International attempts to end the brutal violence in Sudan appear less likely more than a year after the U.S. lifted sanctions on the East African nation, following new reports of government violence against the general public that has triggered alarm from the top levels of the United Nations and human rights organizations.
Despite these concerns, engagement is proceeding to normalize American relations with Sudan, which remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism.
Earlier this week, the U.N. secretary-general said that while security has improved in Darfur – a region in western Sudan the size of France – sexual assaults and other acts of violence remain common.
"While the rate of [newly displaced people] was lower in 2017 than in previous years, and humanitarian access had improved, sexual violence remained prevalent, owing to a volatile security environment awash with small arms and light weapons, criminality and sporadic clashes," António Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
The U.S. and other Western governments increasingly are working with Sudan's government led by President Omar al-Bashir, who is sought by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, for alleged acts of genocide and war crimes committed in Darfur.
The U.S. has since the 1990s imposed economic sanctions on Sudan for its support of terrorists. But over time U.S. thinking of the sanctions' effectiveness has changed. Meanwhile, Western governments have increasingly eased into seeking al-Bashir's help to battle extremism in East Africa and to help reverse the flow of refugees streaming northward with the hope of reaching Europe.
U.S. negotiators will next focus on improving human rights and religious freedom in the East African country, according to the Sudan Tribune.
Sudan's current government came to power by an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, waging a jihadi war on South Sudan, which became its own country in 2011. The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir, whom it accuses of being "criminally responsible, as an indirect co-perpetrator" for alleged acts of genocide and war crimes committed in Darfur. An insurgency erupted in Darfur in 2003 against Sudan's government in Khartoum for political and economic marginalization.
International rights observers say the social climate in Sudan remains oppressive.
"There has been no fundamental change. The government still stands at the ready to fight rebels or suspected rebels and civilians they believe support them, often purely on the basis of their location and ethnicity," says Jehanne Henry of the African team at Human Rights Watch. "We continue to see very high levels of sexual violence especially against displaced women and girls, often by security forces who operate with total impunity. Darfur continues to be a lawless, violent place where government forces can do what they want."
In October 1997 then-President Bill Clinton's administration imposed on Sudan a wide range of sanctions at a time when the African nation still sheltered terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida. The sanctions included a trade embargo, a freeze on government assets and tight restrictions placed on international financial institutions dealing with Sudan. The sanctions were prolonged in 2007 by President George W. Bush in response to the genocide taking place in Darfur.
In 2016, however, then-President Barack Obama's administration became convinced that the sanctions had achieved very little. Just before leaving office in January 2017, Obama signed a temporary removal of the sanctions with a review set for six months later. The U.S. would permanently repeal the sanctions if Sudan sustained progress in the subsequent six months over five tracks, according to Obama's order.
"For more than two decades there has been a policy dominated by pressure and sanctions, and for two decades that policy has largely failed," Obama administration official Zach Vertin told the Washington Post in January 2017.
The five tracks the U.S. monitored included counter-terrorism cooperation; addressing the threat of the Lord's Resistance Army – a rebel group and Christian cult operating in northern Uganda, South Sudan, Congo and Central Africa Republic; ending interference in South Sudan; improving humanitarian access; and ending hostilities in two areas, including Darfur.
Last October, President Donald Trump ended all U.S. economic sanctions. Sudan remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism, a designation that imposes sanctions. Other countries on the list include Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Human rights organizations, however, say they still track incidents of sexual assault and other violence in Darfur, and say the Sudanese government attacked civilians in March and April. Those attacks killed 23 people and displaced 15,000. Twelve villages were set on fire in the Jebel Marra area in Darfur, according to a report from the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies.
"For many months we saw a reduction of government attacks on civilians, but as recent clashes and attacks on civilians in Jebel Mara shows, that's only temporary and only at the whim of the government,"Henry of Human Rights Watch says.
Negotiations to restore normal relations between the U.S. and Sudan should have been started in January this year – a year after Obama partially lifted sanctions in the first phase. Those talks were set to consider removing Sudan from the U.S. government's list of states supporting terrorism.
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