With all eyes on mid-term elections in the United States, almost no one noticed that on the same day the US State Department quietly told just three journalists that it would, under certain circumstances, lift its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Sudan has a long legacy of abuses against its own people. During its 22-year long civil war in southern Sudan, roughly two million died and another four million were displaced. Then, in the western region of Darfur, government and militia forces destroyed thousands of villages and pushed millions of civilians off huge swathes of land, killing hundreds of thousands. The US accused Sudan of genocide in 2004, and the International Criminal Court brought charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and others.
Despite this, the US began the process of "normalizing" relations with Sudan in the last days of the Obama administration, lifting broad economic sanctions that were imposed 20 years earlier. The US cited "continued progress" in reducing offensive military operations in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile; improving humanitarian access; and cooperation on counterterrorism and other goals.
But the US did not require any progress on human rights. And Sudan's security forces have continued to attack civilians and open fire on peaceful protesters. Its security agents continue to detain activists and bring trumped-up criminal charges against them and use torture and other forms of ill-treatment against detainees. The government censors the media, and arrests non-Muslims, charging them with apostasy, punishable by death.
Nearly two years later, "phase two" of normalizing US-Sudan relations finally mentions human rights, lumped together with religious freedoms, as one of six areas that Sudan needs to work on to get off the State Sponsor of Terror list, where it's been since 1993. But it does not say how it will measure progress and still lacks benchmarks. Sudan has long sought removal from the list, which would make it eligible for loans and debt relief. But despite that incentive, without clear benchmarks, it's hard to see Sudan being held accountable to make real improvements to its appalling rights record.
No wonder the US and Sudan prefer to celebrate their deal in private.