An Africa-focused monitor co-founded by movie star George Clooney is squaring off against a high-powered lobbying firm as President Donald Trump nears a decision to lift or retain US sanctions on Sudan.
Trump faces a July 12 deadline on whether to extend a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan, suspended by the Obama administration in January.
The move will represent one of Trump’s first policy choices regarding Africa.
Analysts say the decision would signal the degree to which the Trump administration intends to emphasise rights concerns in its dealing with African governments.
The trade ban and various financial sanctions were put in place in 1997 as punishment for Khartoum’s reported support for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
The US later levied additional punitive measures in response to President Omar al-Bashir’s military campaign in the Darfur region, which the United Nations says has resulted in 300,000 deaths.
The International Criminal Court subsequently indicted Bashir for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
While Sudan remains on a US list of governments that sponsor terrorism, Bashir’s regime is acknowledged to have cooperated with CIA counter-terrorism efforts in recent years.
More policy shift by Khartoum led President Obama to suspend sanctions, pending progress on a set of issues.
These included an end to support for rebels in South Sudan, help in defeating Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, halting attacks in Darfur and other combat zones in Sudan and expanding access by humanitarian groups.
Squire Patton Boggs, one of Washington’s biggest and most effective lobbying firms, is being paid $40,000 every month by Sudan to help persuade Trump to lift the sanctions permanently.
“Observers in and outside of government believe that engagement with Sudan has produced gains in humanitarian assistance and reducing conflict,” said a spokesperson for the company, which includes prominent former members of the US Congress among its leaders.
“Working with, rather than isolating, Sudan is a more constructive strategy to achieving improvement in human rights and religious freedom,” the Squire Patton Boggs representative added.
The firm was responding to criticism of its work for Sudan lodged last week by Clooney and activist John Prendergast.
They have established “The Sentry”, an NGO that investigates financial underwriting for atrocities in Africa.
“The Government of Sudan continues to use starvation as a weapon of war on its people, funds militias that murder...innocent civilians and continues to loot the country of its natural resources and funnel the wealth of Sudan into the hands of regime leaders through massive corruption,” Clooney and Prendergast wrote in a July 6 commentary in Time magazine.
The Enough Project, an advocacy group with which Clooney is associated with, wants President Trump to postpone the decision on lifting sanctions against Sudan for at least six months.
A similar appeal was made by 53 members of the US Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — who sent a letter to Trump on June 30, insisting that he had not yet made appointments to key posts in the State Department and National Security Council.
Once in place, these officials should be charged with reviewing Sudan’s compliance with the conditions set by Obama, the Congress members said.
But two former special envoys to Sudan and South Sudan say the embargo should end.
The International Crisis Group, another NGO with a focus on Africa, also favours the lifting of sanctions, calling such a step “the better of two imperfect options.”
In addition to cooperating with the US on counter-terrorism, Sudan has not impeded the campaign against LRA, the Crisis Group said.
“Khartoum likewise appears to have almost entirely refrained from channelling significant military support to armed groups fighting the South Sudan Government.”
Questions remain, however, regarding Sudan’s commitment to ending internal wars and improving humanitarian access, the group acknowledged.