THE air was filled with anxiety when the two Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) leaders, Riek Machar and John Garang, met in Washington recently for the first time since the movement split in 1991. More than 500,000 southern Sudanese have died in the past two years, largely as a result of SPLM factional fighting and related famine and disease.
I invited representatives of the warring parties to Washington, hoping to alleviate the desperate humanitarian crisis in Sudan. Three-way fighting has taken place between the Islamic-oriented regime in Khartoum and the two SPLM factions in the south. The Khartoum government declined the invitation. Since only the two SPLM leaders accepted, I decided to tackle this part of the conflict.
The two leaders came to Washington in good faith to start a process of reconciliation regarding the southern conflict. Despite a brutal government offensive against his forces, Dr. Garang made his way here; Dr. Machar patiently waited for his onetime friend. The warmth and civil behavior of Garang and Machar toward each other stunned everyone. After several hours of fruitful discussion over a pizza, the two leaders agreed on a sweeping range of issues.
For the first time, they agreed on the principle of self-determination for the people of southern Sudan, Nuba, and other areas, and to a cessation of hostilities. The two leaders sent a cease-fire order to their commanders and agreed to a follow-up meeting in Nairobi.
This breakthrough was barely noticed by the media. An entire generation of southern Sudanese has been dying in intense, brutal fighting. It is fair to say that the children of southern Sudan are an endangered species. Some 1.5 million southern Sudanese have died in the past decade as a result of war, famine, and disease; two million have been displaced. Many languish in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya.
The new intra-SPLM cease-fire will reduce battle deaths and allow relief organizations to reach those in need.
Despite last week's progress, north-south fighting continues. The National Islamic Front (NIF) government in Khartoum is an obstacle to peace. At the core of the conflict is the NIF's refusal to share power and its insistence on politicizing Islamic beliefs. The government of Sudan continues its indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians in southern Sudan and its repression of opposition forces in the North. Not only did the government not attend the recent meeting, but it mounted a new military offensive just as the meeting began. The Sudanese government, especially given the new strategic landscape following the intra-SPLM cease-fire, must change course. I implore the government of Sudan to moderate its policies and join a move for peace and democracy in Sudan.
The United States has played a limited role in Sudan. But Washington can and should take a higher diplomatic profile by appointing a special envoy for peace and reconciliation - someone familiar with Sudan and respected by all the warring parties. The envoy would bring into focus the commitment and influence of the US government to stop the killing.
Washington can increase diplomatic pressure on East African leaders. Negotiations on the southern conflict are coming under the guidance of President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya. Regional leaders should focus on monitoring the cease-fire arranged in Washington and on rushing relief into southern Sudan. Regional presidents can pressure Khartoum to participate in negotiations.
Sudan is the worst unattended humanitarian disaster in the post-cold-war world. The US must become more engaged there.