For more than 20 years, it's been one of the world's forgotten wars. Some 2 million people have died, yet it's received relatively scant global attention. But as the United Nations Security Council opens a historic meeting in Kenya tomorrow, the war between the north and south in Sudan - and efforts to halt it for good - takes center stage.
The main reason: Diplomats and experts see that stopping this conflict would not only end Africa's oldest civil war, but provide a template for dealing with Sudan's other main conflict, the one in its western Darfur region, where the US says genocide has occurred.
A north-south peace deal could even help salve an 18-year rebellion in neighboring Uganda, home to 1.6 million displaced civilians. In all more than 5 million displaced people could benefit if the UN, the US, and African nations can force peace.
But it's a mammoth task: For at least six months, the parties have been tantalizingly close, but unable - perhaps unwilling - to cinch a final deal. "Finally signing that agreement would represent a sense of momentum" that could benefit other conflicts, says Allan Rock, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. And, he says, "It would show that the government of Sudan was actually doing something - and not just talking."
Fresh pressure to finalize the north-south deal comes as the international community is at loggerheads about how to proceed on Darfur, a region the size of Texas where some 70,000 civilians have been killed and 1.8 million people - out of a total of 3.5 million - have been displaced.
As the Security Council meets in Kenya's capital, Nairobi - only the fourth time the council has convened outside New York - tensions are showing over details of a resolution to be adopted this week. Nations like China, Russia, Pakistan, and Algeria apparently want to minimize references to violence in Darfur, while the US and Britain want to maximize them. Previous Security Council resolutions have threatened Sudan's government with sanctions if it doesn't make progress in halting violence in Darfur, but China says it will veto any implementation of those measures.
So, with the "stick" of UN sanctions still sheathed, the council - led by the US - is instead encouraging the European Union, the World Bank, and others to create a "carrot" big enough to lure Sudan's government across the finish line of a north-south deal. The promised package of debt relief and development aid could reach $100 million.
In theory, a final deal would do three key things to help Darfur.
• It would bring into Sudan's northern government the longtime southern rebel leader, John Garang. Because of his reported ties to rebels in Darfur, he might push for a more restrained response there. A rebellion against Khartoum began in Darfur in 2003, with the government allegedly retaliated by inciting Arab janjaweed militias to rape and kill Darfur civilians.
• A deal would also create a model for power- and wealth-sharing that could be replicated in Darfur.
• And it would set the stage for a UN peacekeeping force in southern Sudan, which might eventually have a presence in Darfur.
Given the diplomatic deadlock, a deal between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south "is about the only way forward," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "All other roads are more or less blocked."
But even this road is seriously potholed. Substantive issues are still to be hammered out, including who's to pay for joint north-south military units that would be deployed in the south. And it could be hard to persuade a tightknit Muslim regime in Khartoum to share wealth and power. Tribes outside the elite have been marginalized, politically and economically. Mr. Cornwell estimates if free elections were held, the current regime would get just 10 to 15 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, the need for help in Darfur is growing. "Security has been moving in a bad way for the last two months," says Nathalie Civet of the Belgian arm of Doctors Without Borders, an international relief organization, in the Darfur town of Al Fasher. Aid groups are increasingly harassed or robbed by government and rebel forces.
Indeed, many aid organizations are urging the UN to escalate its pressure to include travel bans on government figures, asset seizures, and more. Yesterday, Amnesty International urged the UN to impose an arms embargo on all parties in the Darfur conflict. Without tougher measures, a deal may never be struck. "As long as the international community uses only incentives - and no real pressures - we will remain in an indefinite process of negotiation," says John Prendergast of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, there's hope a deal would boost momentum toward peace. Already this week, President Yoweri Museveni declared a seven-day cease-fire with rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. The group leads an 18-year insurgency that has created what the UN calls one of the world's most underreported crises. "Where else in the world have there been 20,000 kidnapped children?" asked top UN official Jan Egeland recently, referring to the LRA's practice of nabbing young Ugandans and forcing them to become soldiers.
The LRA has long been aided by Sudan's government - in retaliation for Uganda's support of Garang's rebels. Joseph Kony, the LRA's spiritualist leader, has a hideout in southern Sudan. If a peace deal is signed, the LRA could see Sudan's support dry up.
But even if a deal is struck, ensuring that both parties make good on their word will be an ongoing struggle. "Signing a deal," says Mr. Prendergast, "will only be the beginning of the hard work, not the end."
• Duncan Woodside contributed from Al Fasher, Sudan.