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Human Rights Groups Respond To Obama Administration Lifting Sanctions Against Sudan


With just a week to go in office, the Obama administration is changing a decades-old policy on Sudan. It is easing some sanctions as a way to encourage that African country to resolve conflicts and to help fight terrorism. Human rights groups say the U.S. is sending exactly the wrong message to a foreign government that has been accused of genocide. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sudan has been under U.S. sanctions since the 1990s for its support of terrorism and human rights abuses. The Bush administration piled on more after accusing President Omar al-Bashir of carrying out a genocide in Darfur in western Sudan.

Now the Obama administration says it will start allowing U.S. energy, agriculture, medical and other companies to do business with Khartoum. The decision grew out of months of negotiations, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, explained to reporters in New York...


SAMANTHA POWER: We, behind the scenes, have been engaged with the government of Sudan in a discreet way, laying out the kind of steps that we would need to see in a number of areas in order for them to see sanctions relief.

KELEMEN: Counterterrorism was a big one, and officials say that Sudan has been cooperating on that front. Power says aid groups have also seen, in her words, a sea change when it comes to humanitarian access to places like Darfur as well as other conflict zones in Sudan.


POWER: We're not seeing, you know, suddenly the dawn of peace in our time in those areas but a very significant improvement over that six months.

KELEMEN: That progress will need to be sustained for the next 180 days for Sudan to see sanctions relief, and she believes activists will make sure the Trump administration follows through. But human rights groups say the Obama administration is sending the wrong signal - that if a country cooperates on terrorism, it will get a pass on other issues. One longtime Sudan watcher, Eric Reeves of Harvard, says U.S. officials tend to overstate Sudan's cooperation on counterterrorism.


ERIC REEVES: The regime has done nothing really to deserve this, but we've seen increasing repression in Khartoum and elsewhere with many arrests, many, many newspaper seizures unprecedented in the two decades I've been working on Sudan.

KELEMEN: Reeves says he remembers what Obama said before taking office when the then candidate described the genocide in Darfur as a stain on our souls.


REEVES: Violence in Darfur never stopped and has been accelerating steadily since 2012, all on the Obama administration watch. His claim that he would never averse his eyes from slaughter has proved, sadly, quite hollow.

KELEMEN: Administration officials say the sanctions that were put in place because of Darfur will remain on the books. And they believe that they've given the incoming Trump administration a large carrot and stick, a chance to make the sanctions relief permanent or take it away. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SONG, "BEAST AND DRAGON, ADORED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.