WASHINGTON — The U.S. special envoy to Sudan said Thursday that the United States should drop its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and "unwind" sanctions that it's maintained since President Bill Clinton applied the label in 1993.
Ambassador Scott Gration, a retired army general, said that maintaining the designation for Sudan would be a "political decision" that was "backed by no evidence" and was hindering U.S. development goals in southern Sudan.
Gration told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that sanctions linked to the designation had held up the delivery of basic supplies essential to providing humanitarian assistance and developing infrastructure.
"At some point, we're going to have to unwind some of these sanctions, so we can do the very things we need to do," Gration said. "The equipment we need to develop the south can't come through because the ports of Khartoum are sanctioned."
He agreed with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said that "there is no evidence today that Sudan is involved as a state sponsor of terror" and continued sanctions would be akin to "cutting off our nose to spite our face."
Sudan was reported to have formally appealed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Gration said that Khartoum was cooperating in the U.S. battle against al Qaida, drawing criticism from Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Feingold, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Khartoum's efforts to fight extremists "overstated."
The sanctions, imposed at a time when Sudan was an eager host of international terrorism groups including Osama bin Laden and the then-fledgling al Qaida, made the country an international pariah. Its reputation sank further after the Khartoum government's assaults against civilians in the Darfur region in 2003, which the Bush administration labeled genocide. Earlier this year, the U.N.-created International Criminal Court issued indictments against Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al Bashir on charges of mass atrocities in Darfur.
Although 2.7 million people remain displaced in Sudan, the level of violence has gone down significantly, and attacks are mostly criminal in nature and don't reflect a coordinated effort, Gration said.
"There are significant differences between what happened in the 2003 genocide and what is happening now," Gration said.
Gration's assessment differed from that of President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, who've openly called the crisis in Darfur an ongoing genocide.
Under questioning, Gration refused to retract comments last month in which he said that the conflict in Darfur was no longer genocide but at worst "the remnants of genocide."
He called the dispute a "definitial issue" and said that there was "an honest debate" going on in the administration.
"It doesn't really matter what you call it, in my view. What matters is that people are living in dire conditions that must come to an end," he said.
Gration's remarks raised hackles among senators and human rights groups, who worry that the administration might be easing its pressure on Sudan.
"If Ambassador Rice is correct and if there is an ongoing genocide, then clearly the Congress and the U.S. approach to dealing with the government should be different," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
"The policy that the administration seems to be adopting has an overemphasis on incentives," Colin Thomas-Jensen, policy adviser for the Enough Project, a human rights advocacy group, told McClatchy. "The fact is, sanctions in the past have been an effective tool to change the behavior of Sudan."
"If sanctions are not used, we'll need to find other measures" to put pressure on Khartoum, Jerry Fowler, the president of the Save Darfur Coalition, told McClatchy.
The Obama administration is in the process of formulating a policy that will help Sudan apply the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 22-year civil war in Sudan. Gration affirmed that the Obama strategy will include "both incentives and pressures," as well as adequate benchmarks for ensuring compliance.
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