The Common Good
December 2009

Beyond 'Engagement'

by John Prendergast, Maggie Fick | December 2009

It's time for Obama to act on Sudan.

For months, Sudan activists around the United States, deeply concerned about the apparent direction of U.S. engagement with the Sudanese government, have anxiously awaited the release of the Obama administration’s official policy toward Sudan. A coalition of anti-genocide organizations launched the Sudan Now campaign with the goal of telling President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton to uphold the numerous promises they have made for strong, immediate U.S. action in Sudan. In October, the administration announced its new Sudan policy. Now the hard part—implementation of this policy—can begin. We are optimistic about some elements of this new policy, and we continue to call for the Obama administration to follow through on its promises on Sudan.

The stakes are enormous. The Sudanese regime in Khartoum, which cannot sustain a military offensive on two fronts simultaneously, is shifting its war tactics from Darfur to southern Sudan. This poses an immediate threat to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended—for a time—more than two decades of war in southern Sudan between Sudan’s north and south. With the so-called lull in Darfur today, there is an upsurge of violence in the south. But the war is not “over” in either place.

Against the backdrop of this gathering storm, the Obama administration must take resolute, practical action to back up the policy outlined on paper and in speeches. Sudan activists are in favor of the attention that the administration is devoting to Sudan, but for the new policy to be a success, the administration must make good on its intentions to balance its use of carrots and sticks for Khartoum based on “verifiable changes on the ground.”

Peace depends greatly on the Obama administration’s leadership in building a multilateral coalition of key external stakeholders—notably China, the U.K., France, and Egypt—that will offer Sudan a clear choice: Negotiate an end to the war in Darfur and implement the CPA or face increasing international pressure and isolation.

Available options include:

  • Targeted sanctions on individuals. A U.N. panel has recommended targeted sanctions on several members of the regime, but the Security Council has not yet imposed them. President Bashir and others have sizable personal assets outside Sudan, which should be seized or frozen.
  • Targeted sanctions on Sudanese companies. The U.S., which already targets some companies associated with key figures in the regime, should seek to enlist other countries’ participation in these sanctions and to establish a U.N. panel of experts to investigate which companies are conducting business that underwrites Sudan’s war machine.

  • Denial of debt relief. The Sudanese government is currently asking creditor countries and institutions to reduce its large debt burden. Japan recently forgave some of its bilateral debt with no strings attached. This sends exactly the wrong signal to the regime. All debt relief should be suspended until there is a peace deal in Darfur and the CPA is fully implemented.

  • Pressure on international banks. As is the case with Iran, the U.S. should press international banks to stop supporting oil transactions with Sudan. If the banks refuse, the U.S. should seek to ban their transactions with U.S. commercial entities. The U.S., which already targets some companies associated with key figures in the regime, should seek to enlist other countries’ participation in these sanctions and to establish a U.N. panel of experts to investigate which companies are conducting business that underwrites Sudan’s war machine.
  • Expanded arms embargo. Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits countries from selling arms to any group that will use them in Darfur—including the regime in Khartoum—the ruling National Congress Party continues to purchase arms that it transfers to Darfur and uses to attack civilian populations. The Security Council should impose a comprehensive, all-Sudan arms embargo and create more robust enforcement mechanisms.

  • Continued International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation. Accountability for crimes against humanity in Darfur remains an essential element of a lasting peace in Sudan. Evidence suggests that the recent moves by the ICC have put genuine pressure on the Sudanese government. More should be done to apprehend ICC indictees.

The Obama administration has crafted a sensible policy, but in order for its rhetoric to ring true, that policy must be implemented immediately. The status quo in Darfur, southern Sudan, and other vulnerable areas is unacceptable; if progress does not happen soon, additional pressures against Khartoum must be triggered.

President Obama’s handling of the Sudan crisis is being watched around the globe, including the darkest corners where people without conscience may be planning the next mass atrocity. As southern Sudan slides back toward war, and the stakes grow higher still, the sensible U.S. policy paper will make a difference only if the Obama administration backs up its words with actions.

John Prendergast is co-founder of and Maggie Fick is a field researcher for the Enough Project (, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

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