June 11, 2019
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Traveling throughout the Sudanese region of Darfur and neighboring refugee camps during the mid-2000s, we saw firsthand evidence of the monster the Sudanese regime had built to carry out a genocide. The government organized, armed and deployed militias, known then as the “Janjaweed,” alongside the regular army as the primary instruments of its killing machine. Ethnic cleansing and mass rape were the Janjaweed’s weapons of choice.
Fast forward to the present: Massive peaceful protests that erupted throughout Sudan in mid-December led to the removal in April of Sudan’s 30-year dictator, Omar al-Bashir. In May, the protesters’ leadership and the military leaders who assumed power after the coup reached a tentative deal to establish civilian rule in the country, agreeing on a three-year transition to democratic elections and granting power to civilian-controlled institutions. Massive peaceful protests continued during and after the negotiations, as demonstrators kept pushing to dismantle the violent, undemocratic kleptocratic system built up during al-Bashir’s reign.
But there was one big problem with the deal. The big losers in such an arrangement would be al-Bashir’s allied generals, who had looted the country with impunity for 30 years, and the Janjaweed militias, who would no longer have free, lawless rein in their areas of deployment.
As a result, on June 3, Sudanese security forces spearheaded by the Janjaweed attacked a major protester encampment. Now known by the deceptively anodyne term “Rapid Support Forces,” the Janjaweed militias over the last few days have killed more than 100 unarmed protesters, dumping many bodies in the Nile River, as well as raping, whipping and robbing Sudanese civilians throughout Khartoum. Hundreds more are missing and feared dead. Janjaweed have raided several hospitals and assaulted medical staff. Internet and phone networks are blocked to limit communication. The regime’s military leaders cancelled the agreements it had reached with the protesters and instead called for quick elections that they will surely rig in their favor.
If this sounds like another hopeless African crisis, it isn’t. Sudan is a country that has unified Republicans and Democrats in Congress and successive administrations in Washington in defense of human rights and peace. Much more can be done now by the current Congress and the Trump administration—as well as allies in Europe and Africa—to create consequences for the leaders of the regime and the Janjaweed destroying and looting the country.
In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed an incredibly effective new tool to combat corruption and human rights abuses: the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to sanction human rights offenders and corrupt officials worldwide. Now, the leadership of both the House and Senate foreign affairs committees can formally request the Trump administration to sanction a list of Sudanese regime officials and their commercial accomplices who are most responsible for ongoing violence and state looting, starting with Janjaweed leader Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the vice chair of the current military regime. And instead of just sanctioning one or two officials individually, the Global Magnitsky authorities allow for the use of network sanctions, in which an entire network involved in human rights abuses and/or mass corruption can be sanctioned with much greater impact.
The Trump administration could build major leverage if it deployed available but unused policy tools. In addition to the Global Magnitsky network sanctions, the Treasury Department could issue an anti-money laundering advisory to thousands of banks around the world to be on the lookout for illicit financial flows that have come out of Sudan during the last year as the economy has imploded and the political crisis has escalated. Our own initiative, The Sentry, is gathering evidence on some of this illegal activity, but if the Treasury Department issued one of these advisories, as it has regarding Venezuela and Ukraine, it would suddenly enlist bank compliance officers globally in the search for stolen assets that are being laundered through the international financial system.
Freezing and seizing some of those assets—and blocking some of these officials from the international financial system—would be a major and unutilized point of leverage for peace and human rights. Diplomats file in and out of Khartoum, cajoling regime leaders into returning to the previous deal for a transition to civilian, democratic rule. But given the support the regime enjoys from Gulf states, Russia and China, it will take more than words to alter this deadly equation. By creating significant financial consequences for regime leaders and their commercial collaborators, diplomats from Africa, Europe and the United States will be able to to influence the cost-benefit calculus of Khartoum’s generals, who until now have looted and killed for three decades with total impunity. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy will be in Khartoum this week, and his diplomatic entreaties will fall on deaf ears if not backed by the unique power that U.S. Treasury Department actions can have over the kind of illicit financial activity that Sudan’s leaders have been engaged in for years.
This regime got away scot-free in committing genocide in Darfur and devastating the people of the now-independent South Sudan for decades. Al-Bashir might be out of power, but the same regime still rules, and the same Janjaweed militias are still committing atrocities. Today, the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch—along with the African Union and European Union—have a second chance to create serious consequences for serious crimes and to invest in high-level diplomacy to bring civilian rule to Sudan. There are plenty of reasons to do so. Resolving Sudan’s current crisis would prevent an escalation in the flow of refugees from Sudan, address the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, counter the activity of extremist organizations supported by the al-Bashir regime—and prevent another round of mass atrocities in a country whose suffering has few parallels globally.