Next month, South Sudan will celebrate its first birthday. While this should be cause for elation, we must pause to recognize that the world’s youngest nation may perhaps also be the most vulnerable.
The peaceful secession of South Sudan last July was a remarkable outcome after decades of conflict and dispute. The agreement to a referendum, execution of that vote and implementation of the result could yet become an example of real democratic progress. But the conflict between North and South has not come to an end. Since the referendum, the two states have been locked in disputes concerning borders, territory and oil revenues.
At the centre of these issues is ownership of the Abyei region, which was one of the most contentious points in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) negotiations. Abyei is an oil-rich region that falls along the border between the North and the South. Although it was a stronghold for rebel forces during the civil war, Sudan refused to define Abyei as part of the South during peace talks.
In order to secure an agreement, Abyei was awarded “special administrative status,” and the issue was left unresolved. Since then, a referendum has been postponed indefinitely, opening the door to competing claims and military actions.
Sudanese forces took control of the area in 2011, displacing and endangering tens of thousands of people. Numerous military clashes have occurred along the border since, including South Sudan’s invasion of Heglig in April, which escalated tensions to the brink of war.
It was only after the United Nations threatened to impose sanctions that Sudan and South Sudan entered into negotiations in Addis Ababa, their first direct high-level talks since the referendum.
The negotiations, which are being mediated by the African Union, will aim to draw up a safe demilitarized zone along the border. This should be seen as a prerequisite for progress in other areas – as Abyei is the first of many obstacles to sustainable peace in the region. These disputes are causing hardship on a terrible scale.
In April, the UK’s own Department for International Development reported that a humanitarian crisis loomed in South Sudan, as refugee influxes and heavy rains have created severe food shortages around the disputed border region. Last week, the Associate Parliamentary Group on Sudan heard from Government Minister Stephen O’Brien MP following his recent visit. It was not a positive report. Tensions remain, people are suffering and the international agencies seem slow to act.
Among alarming recent developments, human rights groups have been warning that the forced relocation of South Sudanese by Sudan is resulting in overflowing refugee camps. Meanwhile, reports suggest that fighting between Khartoum and rebel forces in the Nuba Mountains has created a separate humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in conflict zones, with no access to food.
All our international experience tells us that the combination of ongoing territorial dispute and a growing humanitarian crisis leads straight back to violent conflict. I am fully aware that global diplomacy and international political debates are currently focused on Syria and the Eurozone, but it would be tragic if this great step forward in Sudan and South Sudan in 2011 was to be followed by failure in 2012.
International pressure is often the key to brokering negotiations between parties with deep-seated animosities, and the lead is rightly with the AU. But the United Kingdom can and should use its position of leadership on development to support these efforts and push hard for solutions, including a referendum in Abyei, and a commitment by both sides to respect the outcome.
In the context of the looming humanitarian crises, it is even more imperative that the UK and others sustain their financial commitment to international development, which is essential for both state-building and emergency response.
The long-term effects of civil war are not easily forgotten or remedied. From 1983 to 2005, an estimated two million people died in Sudan’s internal conflict. From these ashes, a new state has arisen – one that requires sustained commitment and support. As leaders in the global community, it is our responsibility to ensure that the progress made towards peace is not undone. The human cost is simply too great.