Senators critique administration’s Sudan policy, call for additional sanctions

Top Senate lawmakers pressed State Department officials to take stronger action in response to the ongoing civil war between rival military factions in Sudan

AFP via Getty Images

Smoke billows in Khartoum amid ongoing fighting between the forces of two rival generals, on May 11, 2023.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed administration officials on Wednesday to take stronger action in response to the ongoing conflict between rival military factions in Sudan, including imposing sanctions on some of the key actors involved in the conflict, and condemned what they described as a failed Sudan policy from the administration.

Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, testified before the Senate panel about the ongoing conflict in the East African nation, which experienced a military coup in 2021, and has seen an outbreak of violence between the military faction that led the coup and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary. Sudan was a signatory to the Abraham Accords in 2020, but the implementation of that agreement has been on ice in light of the coup and subsequent violence.

Lawmakers from both parties criticized what they described as policy failures by the administration and a failure to act swiftly in response to the unstable situation in Sudan. 

Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said he did not place full blame on the Biden administration for the long-deteriorating situation, but the U.S. “fell short of the challenge” in failing to immediately condemn and impose sanctions on the coup perpetrators, and said the U.S. needs to reassess its procedures to determine how it was “blindsided” by the recent outbreak of violence.

“We neglected the need for accountability,” Menendez said. “We failed to push hard enough for inclusive civilian participation. And we ended up legitimizing and entrenching those with guns at the expense of the Sudanese people’s democratic aspirations.”

Menendez argued that the U.S.’ actions have led Sudanese civil society to lose faith in the U.S.

Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) said that the “humanitarian and security catastrophe playing out in Sudan was entirely predictable,” that the administration has not been giving the situation the attention that it deserves and that it “doesn’t seem to be listening” to Sudanese civilians.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who traveled to Sudan in 2021, said the U.S. should have acted more decisively to isolate the current military leaders, and said that the failure to do so “contributed to the situation we’re here now.” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said the leaders of the two military factions had been “propped up by, in part, the inadequacy of the U.S. policy.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said that the U.S. has to “reevaluate all of our actions and the roles that we’ve played and try things differently.”

Nuland insisted that the administration had imposed “harsh penalties against Sudan” in response to the 2021 coup, “which were controversial internally, given how strong they were.” She also said there has been “incredible effort made” by the secretary of state and other partners to try to integrate the two warring factions, which she said officials thought was “bearing real fruit.”

Nuland added that, going forward, “we’re going to have to have a broader process, it’s going to have to include more Sudanese voices,” but cautioned that the ongoing chaos makes it difficult to solicit participation from Sudanese civilians.

Nuland also praised the role that the United Arab Emirates has played in efforts to bring the warring factions together for Saudi-moderated talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and in enabling the flow of humanitarian goods.

In the short term, Nuland said, the U.S. aims to negotiate an agreement to protect Sudanese civilians and open up routes for humanitarian aid, followed by an enduring cease-fire and, ultimately, a civilian-led peace process.

Menendez pressed Nuland specifically on whether the administration would apply targeted sanctions to pressure the militant factions to reach an agreement. 

Nuland noted that a May 4 executive order established sanctions authority, but that the administration is still deciding how and to whom to apply those sanctions “depending upon how the talks go.” She said that there have been talks with U.S. partners to ensure that any sanctions imposed are multilateral.

Risch pushed for the creation of a high-level special envoy dedicated to the situation in Sudan, an idea that Menendez endorsed. Nuland said that U.S. Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey, who was evacuated from the country, will be playing a similar role in helping to mediate talks. Menendez argued that the U.S. needs a representative who reports directly to the president or secretary of state.

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