Washington’s Sudan problem

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Friday 11 Dec 2020

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has announced his readiness to remove Sudan from the US’ state sponsors of terrorism list, but some US senators have rejected the deal

Washington’s Sudan problem

While Sudan has been approaching a decisive step in its history after languishing under American sanctions for nearly three decades, the dream of finally seeing them lifted seems to be dissipating as the US Senate seeks to push a draft resolution through Congress to halt the decision to remove Sudan from the US state sponsors of terrorism list, in effect since 1993.

Democratic Party Senator Bob Menendez succeeded in leading a lobby against Sudan composed of Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic Party leader, Chris Coons, a Democratic Party senator from Delaware and Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Party senator from California. 

The four lawmakers aim to include compensation for the victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and not merely compensation for families of Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, as per the agreements reached over a year of negotiations between the US and Sudan. 

Menendez expressed his wish to extend the compensation to 11 September victims when the US announced its intentions to delist Sudan. On 15 October, Menendez sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that “corrective action” was needed to ensure the deal did not make it more difficult for victims of the 11 September attacks to sue for damages.

The delisting of Sudan has been a crucial issue for its new government since the uprising in the country in 2019 led to the ouster of former president Omar Al-Bashir, as the move will enable Khartoum to restore its sovereign immunity before the US courts and open the door for foreign investment.

Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism also makes it difficult for its transitional government to access urgently needed debt relief and foreign financing. Many in Sudan say the designation was imposed because Washington believed Al-Bashir was supporting militant groups.

Sudanese and US officials have settled on an agreement that requires Sudan to pay $335 million in compensation to victims of the 1998 terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed, and to join the Abraham Accords and establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

In return, the US will remove Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism list and grant it immunity from future lawsuits from terrorism victims. 

The Sudanese government, already suffering from massive debt in a country experiencing soaring inflation, has not been able to pay the $335 million compensation for its alleged role in the bombing of the two US embassies. But after outgoing US president Donald Trump announced the deal on Twitter, the banks in Sudan started to initiate correspondence relationships involving US dollars. American corporations like General Electric promised to make investments in the country, according to Reuters. 

“It has been almost three decades since we have seen such important companies engage with Sudan,” Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok was quoted as saying in a joint press release.

However, the four US lawmakers’ endeavours to impose further commitments appears to be impeding momentum after the delisting announcement. The fragile economic position of Sudan and the rejection by the Sudanese negotiating committee of the senators’ proposal makes Sudan unlikely to accept an agreement that would require it to pay more to compensate victims of terrorism.

Refaat Al-Amin, a Sudanese expert on human rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there were two obstacles militating against the removal of Sudan from the US terrorism list.

There was the dispute between the Sudanese authorities and the US administration regarding the post-removal phase, in which there was a major question about immunity from possible future prosecutions under the 2016 US Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), he said.

“This is an issue that hasn’t yet been clarified by the US,” Al-Amin said.

Then there was the resistance of US lawmakers opposed to the move. However, the US is “well aware of the changes in the power structure in Sudan, and this requires encouragement and assistance,” Al-Amin said.

Sudanese leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan has reportedly told Pompeo that Sudan will not proceed with normalising relations with Israel until the US Congress passes legislation giving Khartoum immunity from future lawsuits from terrorist victims.

Congressional action on the delisting of Sudan must take place to enact Trump’s decision, and legislation is needed to ensure the flow of payments to embassy bombing victims and their families. But action on Capitol Hill is far from certain.

Congressional approval is also essential to restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity in order to shield it against future legal claims for past attacks. Sudan lost that protection because of the terrorism designation.

Congressional approval of the delisting is not a “sufficient guarantee” as long as victims of terror acts can still sue foreign states, Al-Amin reiterated.

 “The removal of Sudan from the list and Sudan obtaining legal peace are two completely different issues,” said Cameron Hudson, former director of African affairs at the US National Security Council. “The list is determined by the executive branch, under the president; legal peace if provided by an act of Congress. Currently, the fight over granting Sudan legal peace is between the Congress and the Trump administration,” Hudson said.

This keeps “Sudan potentially subject to additional prosecution until the new Congress acts,” Hudson added. The “options are very few unless it agrees to the Democratic proposal that Sudan remain liable for possible lawsuits from the victims of the 9/11 attacks. This would potentially hang over Sudan for years to come and could serve as a deterrent for future investment.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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