US-Sudan trade authorized for first time since 1990s

US President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to update him on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama took the landmark decision on Friday of allowing US-Sudanese trade relations for the first time since the 1990s, citing improvements in bilateral relations and in the internal situation in Sudan.

Some restrictions on trade with alleged Darfur war criminals remain in place.

Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner announced that the reasons behind the move are findings that Sudan has reduced its offensive military operations, ended its destabilizing role in South Sudan and helped in countering terrorism. “As a result the United States has decided to issue a general license lifting the sanctions on US trade and investment in Sudan,” he said.

He pointed also to several measures in improving humanitarian access in parts of Sudan.

Toner also said that Sudan has been cooperating to “address the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army” and “has stopped providing arms to South Sudanese opposition groups.” Sudan is also considered an “important partner” in combating the so-called Islamic State, he said.

The US trade embargo dates to the 1990s when Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum. Sudan was accused of supporting Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Additional measures targeting certain individuals were imposed in the 2000s over human rights abuses in the Darfur region.

In notices explaining the new regulations, the US Treasury Department pointed out that that restrictions will remain preventing Americans from transacting business with designated as war criminals in connection with the Darfur conflict, pursuant to George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13400, which remains in force.

“The property and interests in property of persons designated pursuant to E.O. 13400 and other E.O.s remain blocked,” the Treasury Department said. This means that Americans still will not be able to do business with certain prominent Sudanese people including Musa Hilal, paramount chief of the Jalul Tribe, Major General Gaffar Mohmed El Hassan, and several others allegedly linked to war crimes in Darfur.

Otherwise, however, “All trade between the United States and Sudan that was previously prohibited by the [Sudan Sanctions Regulations] will be authorized.” This includes trade in petrochemicals, oilfield serves, oil and gas pipelines, which US companies are now lawfully allowed to take part in.

President Obama is due to hand over power within a week to the President-elect Donald J. Trump. The new regulations will be left to the Treasury Department under Trump to enforce. Limited US trade had already been allowed with Sudan under specialized licenses, such as the export of medical devices to Sudan, but general trade relations were restricted.

Some US-based human rights organizations are critical of the decision to lift the sanctions. “The Obama administration’s decision to ‘ease’ sanctions is inexplicable,” said Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch.

“Sudan’s government has failed to make progress on core benchmarks, from its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur and other conflict zones, to its extensive repression of independent voices,” she added.

But Sudan has long maintained that it was wrongly victimized by the sanctions and blamed the United States in part for its economic woes. Government officials in the past have pointed out that they allowed South Sudan to secede, cooperated in counter-terrorism and joined efforts with the US in other areas, with nothing received in return.