Background Briefing on Sudan

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
January 13, 2017

MODERATOR: Thank you, and thanks to everyone for joining us this morning. All of you have no doubt seen the release from the White House earlier this morning, the text of a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate, as well as the text of an executive order that recognizes positive actions by the Government of Sudan in providing for the revocation of certain Sudan-related sanctions. So to talk about those – that executive order and to talk about the actions that we are taking and why, we have with us three senior Administration officials. For your benefit, I’ll give you their names. We have with us [Senior Administration Official One]. We have the [Senior Administration Official Two]. And then we also have [Senior Administration Official Three].

Now, henceforth, the ground rules dictate that these will all be labeled and introduced as senior Administration officials. Now, we’re going to have brief remarks by these officials to begin with, and then we'll hand it over to you for any questions. So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to senior Administration official number one. That’s [Senior Administration Official Two]. Sorry.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: This is [Senior Administration Official One].

MODERATOR: Sorry, [Senior Administration Official One]. I apologize.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. So today’s lifting of certain sanctions comes as a result of a sustained effort of intensive bilateral engagement with Sudan, and particularly sustained intensive engagement over the last six months that has focused on seeing progress from Sudan in five key areas. And we – just to go over them briefly, where we have seen this type of progress is in the area of conflicts in Darfur in the two areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

The Government of Sudan at the beginning of this process in June announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities, and the period of normal fighting, which begins in the beginning of December – the dry season – this year for the first time since 2011, we have not seen a government offensive in Darfur or the two areas. Secondly, the government has taken significant steps to reduce obstructions to humanitarian access and to improve the environment for humanitarian organizations operating throughout Sudan. Thirdly, Sudan has changed its previous policy and approach and has not, over the past six months, provided arms to armed groups in South Sudan. And fourthly, the – Sudan has partnered with the United States in working to eliminate the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army and encountering terrorism, in particular the threat posed by ISIL.

So the actions taken today, in plain terms, will – by the Treasury Department will remove the trade embargo with Sudan and unblock the assets of the Government of Sudan. The President has also issued an executive order that after six months, provided Sudan sustains progress in these areas that we have been engaging on and the Secretary of State issues a report to that effect, then the Executive Orders 13067 and 13412 that had imposed the sanctions will go away.

We recognize that while the recent progress made by Sudan is encouraging, there is still much that needs to be done to address the needs of the Sudanese people and to address our concerns. However, in six months we’ve moved closer to achieving our goals than we have in really the past 20 years. So in taking these steps today, we are well positioned to continue to engage productively with Sudan and to apply pressure as necessary in support of further progress in areas including areas of Sudan’s human rights record, its political space – restricted political space, and promoting democracy, and in addressing the root causes of the conflicts that have raged for years in Darfur and the two areas. So that in a nutshell is the actions taken and the rationale for that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: If I could add a couple of things. This is [Senior Administration Official Two]. I just want to re-emphasize that this is the outcome of a comprehensive process of engagement. We’ve had twice-monthly committee meetings with the Sudanese Government for the last six months, and they’ve had clear benchmarks throughout the entire process. And on top of that, we also have been explaining that this is as much the beginning of a process as it is the end of a process. So the six months that we have been working with the Sudanese on this have been positive, and the steps we believe they have taken have been significant. But we also recognize that we have a long way to go and that this is the beginning of a longer process of smartening our sanctions in a way that will encourage continued achievements and steps in line with what has been made so far.

So one last note if I could, because we are at the end of an Administration. We also believe that this gives the new administration a lot more leverage. We’ve maximized leverage for them because we’ve handed them a large carrot and a large stick, and the carrot is that the new administration has the ability to make these sanctions relief permanent in six months, but they also have the ability to take them away. The general licenses we have put together can be removed if there’s backsliding or if the progress doesn’t continue. So with that, we think we’re leaving the new administration in a very strong place to advance U.S. interests.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Any more remarks, or should we head over to questions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: This is [Senior Administration Official Three]. I’m happy to do – just emphasize a few – couple technical information pieces. But then everything’s really been covered pretty well, so I will after that just let you all go to questions for what you want to dig into, if anything, on the technical side.

