In just a few days, as many as three million people will participate in a referendum that will almost certainly endorse secession and independence for southern Sudan. Sudan’s Catholic bishops have urged practical and prayerful support for a peaceful vote and transition to independence if that is the choice of the Sudanese. They have also called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities in Sudan and the governments in Khartoum in the north and Juba in the south to show restraint and “neighborliness,” whatever the outcome on Jan. 9.
These hopeful exhortations are unfortunately matched by preparations for war in the new year in a land that has known little else since independence. Thousands of soldiers from the north are already massing along the border. One minor revelation out of the WikiLeaks cable dump has been evidence that the administration of George W. Bush clearly knew of large arms transfers, including Soviet-era tanks, to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the south, the region’s de facto government since the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2005. For its part, Khartoum has made frequent arms purchases from China, Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union in apparent violation of a 2005 arms embargo.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the likelihood of a peaceful transition in Sudan. A referendum in Abyei, a disputed border province and the center of Sudan’s oil production, has been indefinitely postponed; and now the province, where both sides have deep ethnic connections, threatens to become the Kashmir of the Sudan. Final borders, citizenship and the division of oil revenues remain undetermined, and Khartoum has been persistently noncompliant in the face of growing international pressure to prepare for the vote. There is no reason to trust that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, with two international war crimes indictments hanging over his head, is honestly committed to a successful vote and peaceful transition. Behind him lurk other figures in the northern military even more hostile to southern independence. Thousands of southern Sudanese living in the north are heading south to escape an anticipated orgy of retaliatory violence, should secession succeed at the ballot box.
Sudan is derived from al-Sudd, the Arabic term for the vast swamplands in the south. Certainly, Al-Sudd has proved to be a swamp for diplomatic initiatives over the last five years. Could it be that the international community, like many of Sudan’s residents, has become resigned to the return of conflict to a nation that has already endured two million deaths in decades of fighting? “Sudan fatigue,” one international analyst said, may be understandable given the country’s deep complex of ethnic, religious, political and economic tensions.
Even in this 11th hour, however, there is still cause for hope. In recent months the Obama administration and U.N. diplomats have re-energized negotiations aimed at a successful referendum by offering to drop Sudan from the list of terrorist states if it accepts the outcome of the vote. The sudden rush of activity in the few short months left before the vote was certainly welcome, but it is fair to wonder why so little progress was made in the five years that have already passed since the signing of the peace accord. Perhaps the diplomatic fire brigade would not be required now to put out this regional fire if southern Sudan had been given this level of attention a year or, better, two years ago. At least now, said one Sudan analyst, “there are a lot of buckets, and they’re all heading in the same direction.”
The consequences of renewed violence and economic disruption will be grave for Sudan, but it is not the only nation with much at risk on Jan. 9. In September 2005, partly in response to the crisis in Sudan, U.N. member states accepted the principle of the responsibility to protect—an internationally shared responsibility to protect civilian populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when “national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.” The United States and the Obama administration have gone even further. The 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy commits the United States to “mobilize diplomatic, humanitarian, financial and—in certain instances—military means to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities.”
It appears, on paper at least, that the United States will not sit back and allow another Rwanda to unfold. But, stretched thin on two war fronts, the United States may not have the will or capacity to respond. If the worst unfolds after Jan. 9, no doubt many nations, from the members of the Security Council to the African Union, will be able to offer reasonable explanations for why they could not have done more. They ought, however, to find the means to exercise their acknowledged obligation to protect the innocent.