him with multiple counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. The ICC has issued arrest warrant for other members of regime, charging them with crimes against humanity; and many more arrest warrants will be issued when the regime eventually falls.

ICC-Indicted génocidaire Omar al-Bashir

Again, then, what are we to make of Koutsis’ viciously inaccurate claim that all this is beside the point?

“None of these other issues were the point of sanctions, and none of these other issues, therefore, should be linked to the lifting of sanctions.”

If nothing else, this pernicious falsehood provides context for other of Koutsis’ remarks this year, remarks that create a deeply distorted and highly tendentious picture of present conditions in Sudan—and Darfur in particular.

One of the key “tracks” stipulated in the gravely misguided decision by President Obama to lift sanctions provisionally (January 13, 2017) was an improvement in humanitarian access. The Khartoum regime has for almost three decades used the denial of humanitarian access as a central weapon of war in its counter-insurgency campaigns: in the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan in the 1990s and through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005; in Darfur from the beginning of major fighting in 2003; and again in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State beginning in summer 2011.

This has been extraordinarily well documented, by journalists, humanitarian workers, and human rights organizations. So when former Obama administration UN ambassador Samantha Power declared in her last UN press conference (January 13, 2017) that there had been “sea change” of improvement in humanitarian access in Sudan, she was promulgating a deeply destructive falsehood, one admitted to be such by State Department officials. Yet no clarification or correction came—even from Power’s friends in the administration, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice and US Agency for International Development Administrator Gayle Smith, who said nothing—and this perverse characterization stands as the last word prior to Koutsis’ recent remarks on the issue:

“I can say without much hesitation that, with the few exceptions, the advances on the five tracks have been positive,” US charge d’affaires in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis, said. “The few exceptions being… the implementation of humanitarian access is uneven… and that we want to see that the government begins to act more on moving towards a more permanent agreement with the opposition” on ending hostilities.

“The implementation of humanitarian access is uneven”?

What a preposterous understatement: rebel-controlled areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile remain under a humanitarian embargo imposed by the regime, which has resolutely refused to negotiate humanitarian access in good faith. In February 2012 an African Union, UN, and Arab League proposal for such access (known as the “Tripartite Proposal”) was accepted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) in South Kordofan and Blue Nile—but was rejected by Khartoum. Over more than five years, in countless negotiating session, the regime has found ways to accept and then renege, to add condition after condition, to do everything possible to make an agreement on humanitarian access impossible.

A child slowly starving to death in the Nuba Mountains (2012); we have no idea what the malnutrition and mortality rates in the Nuba are because Khartoum refuses to allow even humanitarian assessment. But reports from sources on the ground and hit-and-run humanitarian assessments in violation of Khartoum’s embargo suggest that malnutrition is extremely severe and and a great many have died—from aerial bombardment (typically targeting agricultural production) and malnutrition and related disease.