Obama Administration Eases Sanctions on Sudan

Loosened export controls on communications technology could benefit genocidal Bashir regime, critics say

Families displaced by fighting in South Sudan / AP

The Obama administration’s decision to loosen certain sanctions on Sudan’s government—which is accused of genocide and supporting terrorism—is drawing sharp criticism from some who say that the sale of communications hardware and software to the country will enable government surveillance of citizens.

Donald Booth, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, described the revisions to sanctions regulations on Tuesday as a measure "consistent with our commitment to promote freedom of expression through access to communications tools." Americans will now be permitted to send smartphones, laptops, and other communications devices to Sudanese citizens to facilitate free speech and debate, according to U.S. officials.

However, critics say the U.S. government has a limited ability to prevent the Sudanese government from monitoring the communications of its citizens in the wake of loosened export controls. Several European and multinational companies provided Iran’s government with location and text-message monitoring equipment in recent years that enabled it to monitor and jail dissidents.

According to leaked minutes from a meeting last year involving top military and security officials in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir’s government has developed a "strategic relationship" with Iran and has expanded its intelligence-gathering capabilities and support for terrorist groups.

"My read is that Sudanese telecom management will resemble that of Iran's because of their close military and intelligence relationship," said Nicholas Hanlon, the Center for Security Policy’s chief analyst for Africa, in an email. "It won't serve the anti-regime groups in the long run if the Chinese and Iranians have outfitted the Khartoum regime for electronic counterintelligence surveillance."

A State Department official said in an email that the United States remains "concerned about freedom of speech in Sudan and urges the Sudanese government to respect freedom of expression and press freedoms." The administration views the relaxed sanctions as the best means of enhancing communication among Sudanese citizens despite its concerns about the government.

"We believe that access to these tools will promote freedom of speech, help Sudanese citizens communicate more easily with each other, and allow them to be more connected digitally to the global community," the official said.

The official also confirmed that Steven Feldstein, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, will visit Sudan next week.

U.S. relations with Sudan’s government came under heightened scrutiny earlier this month after Ali Ahmed Karti, the country’s foreign minister, attended the National Prayer Breakfast with President Barack Obama. Activists protested outside the event against Karti and Bashir, who has been accused of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sudan has been a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism since 1993 and continues to harbor members of al Qaeda and Hamas.

Sudanese presidential assistant Ibrahim Ghandour also met with Obama administration officials, prompting further concerns among the activists that the United States could be seeking to normalize relations with Bashir’s government without ensuring that it will protect human rights.

Additionally, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Sudan’s government just days before the easing of sanctions was announced. Power told the U.N. Security Council that Sudan had blocked an investigation of allegations that Sudanese soldiers raped at least 221 women and girls in the war-torn Darfur region.

Sudanese officials denied that the incident occurred.

The U.N. estimates that as many as 300,000 people have died in the conflict between Sudan’s Islamist government and non-Arab tribes in Darfur.

Obama authorized similar exports of communications technology to Cuba in December as part of efforts to seek a rapprochement with the Castro government.