Just to emphasize what [Senior Administration Official One] and [Senior Administration Two] said, the – all of the Darfur-related authorities, restrictions, and designations will remain through this, as well as the state sponsor of terror list restrictions. So these are the OFAC transactions non-Darfur would be authorized, but any other restrictions, export-related restrictions related to the state sponsor of terror list that other agencies administer, such as Commerce, would still be in effect. And as [Senior Administration Official Two] just said, I think it’s important to distinguish between the general license that will take effect on Tuesday versus the executive order that would come into effect in six months potentially with regard to more permanently revoking the sanctions authority in this state. Under the general license, everybody will stay on the designated list, but there will be an authorization generally out there.

And so we would retain authority to revoke the general license at any time if there are complications. And then at that six-month window, as the new administration is assessing whether the progress has remained, that way we’ve given sort of an initial relief to the Government of Sudan that they can feel, but it’s still a tentative one while we’re assessing, and that allows us at the six-month period to either make that more permanent by removing the sanctions authority or not, and either revoking the general license or just recalibrating it based on the situation. So we try to provide continued incentive, but also maximum flexibility to adjust based on what’s happening on the ground there at the time.

I think I’ll leave it at that and just leave it up for questions.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much. We’re now ready to move to questions. Operator, did you want to give the ground rules?

OPERATOR: Once again, ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning the question and answer session. And if you’d like to ask a question, please to press the * followed by the one on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating that you’ve placed yourself in queue, and all questions will be pulled in the order they are received. You may remove yourself at any time by depressing the pound key on your touchtone phone. And if you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up your handset before depressing the key.

Our first question will come from the line of Michele Kelemen of NPR. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. First of all, if you can explain: What businesses are going to be open? I mean, What kind of trade do you imagine will happen after this 180-day waiting period? And also, how much have you been in touch with the Trump transition about this? Do you expect them to, for instance, even continue to have an envoy on Sudan?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I believe that’s for [Senior Administration Official Three] to take the first one, and then I’ll take the second one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. This is [Senior Administration Official Three]. This will authorize all transactions there aside from the Darfur-related and state sponsor of terror. So, any financial transactions, import-export goods that aren’t otherwise covered by dual use and other restrictions by other agencies. So it could be goods, technologies, and services. I’d defer to State on the types of commerce they expect to happen in the initial period. Our sense is there’s certainly agriculture and oil trade that goes on. Whether under a general license that’ll maybe just start to move, and then as businesses feel it out and see what’s likely to happen at the six-month period is most likely in our experience the way these work.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, this is [Senior Administration Official One]. Just like to weigh in. I mean, some of the areas that the Sudanese have expressed interest in, obviously, are agricultural machinery equipment, as well as actual agricultural products, transportation equipment, IT equipment, and in the energy field, and medical as well. Those are the main areas that they’ve been expressing interest in.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And on the question on transition, we have briefed the transition team and have provided information about this. But we can’t speak to their intentions or what they’re going to do next.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Lesley Wroughton of Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning. I’m interested to find what you’re thinking is of why Bashir has decided to cooperate with the U.S. What is – and also, to make these changes. What is behind this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let me say that Sudan has long expressed a desire to get out from under sanctions as well as other restrictions that the United States has imposed on Sudan going back 20 years. So, we have in the past few years looked for a way to engage with Sudan in a way that we could overcome some of the lack of trust of the past and to come up with an approach that would get the Sudanese to address concerns we’ve had, mainly in how they treat their own people. That involves primarily ending the conflicts internally and allowing humanitarian assistance to reach their people. And their interest in achieving sanctions relief, bringing the two together, gave each party something that they could agree to work toward. So that’s how we think we’ve gotten the Sudanese Government’s agreement in this. They have something to gain. And because we’ve taken this in an incremental approach, they had enough confidence that this could be a successful approach.

