The United States permanently lifted a raft of sanctions on Sudan on Friday, saying the African nation had begun addressing concerns about terrorism as well as human rights abuses against civilians in the country’s Darfur region.
The decision to lift the sanctions and end an economic embargo comes after the Trump administration last month removed Sudan from the list of countries whose citizens are subject to travel restrictions. Sudan was the only country that was removed.
But the decision leaves other sanctions in place for the time being, including those against individuals with arrest warrants related to atrocities committed during the conflict in Darfur. And it does not remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a removal ardently sought by its government. A separate review is underway on that designation.
The change reflects a strategy shift in how to bring about reforms in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has clung to power since taking office in a military coup in 1989. Instead of relying solely on punishment via sanctions, the new strategy is to use relief to encourage more changes.
The sanctions relief also was part of a push to enlist more countries in an effort to isolate North Korea diplomatically. U.S. officials said that while it was not an explicit condition for lifting sanctions, Washington told Khartoum that an "absolute, vital part of the relationship" going forward is full compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions related to North Korea.
Officials also said they asked for and got a commitment from Sudan not to purchase arms from Pyongyang. A U.N. report last year found that Sudan bought North Korean air-to-ground missiles in 2013 in a deal with a front company.
"We will not necessarily take the government at their word," one official said. "We will closely be monitoring the situation. And they understand we have zero tolerance for continued arms deals with North Korea."
The lifting of sanctions rescinds measures imposed in 1997 related to terrorism concerns and other steps put in place in 2006 in connection with the conflict in Darfur. The sanctions were temporarily eased in January just before President Barack Obama left office, with his administration citing the same progress the Trump administration noted. In July, President Trump extended the review for three months, angering the Sudanese, who stopped some lower-level meetings with U.S. officials in retaliation but maintained contacts between senior officials.
A State Department official familiar with the decision said the administration will continue pushing Sudan to make more progress, including paving the way for 2 million internally displaced people who fled the fighting in Darfur more than a decade ago to return home safely.
“We see this as an important milestone, but one on a road that’s going to take a lot longer to get to where we want to go in Sudan,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under State Department guidelines.
“It’s a real marker, taking what had been a very bad and difficult relationship in a new and positive direction. It doesn’t mean there isn’t much to do. There’s a lot to do yet. This is a productive first step.”
Sudan routinely shows up as a country of particular concern on State Department reports assessing human rights and religious freedom. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face genocide charges related to the Darfur conflict. Muslims are an overwhelming majority, and Christians who remained in Sudan after South Sudan declared independence in 2011 are closely watched. Many of those with means are fleeing the country, seeing little future there.
But U.S. officials think Sudan has made progress in counterterrorism since the days when Osama bin Laden lived there in the early 1990s. Officials in Sudan say that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Sudanese have been cooperating with U.S. intelligence.
The State Department official said Sudan has cooperated in countering militants inside Sudan and throughout North Africa by helping deter attempts by terrorists to transit through the country.
U.S. officials also have seen progress on the humanitarian front. The government has announced unilateral cease-fires in areas where the Sudanese army has been battling rebels; stopped aerial bombardments that killed civilians; and created safe routes for humanitarian aid to get through.
There also are geopolitical factors. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have urged the United States to ease up on Sudan, to encourage it to distance itself from Iran. And while Sudan has by all reports stopped sending arms and material support to rebels in South Sudan, Washington wants to encourage a regional effort to end the fighting there, which has prompted one of the biggest waves of refugees since the Rwanda genocide.
Some human rights activists have worried that sanctions relief will prolong Bashir’s reign. Members of Congress have urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to make sure that American victims of terrorism facilitated by Sudan would be compensated. And Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Friday that Sudan’s progress has been minimal and vowed that “any backsliding will likely result in Congress reinstating sanctions.”
But even the Obama administration recognized that sanctions alone have not been effective.
"For far too long, Washington promoted a policy of punishment only," said Zach Vertin, a former diplomat who worked on Sudan issues during the Obama administration. "It failed for two decades. Everyone agrees that transformational change in necessary. This is a dreadful government.
"Khartoum still wants many things from Washington," Vertin said. "Now the administration is in a good place to extract further gains. The administration should make clear if Khartoum wants to continue the path to normalization, it should continue progress in the identified areas and undertake a long overdue process that leads to a political transition."