Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s must have winced earlier this month when he heard that George W Bush, his American counterpart, has decided to extend by another year unilateral US sanctions against Sudan. In the days before the announcement, Bashir must have mistaken the thaw in Sudan-US relations since September 11, and positive statements by American officials on Sudan’s cooperation with the US-led “war on terrorism”, to mean that Bush was poised to hand him the best news he had had in months. But, to the chagrin of the Bashir regime, appearances have once again turned out to be deceptive in America’s international diplomacy.
In a written statement announcing the extension of the Sudan sanctions on November 1, Bush cited “continuing concern about its record on terrorism and the prevalence of human rights violations,” including slavery and restrictions on religious and political freedoms. The statement also mentioned a recent escalation in the civil war in southern Sudan. To justify the extension of the sanctions, Bush said that these actions and policies on the part of Sudan “are hostile to US interests and pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
This justification underscores America’s proverbial double standards in dealing with the world and its misuse of issues of human rights and freedom as convenient instruments to attack and intimidate adversaries. Washington’s forcefulness on human rights in the Sudan contrasts sharply with its indifference to violations of human rights elsewhere. Gross human-rights violations in scores of other countries have not prevented Washington from maintaining good relations with their governments. In fact, some of the worst violators of human rights in the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco, are among America’s ‘best friends’ in the region. But the justification is premised on faulty logic. Human rights violations anywhere in the world are reprehensible and obnoxious in and of themselves. But to accept Bush’s argument that human rights violations in the Sudan threaten the national security of the world’s sole superpower in the post-Cold War era requires more than a little paranoia.
The sanctions on Sudan restrict all goods and services of Sudanese origin from entering the US, unless a presidential waiver is granted. They also prohibit US citizens from conducting financial dealings with the Sudanese government. The sanctions were imposed by the Clinton administration in November 1997. At the time, Clinton took the measure ostensibly because of what he described as Sudan’s “abysmal” human rights record and allegations of its involvement in an assassination attempt (1995) on the life of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. In drafting its sanctions regime, Washington was careful not to impinge on so-called “humanitarian activities” in the Sudan. This was no magnanimous gesture, but rather a calculated effort dictated by political expediency, as it allows US-based humanitarian and church organizations involved in activities in rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan to continue their work. Estimates put the total amount spent on such programs since 1988 at US $650 million.
Officials in the Bashir regime blasted the US decision as “one-sided and uncalled for.” Foreign minister Mustafa ‘Uthman Isma’il was quoted by al-Anba’ newspaper (November 3, 2001) as saying: “The decision is not in the interests of bilateral relations.” Yet he added that: “Dialogue between the two countries will continue.” In another press interview, information minister Mahdi Ibrahim said that the decision was made in response to domestic pressures being placed on the Bush administration in formulating its Sudan policies. “The US administration has succumbed to pressures by Zionist, extremist Christian and African groups into extending its sanctions on Sudan,” Ibrahim was quoted as saying by the independent al-Hurriyyah daily (November 3, 2001).
It is only natural that the Bashir regime bristles at Bush’s decision to leave the sanctions on Sudan in place. The longstanding chill in Khartoum’s relations with Washington had thawed considerably in the weeks before the sanctions renewal. Sudan wasted no time in condemning the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and rounded up dozens of Islamic militants in the country. Sudanese foreign minister Isma’il is reported to have discussed a number of American requests with the American ambassador to London and several US counter-terrorism officials during a visit to the British capital. One of the American requests involved allowing the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to listen to investigations of several Sudanese officials, especially Nafi’ ‘Ali Nafi’ and Qasbi al-Mahdi, who chaired the country’s security department successively during the period from 1989 to 1999, on Usama bin Ladin’s networking in the Sudan. The Saudi-born dissident lived in Sudan for five years in the early 1990s, until the government expelled him under western pressure in 1996.
Some unconfirmed press reports also say that Sudan has already handed some “Arab Afghans,” that is Arab Islamic activists who took part in the military jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, over to the US. Bashir himself has publicly denied these reports. “I swear in God’s name that we have not handed and will not hand in any Arab Afghan to the United States and we have not opened our territories and airspace to America and will not do so if we are requested,” he told a press conference he called in Khartoum on October 23.
Regardless of the accuracy (or otherwise) of these reports, recent statements by American officials have been full of praise for Sudan’s cooperation with the “war on terrorism.” US secretary of state Colin Powell praised Sudan, saying that it had granted US officials “access to certain individuals within the country,” which probably means allowing the US to interrogate them. Likewise, state department spokesman Richard Boucher had earlier praised Khartoum, saying: “For about a year, we have had a counter-terrorism dialogue with Sudan and had been making concrete progress in that regard.”
On September 28 the UN Security Council adopted (by a vote of 14 to 0, with the US abstaining) a resolution to lift five-year-old UN sanctions against Sudan with no objections from Washington. In his remarks announcing his country’s decision to abstain, James Cunningham, US ambassador to the UN, said that his government believes that Sudan “has taken substantial steps to meet the specific demands of UN Security Council resolution 1054,” which imposed the sanctions. He added that Washington did not oppose the lifting of sanctions because “Sudan has recently apprehended extremists within that country whose activities may have contributed to international terrorism.” Information minister Ibrahim alluded to this fact when he wondered how the US could base its decision to extend thesanctions on charges the Security Council had dismissed by adopting the resolution.
The UN sanctions required states to reduce the number of Sudanese diplomatic personnel in their countries, restrict the entry or transit of Sudanese government and military officials, and prevent Sudanese planes from using or flying over their territories. They were imposed in 1996 to try to force Sudan to extradite three individuals accused by Egypt of involvement in the assassination attempt against Mubarak in 1995. Even Egypt, on whose behalf the sanctions were put in place, and Ethiopia, where the assassination attempt took place, sent letters to the Security Council expressing their support for ending the sanctions.
Sudan must have hoped that its cooperation with Washington’s drive against groups and individuals it characterizes as “terrorist” would be rewarded by the US lifting its economic sanctions. But at least some of the frustration of the Bashir regime is unreasonable: the empty anguish of credulous politicians who have failed to see how dancing to Washington’s tune fails to work in the real world. The cardinal rule of the game is that the list of US demands will inevitably grow once a country has given in once to American pressure. The plight of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in connection with renouncing terrorism are revealing.
The Sudanese rebels have been more adept at grasping how this process works. Foreign minister Isma’il accused the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by Colonel John Garang, of writing to the US administration declaring its readiness to prove that Khartoum sponsors terrorism and demanding strikes against the Sudan government.
Another rebel leader, Riek Macher of the Sudan People’s Democratic Front (SPDF), reiterated the call for US attacks on Sudan. In an interview with the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme (November 7), Macher claimed that al-Qa’ida maintains a presence in the country, adding that he fears that bin Ladin might return to Sudan if the current air strikes succeed in forcing him out of Afghanistan.