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Isolated and Broke, Islamic Sudan Tries to Smooth Ties With West

Despite concilliatory gestures toward rebels and relief agencies, Khartoum still faces human rights questions

SHUNNED by the world, strapped by economic hardship, and apparently fearful of Somalia-style foreign military intervention, Sudan's Islamic leaders are wooing the West in hopes of improving relations.

"There has been a lot of trouble," acknowledges Sudanese Foreign Minister Hussein Abdul Saleh. "I hope that by talking, with wisdom, putting strategic aims above traditional positions, we can rectify this."

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There is a lot of ground to cover for a government that is widely felt to be hostile to the United States and its allies, has been accused repeatedly of human rights abuses, and has declared its goal to be an Islamic state.

But the Army's announcement March 20 of a cease-fire in its 10-year war against Christian and animist rebels in the south caps a three-month trend toward what Western diplomats see as greater openness.

"There is a genuine desire on the government's part to improve their relations with the West," says US Ambassador Donald Petterson.

Observers here date the beginning of what one Western diplomat calls "a real charm campaign" to a United Nations vote last December condemning Sudan for human rights abuses such as summary executions, detentions without due process, forced displacement, and torture.

When only Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Cuba, and Burma sided with Khartoum, the vote became a stark reminder of Sudan's international isolation.

The vote's impact was all the sharper for falling on the same day that US troops landed in Mogadishu, the capital of nearby Somalia. With famine threatening the war-disrupted south of Sudan, Khartoum seemed fearful of similar intervention.

Since then, Khartoum has proved highly cooperative with the UN and rebel leaders in a tripartite agreement reached last December to ensure humanitarian relief to the south through "Operation Lifeline Sudan".

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They have also moved to improve conditions for international relief agencies, which had complained of persistent harassment, restrictions, and obstruction.

"The acid test will be access to the south," where human rights abuses have often been reported but where foreigners have been forbidden to travel, says one veteran relief official. Since meeting with relief officials in January, little has changed, "but having gone to the effort of calling the talks, the government has to move on things to prove that they meant what they said."

Other small signs of a new mood are also apparent.

The cease-fire announcement, responding to a similar offer by the rebels, follows the postponement of the Army's annual offensive, which would have further hindered relief operations. Foreign journalists are being granted entry visas, and the Islamic-oriented government is making overtures to the largely resentful Christian minority.

This tack in government priorities appears dictated mainly by economic concerns, according to foreign diplomats. Aside from food aid to save people from starvation, foreign assistance has all but dried up over the past year, as donors and lenders have grown impatient with Sudan.

The US, the European Community, and Japan have all closed their aid programs; the World Bank shut its office in Khartoum earlier this month; and the International Monetary Fund has declared Sudan "non-cooperative" for non-payment of debts.

In a country where regimes have fallen before in the face of popular uprisings over economic grievances, where car owners are rationed to two gallons of gasoline a week, and where items as basic as sugar are also rationed, "the government is frightened," one Western diplomat says.

"The pragmatists know that they will never get the economy right without working relations with the West, which depend upon internal policies," he adds.

One aspect of domestic policy, however, remains problematic: alleged human rights abuses that prompted the UN Human Rights Commission to re-appoint a special rapporteur this month to carry out a public investigation.

Though the government denies violating human rights and claims to hold only 20 political detainees, reports abound of clandestine detention and torture centers, the forcible eviction of whole villages in the war zone, and the disappearance of suspected opposition figures.

"There is credible evidence of violations that [the government] needs to address," Ambassador Petterson insists. "Without acknowledgment of a problem that needs to be resolved there can be no real progress toward normalized relations with the United States." When outsiders raise such questions, however, "the government doesn't want to hear them, and that's a problem," a Western diplomat adds.

Among the hard-line Islamists in the government, "there is a general feeling ... that the West is a lost cause," says Ghazi Salah al-Din, a close adviser to Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the head of state.

"It is a belief that is unfortunately gaining momentum every day, that the West is a hopeless case in understanding Islam, and that these allegations are used as a stick to whip us with," he says.

But pragmatists such as Dr. Din, who believes that Washington can be influenced, appear to have the upper hand in their efforts to "drive home the point that we are not basically opposed to the West," as he puts it, contrasting Sudan with Iran.

No one suggests, however, that the new attitudes indicate any change in the government's ultimate goal of building a self-reliant and strictly Islamic society, and some observers see the current moves merely as a deceptive tactical shift.

"They feel under a lot of pressure, political problems are poisoning the economic well, and the only way to get money in is to smile at the West and tell us what we want to hear," one Western diplomat says.

But others hope to take advantage of the new mood and take the government's sincerity on trust. "Since December there has been a change of stance, more flexibility," says a relief worker. "I think we have to give them the benefit of the doubt."

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