Work remains in Sudan, says US envoy

US Special Envoy for Sudan Donald E. Booth on Tuesday said that leaders of the military government and the opposition in the African nation are moving toward a reconciliation, but added “there is a lot” that still needs to be done.

Both sides in Sudan agreed a political power-sharing deal on July 17 that set out a 39-month period of transition, led by Sudan’s new “Sovereign Council,” before constitutional changes can be made. Under the agreement, a military general will lead the council for the first 21 months, a civilian for the following 18 months, and then elections will be held.

“That political declaration really addresses the structure of a transitional government and not the entire structure,” Booth said. “(The July 17 agreement) has put off the question of the legislative council. It is a document that is the beginning of a process. We welcome the agreement on that but there are still a lot of negotiations to be conducted on what the Sudanese call their constitutional declaration.”

Ambassador Donald Booth Special Envoy to Sudan

The envoy said he expects the Sovereign Council “will have to address what the functions of the different parts of the transitional government will be,” such as the roles and powers of “the sovereign council, the prime minister, the cabinet and, ultimately, the legislative cabinet. Who will lead that transitional government is still undecided.”

“The 3rd of June was a signal of the limits of people power,” he said. “But then there was the 30th of June, in which close to a million people took to the streets outside of Sudan and I think that demonstrated the limits of the military power over the people.”

“One has to recognize that General Hemeti is a powerful figure currently in Sudan,” he said. “He has considerable forces loyal to him. He has significant economic assets as well. So, he has been a prominent member of this transitional military council. But he has been one of the chief negotiators for the forces of Freedom and Change.

Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador Donald Booth Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.

Ambassador Booth:  I started as the Special Envoy for Sudan on the 10th of June and since then have been in Khartoum three times and done two swings through the region, both in Africa and the Middle East.  In my time in Khartoum I’ve met and spent a fair amount of time with a broad range of Sudanese to better understand where all of them are coming from and what they’re trying to achieve.  I’ve met with women’s groups, I’ve met with youth, I’ve met with victims of the violence of June 3rd, I’ve met with members of the Transitional Military Council, as well as the Forces for Freedom and Change, the Sudan Professional Association, civil society; and reached out to some of the armed groups as well.

The position that the United States has taken is that we support the formation of a civilian-led transitional government that will be broadly supported by the Sudanese people.  There are many partners that we have engaged with toward that end.  I’m just here in Brussels yesterday for a meeting of the Friends of Sudan, which is a group of Western, Middle Eastern, and African parties that are interested in helping the Sudanese people achieve their desires.  That group met last month in Berlin and came up with an agreement for broad support for the mediation effort of the African Union and Ethiopia toward helping the Sudanese achieve their desire for a civilian-led transitional government.

In addition to the African Union and Ethiopian mediation, there have also been roles played by individual Sudanese in trying to bring the Transitional Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change together, and we’ve seen that progress is often made in talks when the Sudanese parties are face to face and engaging with each other.

We all know of the very tragic events of the 3rd of June when close to 150 people were killed at the sit-in site outside the military headquarters.  The 3rd of June was a signal of the limits of people power; but then there was the 30th of June, which was when close to a million people again took to the streets and cities throughout Sudan, and I think that demonstrated the limits of military power over the people.

So shortly after those lessons were learned by both sides, we had the announcement of an agreement on a transitional government on the 5th of July, which resulted in the signing of the political declaration on July the 17th.

Now, that political declaration really addresses the structure of a transitional government and not the entire structure of it.  For example, it has put off the question of the Legislative Council.  So it is a document that is the beginning of a process.  We welcome the agreement on that.  But there are still a lot of negotiations to be conducted on what the Sudanese are calling their constitutional declaration, which is a document that will be more detailed and will have to address what the functions of the different parts of the transitional government will be.  It’s in that document where issues of relative roles and powers of the Sovereignty Council, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, and ultimately of the Legislative Council will be addressed.

Then after that, it is agreed there’s still the issue of who will actually be in the transitional government.

So as you can see, there’s still a lot that the Sudanese need to do but as I said, we fully support the desire of the Sudanese people to have a civilian-led transitional government that will tackle the issues of constitutional revision and organizing elections, free and fair, democratic elections, at the end of a transition period.

Another part of my function has been to engage with a broad set of international partners to secure their support to help the Sudanese people achieve their desire for a civilian-led transitional government and to provide peace and stability in Sudan, and to begin the process of restoring Sudan’s economy.  That’s one of the issues that we discussed among the Friends of Sudan in Brussels this week.

Question:  What support will the United States provide for the agreement recently concluded between the Military Council and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces to form a civilian government?

