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Opinion Lifting sanctions will help Sudan’s leaders. What about everyone else?

Members of the Nuba tribe from South Kordofan state receive blessings from a priest during Christmas celebrations at a church in Omdurman, Sudan, in 2013. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

Tom Catena is the only doctor permanently based in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains; he is the laureate of the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.

On most days, I don’t feel as though the daily debates or the deadlines set in Washington affect me much. Who’s up and who’s down, and who tweeted what at whom, just aren’t on my radar. But July 12 — the day by which the United States must decide whether to lift sanctions against the government of Sudan — is a day that I’ll be watching closely because it will affect me and the people I serve.

For the better part of the past 10 years, I’ve been the only doctor permanently based in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. As the lone surgeon in the region, I help to run the only referral hospital that serves 750,000 citizens. Every day I treat an average of 500 patients with injuries and ailments ranging from malnutrition and tuberculosis and leprosy, to amputations and trauma — many of which are direct or indirect byproducts of the conflict.

From my vantage point here in the Nuba Mountains, there has been no improvement in the humanitarian situation. The fact of the matter is that things are now as bad as they have ever been in Sudan.

Last year’s harvest was extremely poor due to a lack of rain and the fighting in key agricultural areas. Not a single grain of food or tablet of medicine has arrived from any of the usual large humanitarian organizations. We are forced to make do with antiquated equipment and limited supplies. People here are hungry, and there is simply not enough food to go around. We are expecting rampant malnutrition in the next year, and all the associated negative health effects that go with it, including reduced physical growth, increased morbidity and mortality (particularly with infants and children), and a corresponding reduction in cognitive development and a decrease in production and physical work capacity.

That’s why it is particularly galling that, instead of using Sudan’s limited resources to address the country’s problems and to make meaningful progress that would help lift sanctions, the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir has instead been hiring high-priced lobbyists in Washington to make its case.

How to deal with Sudan has been a revolving-door discussion that began in the 1990s. That’s when the United States first imposed sanctions to punish the Sudanese government for its human rights violations, its involvement in terrorism and its hosting of Osama bin Laden, among other transgressions. The sanctions were temporarily lifted in early 2017 as a response to what the Obama administration called a “sea change” in Khartoum’s behavior. The sanctions would be suspended for a trial period of six months and then suspended permanently if Khartoum could demonstrate its cooperation on several fronts, including sharing of information on terrorist groups and improved humanitarian access to the war-stricken areas of the Nuba Mountains.

Those in favor of lifting the sanctions have used a familiar argument: that such barriers hurt the average citizen more than the government. This, they say, is the right moment to use the carrot rather than the stick. They also claim that doing away with sanctions would serve as a show of good faith to President Bashir’s regime and encourage good behavior going forward.

I think this is misguided. Lifting the sanctions will, in fact, serve to reward the bad behavior of a government that has not allowed humanitarian aid to enter our region. It would reward a government that has targeted civilian areas of the Nuba Mountains with indiscriminate aerial bombardments and artillery shelling for the better part of the past six years. Although we would welcome an improvement in the economic situation in the north, the cash windfall to the government resulting from the removal of sanctions is unlikely to improve the lot of the common person. It is far probable that any additional revenue will be channeled to the military, thus exacerbating the conflict here and in Darfur.

I know this is a complicated set of issues for U.S. policymakers to weigh, but I’d make this plea on behalf of the men, women and children I treat every day: Please extend the sanctions to hold Khartoum accountable. Let’s not let Sudan’s government off the hook. We need a real effort to allow humanitarian aid and genuine progress in resolving the internal problems that have kept Sudan in civil war for decades.