Days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Sudan "a ticking time bomb", world leaders gathered at a UN summit to discuss the country’s critical Jan. 9, 2011 referendum.
World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, gathered at the United Nations in New York on Friday to add their weight behind two critical referendums in Sudan amid growing fears that Africa’s largest country could sidestep a difficult route to peace in favour of a return to civil war.
Under the terms of a 2005 peace accord designed to bring an end to decades of conflict between the north and south, Sudan is slated to hold two referendums, the first of which is scheduled for Jan. 9, 2011.
The first referendum will decide whether or not the south will secede from the north. If the first is approved, the second vote will grant residents of the oil-rich border region of Abyei the choice of joining a newly independent south or remaining with the north.
Fears that the oil-rich southern portion of Sudan could seek to break unilaterally from the north in an upcoming vote, sparking more conflict in the war-torn nation, have been raised repeatedly at the United Nations this week.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who chaired Friday’s talks, said "the stakes are high for Sudan, for Africa and for the international community."
"We expect the referenda to be peaceful, with an environment free of intimidation and infringement of rights. We expect both parties to accept the results and to plan for the consequences," he added at the start of the meeting.
"Khartoum's government will accept the result of a self-determination vote in southern Sudan but wants international sanctions eased," Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha said at the conference on Friday.
Encouraging the north and south to ‘work constructively'
Besides Obama and Ban, the presidents of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda were among the African officials who attended the special session, along with ministers of Brazil, Great Britain, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India and Norway, among others.
In a passionate interventionn Obama said that the people of the country "need peace."
"At this moment, the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether people who have endured too much war, move towards peace or slip backwards to bloodshed," Obama said.
"What happens in Sudan matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa and it matters to the world."
Friday’s summit, according to US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, "is to encourage the north and south to work constructively together. They have had interactions but it needs to be more sustained."
His boss, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been more blunt about the possible tinderbox confronting the international community in eastern Africa.
In an address to the Council of Foreign Relations earlier this month, Clinton called the situation in Sudan a "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence", before adding, “The south is not quite capable of summoning the resources to do [the referendum], and the north has been preoccupied and is not inclined to do it, because it's pretty clear what the outcome will be."
Most analysts believe the Jan. 9 vote will split the nation in two. What is not clear is how Khartoum will respond to the vote and how, in turn, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main opposition group in the south, will react to Khartoum’s response.
Diplomats suspect Khartoum of dragging its feet on the Jan. 9 vote, an issue Obama is set to address at Friday’s summit.
Vote preparations delayed
Certain provisions of the 2005 peace agreement have already been implemented, as stated by the UN on its website. Southern Sudan now has a constitution and a government, although its resources are limited.
But preparations for the vote have been delayed. Voter registration has not started and may now not be ready on time for a January vote, according to diplomatic sources.
Other larger issues remain such as the demarcation of a north-south border and the sharing of oil revenues. There are also fears of a military build-up on both sides of the border, which UN peacekeepers have not been able monitor since access to the border is still a hurdle in some parts.
There are additional worries that the two sides could slide back into war, as they did for two decades before the 2005 peace accord. Nearly two million people were killed in the bloody civil war.
Identity and humanitarian issues at stake
There have also been concerns about identity and humanitarian issues.
Since the end of the war, tensions have remained high between the predominantly Arab and Muslim north, and mostly Christian or animist south.
According to a June report by the NGO Refugees International, southerners living in the north, or vice versa, "may be plagued by violence and loss of nationality, which would make them stateless."
Date created : 2010-09-24