Ambassador Booth:  Let me say first of all that the agreement that was reached on July 17th is only the first step in forming the transitional government, and we certainly need to see the Sudanese reach agreement on the further step of the Constitutional Declaration, which will address the functions of that government so that we have a true sense as to where the relative powers and authorities will lie.  

So, the U.S. reaction will depend upon what the Sudanese actually agree upon, and then also, as we say, the broad support of the Sudanese people for any such agreement.

So, under current U.S. restrictions that go back many years, including our designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of 

Terrorism, our ability to operate in Sudan in the economic realm has been limited to humanitarian and democracy and governance areas.  So those are areas we could definitely engage in going forward in support of a government.  And I would think that if it’s seen as a government that truly reflects what the Sudanese people have been looking for, it will certainly have the political support of the United States and our active engagement with other partners around the world to support that.

Question:  Does the United States object to the prominent role that Mr. Dagalo also known as Hemeti plays in this transition?  As you’re no doubt aware, he has a very questionable human rights record with the Rapid Support Forces, also having been part of the Janjaweed.  Is his role something that would not be conducive to the transition to a representative civilian government? 

Ambassador Booth:  Well, one has to recognize that General Hemeti is a powerful figure in Sudan.  He has considerable forces that are loyal to him.  The Rapid Support Forces.  And he has significant economic assets as well.  So he has been a prominent member of this Transitional Military Council.  But he has also been one of the chief negotiators with the Forces for Freedom and Change.  So I think we have to wait and see how the Sudanese, what type of agreement they will come up with.  As I said, they had initial agreement on some structures of the transitional government, but still have a lot to discuss in terms of the function of it and who will actually be in it is another issue that will be, the Sudanese will need to deal with.

So, we don’t want to prejudge where the Sudanese will come out on that.  It’s their country and their decision on how they move forward.  As I said, our goal is to support the desire for truly a civilian-led transition.

Question: I’ve traveled to Sudan a couple of times over the past several months, and on my trips there I’ve been working with local journalists who are being intimidated regularly, and foreign media such as myself have had to go through the process of being denied visas, or accreditation, or permission to travel beyond Khartoum.  I’m curious what the U.S. government is doing to press the Military Council to expand or ensure press freedom ?

Ambassador Booth:  It’s one of those areas that we have engaged, I’ve engaged personally with them on it.  One of the key areas that we pressed frequently on and engaged other international partners on was to try to get the internet restored.  In my meetings with Sudanese journalists, that was one of their very top requests, was to assist them in getting the internet restored.  That has been turned back on.

I think there was a brief period, they related to me in April, after President Bashir resigned, when there was a bit more freedom, and in many ways, that press freedom has now been restricted.

As I said, we certainly engage with the TMC on that and clearly a civilian-led transitional government in order to succeed in the many tasks that it will have will need to have a vibrant press which it can use to communicate to the Sudanese people.  The many difficult issues that need to be addressed as Sudan tries to dig out of its economic hole, and also to have a constitutional process.  If you don’t have a press that can engage in open and vigorous debate about the many issues that have to be addressed in coming up with Sudan’s way forward under a constitution, the process will not be successful.

So I think clearly, the key to really restoring freedoms of the press and getting away from the old habits of denying visas and permits for travel which apply, frankly, to humanitarian actors as well, and that’s another issue we continue to push for is humanitarian access so that people in need can be assisted.  Those are issues we would think that a civilian-led transitional government would tackle and try to get away from the bad practices of the past and unfortunately that are going on currently.

Question:  When will America lift sanctions on Sudan in a move to help the country overcome the difficult stage it is going through?

Ambassador Booth:  I think there’s a lack of understanding about the U.S. sanctions.  They were actually lifted in 2017.  They were provisionally lifted in the beginning of 2017 and then formally later in the year.

There are still some sanctions on individuals, particularly sanctions related to gross human rights abuses that were voted through the UN Security Council.  There are a number of other issues that would limit U.S. ability to provide assistance, but are not sanctions per se.

The main one that people recognize is the current designation or ongoing designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.  But there are also limitations on any assistance we can provide outside of the humanitarian and democracy governance area due to shortcomings of Sudan in the area of child soldiers.  It’s an issue we are engaging General Hemeti in particular on, and I’m pleased to say that he has last week committed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNICEF to investigate that.  We’ll see if they secure his cooperation in that matter, but the commitment was made.

We also have concerns about trafficking in persons and lack of Sudan’s focus on trying to deal with that issue.  Religious freedom is another area where we have concern.  So there are many things that limit what the United States can do in the assistance area, but again, having a civilian-led transitional government we believe will be a start, if they start addressing these issues, to being able to engage Sudan on looking at all these issues where we still have restriction.

