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Is Obama's new Sudan policy too soft?

Human rights groups say Obama's Sudan policy is soft, but African leaders warn that US policy is too tough and may prompt a regional backlash.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / October 19, 2009



Johannesburg, South Africa

Reaction to Obama's new "integrated" Sudan policy of incentives and possible punitive measures against the Islamist regime of President Omar al-Bashir was mixed on Monday, with human rights defenders warning that the new strategy risked being too soft and African leaders saying the West's overall approach to Sudan may provoke a backlash.

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On Monday, the Enough Project – an anti-genocide lobby group based in Washington – warned against any "softening" of the US government's pressure on Sudan, and urged Obama to make Sudan a top priority on his upcoming visit to Beijing next month. China is one of Sudan's top trading partners, and the chief investor in Sudan's oil industry.

"Absent an official policy line, [US Sudan envoy Scott Gration] has had the leeway to implement an approach that many longtime Sudan watchers, including Enough, feel is inappropriately soft on Khartoum," the Enough Project wrote in a press statement on Monday morning.

The Save Darfur Campaign, another anti-genocide group, was a little more encouraging, welcoming the Obama administration's emphasis on verifying progress before easing sanctions, but chastised the White House for not making Sudan a higher priority. "The entire administration must make Sudan a higher priority than it has been to date and not leave all responsibility on the Special Envoy's shoulders," wrote Robert Lawrence of Save Darfur.

African leaders say approach may be too hard

If the Obama administration's new approach seems too soft to some human rights activists, the West's overall approach to Sudan appears all-too hard to many African leaders, including some of the West's best friends. This week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni – a US ally in the East African region and top supplier of peacekeepers in Somalia – defied the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against Bashir and invited him to attend an African summit in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Amnesty International – a New York based human rights group – slammed Mr. Museveni for his invitation, saying that Uganda is required by law to arrest Bashir, since Uganda is a signatory to the law that creates the ICC.

"[Bashir] is a fugitive from international justice – charged with responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur," said Amnesty's Christopher Keith Hall, a senior legal adviser. "The Ugandan government has an obligation to arrest [Bashir] and hand him over to the ICC should he enter Ugandan territory."

On Monday, the Sudan Tribune, an independent newspaper allied with the Southern Sudanese government in Juba, reported that Bashir had decided to send two junior ministers instead of going himself.

West ignoring African complaints?

De Waal, who argues that customary law in most countries provides for the immunity of visiting heads of state, says that African leaders are "annoyed" with the ICC and see it as a cudgel by the rich West against poor African nations. While few African leaders condone what Sudan has done in Darfur, most voted at the African Union to recommend that the United Nations Security Council delay any arrest and trial of Bashir, until more progress was made in Darfur and in the separate North-South peace agreement.

The UN Security Council didn't even consider the matter, De Waal notes, which widened the chasm between African leaders and the West. "That was more deeply felt by the AU than the grandstanding of the ICC prosecutor itself," De Waal says.

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