Sudan is being rewarded for its revolution with blackmail

Nesrine Malik
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP</span>
Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP

Few countries in the world have been subjected to as many punitive sanctions as Sudan. After the deposed president Omar al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989, the country was gradually cut off from the rest of the world, with the upholding of human rights the rationale. Economic sanctions were followed by a spot on the state sponsors of terrorism list, and then by the indictment of Bashir by the international criminal court. At some point it became hard to keep up with all the legislation, punishment for the reckless harbouring of terrorists in the 1990s, and the brutal slaughter of marginalised ethnic groups in areas such as Darfur. There were sanctions on individuals, a US travel ban on all Sudanese-born people, acts of Congress and lawsuits by members 9/11 victims’ families.

The country became a sort of human rights cause celebre, attracting Hollywood stars and a vast network of lobbyists in Washington who, whenever it seemed like there might be a relaxation of sanctions, campaigned fiercely to keep them going. Bashir was a president over whom it was easy to reach consensus. Here was an African brute in the classic mould, a military man who turned on his own people, and a sharia-wielding terror sponsor to boot.

But it was not Bashir or his government that suffered. He remained in power, if anything getting stronger. He and his vast network of cronies had the means to circumvent sanctions, finding ways to do business and enrich themselves. The Sudanese people, those whom the global human rights community was ostensibly supporting, struggled in isolation, in poverty and with a lack of access to basic healthcare. Eventually, interest in Sudan faded. The war on terror ran out of steam after the killing of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of al-Qaida, and the moral outrage over Darfur found catharsis via war crimes indictments. The international community moved on, but all the sanctions stayed.

The world remembered Sudan last year, when an epic revolution overthrew Bashir at long last. His removal came at a heavy cost. Many were killed in confrontations with security forces, and the economy, already on the brink, was pushed over the edge. But it was worth it. The feeling on the streets was that the blood, the economic instability, the political jeopardy were all worth it if the Sudanese were to have a shot at democracy and dignity.

The United States, the Sudanese people’s alleged white knight, took one look at the success of the Sudanese revolution and decided to blackmail the country in return for taking it off the state sponsors of terror list, reintegrating it into the international financial and trade system, and providing aid. Last week Donald Trump made clear that the price tag would be $335m (£256m) of compensation for terrorist attacks that took place under the old regime. Alongside this, the US is forcing the fragile new interim government, already struggling to maintain its mandate amid worsening economic conditions and the plotting of Bashir loyalists, to recognise Israel and normalise relations – a move that is hugely unpopular with the Sudanese people, and about which they weren’t consulted.

Even for those of us in Sudan who had given up expecting more, this naked exploitation of a country brought to its knees but still crawling to freedom is hard to stomach. The choice for the Sudanese government is to risk economic collapse and a resurgence of the old forces – essentially the overturning of the revolution – or to accept all of the US’s conditions. That is no choice at all. Trump crowed about the deal, tweeting that Sudan had “agreed” to pay the $335m, and that this was “justice” for the American people. The agreement to normalise relations with Israel was announced last week, and has already triggered anger domestically. The condition seems to have been thrown in just because the US could, and amounts to bullying a country with which Israel is not likely to have many trade or diplomatic ties anyway. It’s about building numbers and momentum in the Arab world so that more valuable regional assets, such as Saudi Arabia, can be convinced to normalise relations too.

That is all Sudan is – a weak pawn. It’s a case study in how the moral framework within which human rights law is drafted and enforced is designed not to bring about regime change and the safety and security of people suffering under despots, but to leverage the victimhood of those people to advance other interests. The first of these interests is self-image. Western powers can maintain their charade of virtue by coming down hard on poor countries that have little strategic importance. The second is a need to divert scrutiny away from allies, such as Saudi Arabia, that have never been in the dock to answer questions about sponsorship of terrorism or the quashing of internal dissent. Who has attempted to hold Riyadh accountable for its palming off of Osama bin Laden to other countries to wreak havoc, its exportation of dangerous hardline Islamism? Indignation, sanctions, censure and condemnation are instead reserved for countries such as Sudan.

Even with these burdens, the Sudanese people managed to liberate themselves from Bashir’s grip. But the injustice they have suffered was compounded by the very system that was supposed to help them: the west’s hypocritical, counterproductive human rights regime.

• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist