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U.S. sanctions on Sudan just got lighter after 20 years

The U.S. is scaling back 20-year-old sanctions on Sudan — one of three countries the State Department designates as a state sponsor of terrorism — just a week before President Obama’s term comes to an end. Friday’s executive order will ease trade and financial sanctions on the East African country, and is seen as part of a larger effort to build stronger ties with a Sudanese government that has cooperated with the U.S. in its expanding counterterrorism operations in the region, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press.


In exchange for the U.S. breaking with 20 years of economic sanctions, the Sudanese government is expected to provide intelligence, facilitate humanitarian work, and end its involvement in internal and neighboring conflicts in South Sudan. The overture doesn’t mean Sudan is completely off the hook, as it comes with a six-month review period: If Sudan falls short, sanctions can be fully restored pending a trial period that ends several months into Donald Trump’s presidency.

Suliman Baldo, an adviser to human rights advocacy group the Enough Project, said the policy shift was almost entirely motivated by U.S. interests in intelligence-sharing. Sudan has played a role in America’s expanding counterterrorism operations on the African continent, providing intel on the Islamic State group’s activities in surrounding countries, including Libya, Egypt, and Somalia.

“Sudan is being rewarded for going through this gymnastics of satisfying the outside but doing nothing inside. This is where the paradox of the situation is,” Baldo said.

Sudan was labeled a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 — a designation it continues to share with Syria and Iran. Citing Sudan’s sponsorship of international terrorism and human rights abuses, President Clinton doubled down with a trade embargo in 1997 and blocked all Sudanese government assets in the United States.

The country’s current leadership is shrouded in controversy and carries a troubling human rights record. Since the 1990s, Sudan has been marred by reports of government crackdowns on opposition and violence toward civilians. President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for charges including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of genocide, making him the only head of state with an outstanding arrest warrant from the judicial body. Recently, Amnesty International reported alleged chemical attacks in the Darfur region by government forces.

Nevertheless, Bashir seems hopeful about closer U.S. relations under a Trump presidency despite the president-elect offering little indication in the way of policy on the African continent. In an interview last November, Bashir noted, “I am convinced that it will be much easier to deal with Trump than with others because he is a straightforward person and a businessman who considers the interests of those who deal with him.” He added that Trump “focuses on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.”