from the policy-in-reverse dept
We’ve already talked somewhat about how the United States’ sanction policy, with regard to a couple regimes whom we designate as bad actors, can be best described as having the opposite of the intended effect. While we can have a separate argument over whether or not American should be using sanctions at all as a method for shaping global politics, any discussion about the current use of sanctions should be based around their merits or lack there of. That groundwork laid, when we move beyond the more general analysis of our technology sanctions against several regimes and the impact on online educational systems like Coursera, and dive a bit more into the specific impacts of tech sanctions on a single nation, the failure of our policy is laid bare.
Take Sudan, for instance, where President Omar al-Bashir’s NCP party is largely run by conservative Wahhabi Muslims, whereas the opposition parties in Darfur and elsewhere tend to be more liberal and of less-strict forms of Islam. Al-Bashir and the NCP have long been the target of human rights groups and the American government, leading to a sanctions policy against Sudan that’s as strict as could be imagined. The goal is to either get the government in Sudan to change, which is unlikely to happen as a result of the sanctions, or to get the Sudanese people to change their government entirely. Unfortunately, our sanctions policy appears to be having the opposite effect, empowering the government and creating barriers for any popular resistance.
Caught in the middle are U.S. sanctions. Initially designed to put pressure on the government, these technology restrictions have become outdated, and some of the provisions inadvertently aid the regime by blocking access to critical personal communications tools—to the detriment of the Sudanese people. Companies like Yahoo and Samsung, unsure whether they can legally make their products available and afraid of the risk, often err on the side of overcompliance when blocking their products in Sudan and other sanctioned countries.
“The U.S. sanctions have empowered the government security agencies against the activists online, because there [are] few anonymity tools available for them, and many of them are not tech savvy. Not being able to update your software makes you an easy catch for the highly trained security officers,” Anwar Dafa-alla, a Sudanese activist and founder of Nafeer IT, told us in an email. And Helena Puig Larrauri, who works on peace-building initiatives in Sudan, writes, “The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good.”
The lesson to learn is that censoring basic internet services as a method for sanctions does not achieve the goal of those sanctions and in fact puts us squarely in line with the dictatorial regimes we attempt to alter, who of course are also censoring the internet amongst their own populations. Beyond that, whatever your opinion might be on sanctions in general, preventing methods of communication and dialogue within other countries, and indeed between our countries, is about as perfect a negation of the democratic method as I can imagine. Meanwhile, the trodden upon are kept uninformed, unarmed, and unable to unify, all due in part to our sanctions, while the government that oppresses them goes about their business as usual.
Now, it should be noted that the United States hasn’t been ignoring this problem entirely. Our government has done sanctions reform before, most notably in the 1990’s, where the aim was reducing the unintended negative consequences of sanctions. Also, in 2010, the Treasury Department announced relaxed restrictions on certain forms of internet services. But, as seems to have happened too many times in the past, efforts to be clear on what’s allowed and what isn’t in nations like Iran haven’t been duplicated for Sudan.
The U.S. government has updated policies toward Iran several times since 2010. The most recent, General License D, authorized U.S. companies to export software, services, and hardware for personal communications purposes. But there haven’t been changes to the treatment of personal communications tools in the Sudanese sanctions. Sudanese civil society groups launched a campaign last week calling for the United States to change its policies.
And so al-Bashir’s regime continues on, despised as a matter of American policy, but also empowered by it.