So this is not the result just of an effort over the last six months, which, as my colleague has said, has been an extremely intensive engagement period, but goes back before that, even – or even to early 2015 when we began exploring with the Sudanese and them with us how we could achieve some breakthrough in the mutual interests that we had.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Anne Gearan of Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, [Senior Administration Officials]. Just one point at the beginning: I really wish this could be on the record. This is – you’re talking about U.S. Government actions, much of which is actually written out in public documents. It would be very helpful to have your explanatory comments be on the record, if you would take that into consideration.

Secondly, I just want to make sure I’m very clear on what happens in 180 days and what happens in six months. I know you tried to set this out at the beginning, but if somebody could just, like, give the first-grader’s step-by-step of what happens when, I would really appreciate it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: [Title withheld] is probably the best place for that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Sure, this is [Senior Administration Official Three]. The really short of it is that at – Tuesday, under the general license, everyone stays on a designation list and our executive authorities remain over this. But there’s a general license up on the website that anyone can refer to so that if transactions are blocked because there are folks on the designated list – and actually, regardless of being on the list, it covers the Government of Sudan, so they should be blocked anyway – there’s still an ability to – for banks or anyone else to refer to the public website and the general license, and assuming the transaction is within the lanes of that, allow the transaction to happen and assets would be unblocked at the same time as well.

The – that all remains for our authority up until the 180 days if the report is positive and positive to a degree that the administration wants to take the full revocation of sanctions authorities as opposed to continuing the general license in a different form or revoking it. At that 180 days, if the report is sufficient and everyone wants to make this more permanent, then the parts of the executive order would kick into effect that would remove the sanctions authority entirely with respect to the non-Darfur sanctions. And so one executive order would go away entirely and part of another executive order would go away so that we retain just the Darfur-related sanctions.

So the Darfur-related folks would stay on the list and still have all the full sanctions, but the other people related to the Government of Sudan that were on the list for the non-Darfur would come off the list and we would no longer need a general license and they wouldn’t even get hits probably on a sanctions filter, and we would remove our authority from that.

QUESTION: So, if my line is still open, that means that as of Tuesday following the holiday Monday, some business could be done as long as it wasn’t – it didn’t touch the Darfur designations, and progress on that would be reviewed in 180 days, correct?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: That’s correct. The executive order issued today requires that the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, with the administrator of USAID, with the Director of National Intelligence, and drawing on information from all sources, including specifically the NGO community, would have to issue a report as to whether Sudan had sustained the progress under the engagement we’ve had over the past six months during this upcoming six months.

If that report is positive, then the underlying executive orders, as [Senior Administration Official Three] has just explained, would go away and only the Darfur sanctions would remain – the designations under Executive Orders 13400.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Felicia Schwartz of The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I would second Anne’s request. It’s helpful to have people, the decision-makers, on the record. But in terms of the state sponsor of terror list, is it unusual – I know there are only three countries on the list right now, but is it unusual to have – to basically lift a trade embargo and keep that designation in place?

