Lazaro Sumbeiwyo and John Danforth
Four months away from a scheduled referendum on self-determination, Sudan is at an historic crossroads. In January, the people of south Sudan will choose whether to stay unified with the north or secede to create a new country roughly the size of Texas. This referendum, the cornerstone of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which the two of us helped negotiate, was to be the pinnacle of a six-year process to make Sudan more democratic and peaceful. Neither the north nor the south has succeeded in “making unity attractive’’ as it was hoped, and most analysts expect an overwhelming vote in favor of southern secession.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the people of south Sudan need to be reassured that their choice will be respected. First, the international witnesses who backed the peace agreement and pledged to help implement it must reaffirm that they will recognize either outcome of a free and fair referendum. Such a simple step will go a long way toward decreasing tensions and uncertainty during this potentially turbulent period. Second, witnesses must redouble their efforts to ensure that the referendum is indeed held as planned. This requires adequate support for the referendum preparations and individual and collective pressure by the witnesses on both the north and south to prevent delays, clear bottlenecks, and foster a collaborative spirit.
At the same time, these efforts should not come at the expense of progress in the three transitional areas established by the agreement. The people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile were promised a democratic process of popular consultations, while residents of Abyei were given the right to decide, through a separate referendum, whether to stay in the north or join the south. Regrettably, preparations for the Abyei referendum remain deadlocked and the popular consultations have been postponed.
These three areas have received much less attention than the southern referendum, but they are a weather vane of the north-south relationship and have the potential to derail the entire peace deal. In addition, following last April’s elections that were characterized by serious allegations of fraud and voter intimidation, upholding the rights of the people in the three areas is one of the few ways to preserve the peace agreement’s underlying promise of democratic transformation.
Indeed, although the peace agreement will end in July, the goals of democratization and economic transparency must remain priorities for north and south Sudan and the international witnesses, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. International leverage is greater in the south, but the north, too, should be required to respect international human rights and good governance standards, both before and after the referendum.
None of this will be easy — or cheap. The humanitarian and development requirements in Sudan are immense, and donors have often been unable to deliver real long-term impact. With abysmal human development indicators and appalling lack of capacity in the south, Sudan should be at the top of international donor priorities.
According to the United Nations, virtually all Millennium Development Goals in south Sudan will not be met — a fact that should come as no surprise given that, per capita, the south has received only a small fraction of the technical assistance the international community has provided in places like Mozambique and Timor Leste.
Next week’s summit on the Millennium Development Goals as well as a meeting on Sudan convened by the UN secretary general offer an opportunity for the peace agreement’s international witnesses and key donors to reengage meaningfully at this critical moment. They should seize it, specifically through taking urgent steps to safeguard the rights of the people of south Sudan and the three transitional areas to decide freely their own future, to continue the process of democratization throughout Sudan after the CPA expires, and to provide the necessary financial and technical assistance. Anything less would be short-sighted and will compound the dangers of a return to conflict.
Retired Lieutenant General Lazaro Sumbeiywo was chief mediator in the Sudan peace talks. Former US senator John Danforth was US special envoy to Sudan. He is on the board of Refugees International.
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