The international community has bestowed very different labels on Aung San Suu Kyi and Omar al-Bashir: Burma’s de facto leader is a Nobel Laureate, while Sudan’s head of state is an indictee of the International Criminal Court. Today, however, as they both face worldwide condemnation, the United States is on the dangerous path to lose leverage to influence either.
Amid the current furor over Suu Kyi’s response to state violence against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, the call from some suggesting withdrawal of her Nobel Prize, a highly unlikely action and one which would provide only shame but no concrete consequences, epitomizes the straw clutching.
Having terminated long-standing comprehensive economic sanctions on Sudan, the Trump Administration should keep this lack of leverage on Burma in mind as it considers whether to impose new, more targeted forms of pressure on Bashir and his insiders. More to the point, U.S. officials should ensure that they replace the now-terminated sanctions with modernized and targeted pressures on the Bashir regime, including network-based sanctions and rigorous anti-money laundering measures. Indirect forms of economic leverage, such as negotiations about debt relief, and Sudan’s place on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list will likely not shift the calculations of the country’s brutal and corrupt leaders as effectively or quickly, but are also useful.
The permanent repeal of comprehensive sanctions, outdated as they were, without introducing strong new measures, is the ultimate bad deal, and leaves Sudan’s regime free to up the ante on its ongoing genocidal campaigns against its own people and brutal oppression of religious minorities.
The Burma example is important here for more than the current aftermath. The process for removing sanctions on Burma can be instructive. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the military junta began to indicate it wanted to change its patterns of behavior, in large part so that U.S. and other international sanctions could be removed and the country could reduce its reliance on China. There was well-deserved skepticism within the U.S. government at first, so very clear and specific benchmarks and processes were developed over time for the junta to follow.
Gradually, the junta complied with many of these benchmarks and processes. Concerns remained in many corners about how serious or long-lasting these changes would be, so the demands from the U.S. government increased. As the Burmese regime met the demands, pressures were eased.
Importantly, when a major step was taken in 2012 to ease sanctions, President Obama ensured that formerly broad measures were not removed entirely, but replaced with more targeted ones to maintain leverage. The preamble to his Executive Order imposing additional sanctions is instructive and prescient:
The Government of Burma has made progress towards political reform in a number of areas, including by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, pursuing ceasefire talks with several armed ethnic groups, and pursuing a substantive dialogue with the democratic opposition. Recognizing that such reform is fragile, I hereby find that the continued detention of political prisoners, efforts to undermine or obstruct the political reform process, efforts to undermine or obstruct the peace process with ethnic minorities, military trade with North Korea, and human rights abuses in Burma particularly in ethnic areas, effectuated by persons within or outside the Government of Burma, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States…
Eventually, these more targeted sanctions were removed entirely in 2016 in response to continued progress from the Burmese government, which then included Suu Kyi, and as a concluding act as President Obama left office. Many human rights groups expressed alarm at the full lifting of sanctions, even after an extended, considered, and transparent process, fearing precisely a crisis like the one ongoing in Burma.
Contrast that process with the one taken with Sudan. An abbreviated and hasty process of negotiations begun by the Obama Administration in its waning days on “five tracks,” several of which do not concern issues of the Government of Sudan’s conduct vis-à-vis its own people or its engagement on a meaningful peace process or transition to democracy. No specific benchmarks were developed or made public. Serious concerns remain on several of the tracks, especially in light of continued concerns over religious repression and other human rights issues, concerns not unlike we see unfolding in Burma currently. Yet, despite these concerns, the Trump Administration removed all existing economic sanctions, adhering to an all-or-nothing dynamic established by President Obama. (NOTE: There is a remaining sanctions program in place with respect to Darfur, but that list includes only seven people and one company and has not been used in more than 10 years, so it hardly represents much leverage).
The Trump Administration should keep the Burma example close at hand as they evaluate the way forward with the Sudanese regime. First, it should follow the example of imposing more targeted measures, including steps to minimize the impact on Sudanese people, even as more comprehensive ones are removed. The Bashir regime has managed to survive for decades under the burden of the SST designation and failure to address debt relief – those points of leverage are necessary but insufficient. Second, it should develop a set of clear and verifiable benchmarks for meaningful progress on key issues affecting peace and human rights within the country. Finally, it should only remove pressures when a process of reform is clear, meaningful, and lasting.
With the end of comprehensive sanctions on the Bashir regime in exchange for no fundamental change, it is likely that state violence and repression will not only continue, but escalate if new forms of leverage are not imposed. We have seen it in Sudan before, and it is why Bashir has an ICC indictment rather than a Nobel Prize. Unlike with Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, we have known all along who Omar al-Bashir is, and why the strongest pressures are needed.