And then, secondly, you mentioned the sort of intensive engagement in twice-monthly meetings. If the Trump team, like, doesn’t want to engage in this or it doesn’t staff up or have a political envoy in place to continue this engagement, does that affect this six-month window? Or if they don’t complete the report in time, for example, does that affect things? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, on the second part of your question, really, the level of engagement will be up to the next administration, but it will not affect the requirement of this executive order that there be an assessment as to whether Sudan has sustained the positive progress in the five areas that we’ve been engaging with them on.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: On the first part of the question, for the state sponsor of terrorism list and the trade embargo, I think it is unusual to have both and to move forward with this, only because I can’t think on memory of another country that had an embargo and the state sponsor of terrorism list and that this is the same sort of issues that we’re facing here, so --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And this is [Senior Administration Official Three]. I’ll just weigh in really briefly on that. I don’t disagree with anything [Senior Administration Official Two] says, but I’ll just note that the state sponsor of terrorism list and any trade restrictions based on that is a very different authority, so they’re not really tied to the OFAC sanctions. They have their own trade restrictions, and much of that is administered by the Commerce Department. So while it’s not common in the sense that, as you know, there’s only three other countries on the list, so there’s not a lot to have commonalities with, it’s – they’re really not tied. It’s more that their – that has its own restrictions and those restrictions are going to remain. And, I think as [Senior Administration Official One] noted, there’s sort of different tracks going on here.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. The other thing I will say is the sanctions that we have decided to give relief to are sanctions that have had an impact more on the people of Sudan, whereas the sanctions that are tied with the SST have more to do with the government and its security organs. We felt that the best place to start and engage on this was to do what would benefit most of the people of Sudan.

QUESTION: Is my line still open? Just in – but aren’t you, like, unfreezing all the government’s assets as part of this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: So this is [Senior Administration Official Three]. So, yeah, there are – so as a – in terms of the assets that are blocked by OFAC that are related to the Government of Sudan, those would be unfrozen. But I think it’s important to note that’s not the same as the state sponsor of terror list trade pieces on dual use. So that’s a very different thing. That’s not what’s blocking assets.

But also, to the extent that that’s not necessarily all of the assets going back to the Government of Sudan, there’s a couple factors for that. One, those assets would be blocked under the OFAC sanctions if there was even a small percentage of interest by the Government of Sudan. So some assets may be unfrozen that aren’t even predominantly the Government of Sudan and they wouldn’t go back to them, it’s just that they had an interest in it. And the other piece is that any assets that are blocked and already attached under any pending civil litigation or civil litigation that’s already happened and assets have been taken as a result of that would not be going back as well.

MODERATOR: Next question. And we’ll have time for just I think two more questions.

OPERATOR: The next question in queue is from the line of Rachel Savage of The Economist. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. So I was wondering if you could say specifically which officials in the Trump transition team have been briefed on this issue.

And secondly, as far as I’m aware from my sources, the bombing of Jebel Marra earlier in 2016 has effectively neutralized the last major rebel group in Darfur and fighting in the two areas has sort of been – sort of ground to a stalemate even before the latest cessation of hostilities. So I was wondering, in what sense do you think that this could give out the message that this is a reward for the Sudanese Government effectively winning the war, as it were? Because from my perspective, at least – from the sources I’ve spoken to – the Sudanese Government does seem to believe that they have at least sort of defeated most of the rebels in the country.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll take the first question on the Trump administration. We want to respect the new administration’s deliberations and process, so we can’t – we don’t want to get into details about who exactly has been briefed or what their thinking is on that.

And on question number two, [Senior Administration Official One], do you want to take that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I mean, let me say that though they’re – they’ve fought to a stalemate, there has been since 2011 a dry season offensive every year in the two areas between the government and the SPLM-North, that fighting has raged year after year. This dry season, there has been no government offensive.

And in Darfur, yes, there was a major government offensive in the last dry season – last year, at the beginning of last year – and yes, the government took a lot of territory back. But there are still many armed elements that are in Jebel Marra and the government could have launched yet another offensive to try to take more territory, could have engaged in aerial bombardment of villages. They have not undertaken that.

So yes, the wars are not concluded. There is no signed cessation of hostilities agreement yet. But the point is that the – what we’ve tried to do is decrease the level of fighting. And by the government not launching its traditional dry season offensives, that, we think, has been a major accomplishment. We also continue to push all the parties to go back to the negotiating table to conclude a cessation of hostilities agreement and get on with negotiating the underlying political issues that have led to these conflicts.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone. I think that exhausts our questions and I certainly don’t want to exhaust our officials – senior officials who are answering those questions. But thanks, everyone, for joining us on this call and that concludes the call.

I hope everyone has a good weekend.