Sudan's referendum is over, but the country still needs attention
Guest blogger Laura Heaton outlines the issues still facing Sudan after the south's independence referendum and urges the media and international community to not lose interest.
There was always going to be a dramatic drop-off in media coverage and international attention after the Sudan referendum ended. The official creation of the world’s newest country – with the long lines of exuberant voters, inked fingers, set against a contrast of decades of civil war – will be one of the stories of the year, and people far and wide wanted to be part of history in the making.
But if pulling off a smooth, peaceful vote seemed like the hard part, preparing the two would-be states for formal separation in July and adjusting to the new reality of cooperating peacefully as neighbors will require further high-level engagement from key international partners, namely the United States. To help generate that political will, journalists, researchers, academics, and activists will also need to stay involved.
One such event took place yesterday, co-hosted by the Human Rights Foundation, Poland’s Lech Walesea Institute, and NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. The discussion “Eye on Sudan: Challenges After Referendum” drew an engaged audience of students, academics, and grassroots organizations from the NYC area.
The panel included Jimmy Mulla, president of Voices For Sudan, Maciej Kuziemski of Lech Walesea, and was moderated by David Philips of the Darfur Initiative at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. I was invited to present on behalf of Enough and to focus specifically on how the secession vote and separation of the South will affect human rights issues in Sudan. Here are some of the points I made about issues to watch:
- The impression we may have that the conflict in Darfur is over is simply not true. A field visit to the border area in southern Sudan, to an IDP camp for newly displaced Darfuris underscored in my mind that the horrors reminiscent of the early days of the conflict – aerial bombardments, followed by ground attacks by Janjaweed, torching of homes – still continue in some parts of Darfur.
- Reporting on fighting and humanitarian conditions is very difficult because the government controls access to the region, and the outside groups that are there fear being expelled or jeopardized if they speak out.
- Over past two months especially, the conflict is heating up, with renewed aerial bombardments by the Sudanese army and clashes between the army/government-aligned militias and Darfur rebel groups.
- It is clear that the government is still pursuing a strategy to crush Darfuri rebel movement militarily, despite its proposal for a negotiated approach to ending the conflict.
- Shameless plug for Sudan Now’s new report: A Roadmap for Peace in Darfur. In particular, look at the section about the downfalls of the government’s proposed “domestication” of the Darfur peace process.
- Darfur is just one area of the North that will require concerted attention to avoid falling off the map; the dynamics in the new northern Sudan state will change significantly.
- Alarming rhetoric about the need to implement Sharia law more strictly and withhold rights for southerners who remain in the North, crackdown on protesters, arrest and intimidation of journalists and human rights activists show that political space is shrinking further; Sudan’s northern leaders feel threatened.
- With the breakaway of southern Sudan, things just got even more difficult for northern opposition groups, who previously were able to align with the SPLM because they had in common the experience of being marginalized and neglected by the central government.
- Outstanding elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, like popular consultations in the marginalized Three Areas of the North, at-risk of being derailed or at least not fully implemented in post-CPA Sudan.
- UN and US government sources especially concerned about threat of violence in South spurred by renegade generals; revised mortality figures from the most recent clashes between by former SPLA commander George Athor and the southern army indicated more than 200 people died – far more deaths than we’ve seen in any single incident in a long time.
- Southern government quick to link southern militias with the elements in the northern ruling party; “smoking gun” to back up the theory will likely be hard to pinpoint (though there has been some talk of Athor’s men wearing new uniforms and carrying new weapons, which can come from few sources).
- Important to note long history of the northern government deploying proxies and/or fomenting local tensions to meet its aims.
To end remarks on a more positive note…
Women’s empowerment in South and North
- Moment of transition presents unique opportunity for women to claim greater influence in governance and push for gender-sensitive policies.
- Constitutional review process in North and South, government working groups are laying the framework for new states; women’s groups are mobilizing to increase representation of women and press for specific policies and objectives.
- Steep road ahead because progress will require shifting cultural norms and confronting some significant development challenges, but women’s groups are organizing to take advantage of this occasion.
The event organizers mentioned that a podcast of the full event will be available soon.