US President Barack Obama on Friday took the controversial step of easing economic sanctions against Sudan, trying to improve relations with a country whose leader is accused of war crimes and links to terror.
Obama informed Congress that he will lift trade and investment sanctions against Khartoum after a six-month probation period, although Sudan will still be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
An end to fighting in Sudan’s hotspots — the Darfur region, as well as in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states — had been set as a precondition for sanctions being lifted.
The outgoing president noted “a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan.”
He also recognized “steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism.”
Sudan was labelled a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and has been subject to a US trade embargo since 1997 over its support for Islamist groups.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum from 1992 to 1996.
President Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of a factory in Sudan that intelligence suggested was being used to by Al-Qaeda to manufacture a nerve agent, a claim the owners denied vociferously.
The US government believes Khartoum’s terror ties have ebbed, but sanctions have remained amid its scorched-earth tactics against ethnic minority rebels in Darfur.
According to the United Nations, 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million were displaced since that conflict began in 2003.
The country’s long-time leader President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
“This action does not affect our policy with regard to those subject to International Criminal Court arrest warrants,” a senior administration official told AFP. “Or our support for justice for victims of crimes in that conflict.”
“We continue to call for all those responsible for the horrific crimes committed in Darfur to be held accountable for their actions,” the official said.
– ‘Inexplicable’ –
Obama’s announcement prompted outrage from rights groups.
“The Obama administration’s decision to ‘ease’ sanctions is inexplicable,” said Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch.
“Sudan’s government has failed to make progress on core benchmarks, from its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur and other conflict zones, to its extensive repression of independent voices.”
The measures mean that Sudanese assets will be unblocked and business transactions will now be permitted.
“Treasury’s sanctions are aimed at encouraging a change in behavior, and in the case of Sudan, our sanctions were intended to pressure the government of Sudan to change the way it treats its people,” said the Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, noting progress.
Sudan welcomed the US decision as a “positive and important” development in relations with Washington.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ghariballah Khidir said the decision was a “natural result of joint efforts and long and frank discussions.”
Khidir said Khartoum was “determined to pursue its cooperation with the United States until Sudan is removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.”