Question:  I’ve spoken to many Sudanese living here in the Washington, DC area, across the United States, who are in contact with mothers of martyred people inside Sudan who have very specific concerns.  Among those are, is the, are there two separate constitutional agreements and will there be any type of public consultative process that will include women and some of the protesters as to what will be included in a final agreement?  Their concern is they want to see an agreement that will not provide immunity to the TMC, but offer accountability for the massacres.  And the types of measures of how power will be divided, and hopefully that the military will not have significant powers.  And how is civilian oversight over that security sector be in this initial agreement before you move on to a further agreement? 

Ambassador Booth:  Your question about whether there will be two constitutional agreements– in a way, yes, that is what is envisioned.  The first would be an extension of this political declaration.  It would be a constitutional declaration which would, as I mentioned earlier, outline the functions, the roles and responsibilities of the various parts of the transitional government, which will have a life of 39 months and will have the responsibility of organizing democratic elections at the end of that period.

One of its key tasks will be organizing the writing or revising of Sudan’s constitution.  So, in effect, the, if you will, permanent constitution– I think it would be Sudan’s third permanent constitution– that in effect you might consider to be a second constitutional document.

The first one is a negotiation between the parties that have been engaged since April, which is the Transitional Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change, which is a coalition that includes the Sudan Professionals Association, the Sudan Call, the National Consensus Forces, political parties, and an alliance of civil society groups. 

So that first one will be a negotiated document between those groups.

The second one would need to be taken to a national referendum and would be achieved through a process yet to be defined that certainly should include a broad consultation and input from Sudanese from all walks of life in all parts of the country.  Because one of the things Sudan needs to address is the historic divide between the center and the periphery, which has resulted in nearly constant war since Sudan’s independence.

The issue of immunity and accountability– that is an important issue.  There is, in the draft, one draft anyway of the Constitutional Declaration, a provision for immunity for members of the Sovereignty Council.  That would apply to the civilians as well as to the military members of it.  And as I understand, there are negotiations, part of the negotiations will be in limiting the extent of that.  Having immunity for the Chief Executive or Executive Branch of a government is not unusual.  When you think about it in the U.S. context, only the Congress can move to impeach and try a President.

So it’s not an unusual thing, but what they are looking to add to it is not only limitations on it, but what mechanism might be used to lift any immunity for specific reasons.

The issue of accountability gets to one other function to be achieved during the transitional period, and that is the establishment of an independent and credible investigation of the June 3rd events and subsequent violence.  Again, a commission has not been established.  Who will establish it and how it will be independent has not been yet thoroughly agreed.  Though the political declaration that was signed on the 17th of July did include a provision that the independent commission to be established would be able to call on African support.  So that gives an opening for assistance and oversight, perhaps, that could add to the credibility of any investigation.

We have certainly cautioned the Sudanese parties that an investigation done in-house, no matter how well done, will always have some suspicion, so the idea of having this being done above board is extremely important I think to the Sudanese people and we certainly support that.

Question:  I wanted to just ask you about the criticism of these negotiations.  That the characters are spending too much time talking about who’s going to occupy what procedure seat, rather than articulating a unified policy vision for the new Sudan.  I wanted to hear your thoughts on what you make of that ? also, maybe you can tell us what you think should happen to Omar al-Bashir ?

Ambassador Booth:  First of all, the negotiations.  There are actually two negotiations going on.  One has been the negotiation in Khartoum between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change.  And in that regard, I frankly think that the focus has been more on the structure of the government and to some extent the authorities of the government rather than on who will occupy what positions.

Now the FFC has told me they have their lists of people that they will propose for ministerial posts, for example, or for their seats on the Sovereignty Council, but that has not, at least in discussions with me or other envoys from other countries that have been involved in this, that has not been a big focus.

What you may be referring to is what you’re hearing out of the discussions between the FFC delegation that has gone to Addis Ababa to meet with representatives of some of the armed groups who have been fighting the government of Sudan for some time.

There we have heard calls for positions in the Cabinet, for reserved seats in a legislature.  Those discussions in Addis really we think one should not be delaying the formation of a transitional government, and two, the armed groups really need to focus on how they’re going to negotiate peace agreements.

The purpose of the FFC engagement with them was to see how that might, peace negotiations might proceed in the future.

I’ll be going to Addis shortly to try to talk with all the parties there to get a better sense of where they’re coming out in the talks that have been going on there, but clearly we believe and I’ve communicated this to everyone I’ve met in Khartoum, that they need to focus on resolving the issue so that they can get a civilian-led transitional government established.  

Sudan in effect has been operating really without an agreed government since the fall of President Bashir.  The Transitional Military Council has in effect been de facto running things with the old ministries and personnel from those ministries in place.  So, the sooner that Sudan can establish a civilian-led transitional government, it can being then to address issues of reform and moving forward to a better future.