Though the blanket decision by the Trump administration cancels the positions of special envoys to various countries in general, it still has significant implications and relevance for Sudan.
For the first time in more than two decades and nine US envoys, the need to have a special envoy, which usually enjoys a political bipartisan support, is coming to an end. Interesting enough the move is welcomed by both Sudan government and US career diplomats. For Sudan the special envoy is a stark signal that there is something wrong in the country that needs special attention and sometimes at the expense of the bilateral relations that should be the focus. Moreover, it is subjected more to the influence of lobbyists and activists who harbor unfriendly agenda. At one point and out of frustration Sudan denied initially giving entry visa to the last envoy Donald Booth.
For the US diplomats the special envoy sends a wrong message that the country has direct contacts with the White House, in addition to the usual tug of war on access and resources at the bureaucratic level.
Following the US move to appoint special envoy and the mounting Sudanese problems, other countries followed suit. From Britain to Russia, China, Norway and far away Canada had their Sudan special envoys at one point and to the extent that those special envoys found it convenient to hold a joint meeting.
The Trump administration decision to scrap the envoy jobs coincided with the release of Dr. Muddawi Ibrahim, the notable activist who spent 9 months in prison awaiting trial. It also coincided with the visit of the USAID Director Mark Green, who assumed his new job only two weeks earlier. This visit was seen by many as one of important field visits before Washington reaches conclusions prior to making up its mind on revoking the economic sanctions, due for a decision, October 12th.
Whether the release of Dr. Muddawi was a response to foreign calls or part of a growing steps intended for reconciliation like pardoning 259 convicted members of rebel groups, it is important to continue this trend for a well-entrenched domestic reconciliation that will help pave the way for some degree of political stability that the country needs but which went missing for a long time. That failure, coupled with a degree of instability in some peripheral areas with pockets of what the government describes thugs, led to the inability in tapping the country’s huge natural resources.
However, though some observers are of the view that Khartoum wants to improve its human rights record and boost the chances of lifting the sanctions and that the release of Dr. Muddawi and others should be seen within this context, but in fact there is growing recognition that sanctions as a foreign policy tool has unintended consequences like serving the targeted regime with scape goat for failures; besides available data shows clearly that the burden of such punitive measures falls on ordinary people, not the government.
The US Charge d’Affaires in Khartoum Steven Koutsis told the Washington Post lately about the American policy towards the Sudan saying “What we want to ensure is, while we are trying to get the regime to change its ways that the people of Sudan are not suffering because of that”.
Along this line, the advocacy group Enough Project issued a statement on making the next step count pointing that "the next phase of U.S. policy needs to address the root problem in Sudan: the authoritarian, kleptocratic government that makes tactical short-term adjustments in its policies in response to mild pressures but retains its strategic objectives".
Moreover, it called for "fundamental reforms in the Sudanese state" but emphasized on the need for "effective pressures and incentives" to bring the government to achieve these changes. Enough Project added that the U.S. administration during the next phase of engagement should prepare "smart, modernized sanctions that spare the Sudanese public and target those most responsible for grand corruption, atrocities and obstructing peace".
It went even further suggesting that Sudan’s removal from the list of States Sponsor of Terrorism and support for debt relief, should be on the negotiating table of the normalization and that this should be used as garrotes to bring the ruling National Congress Party to achieve peace and democratic reforms in Sudan.
Gone are the days of considering a Congress-nominated ambassador as a reward to the regime, but that should be viewed as an opportunity for a domestically-inspired change supported regionally and internationally and not to be seen as victory for old policies.