International Order & Conflict

Will The World’s High Risk Investment In Sudan Protect Civilians?

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From January 9-11, southern Sudan will vote whether to secede and become Africa’s newest country. The international community has made extraordinary investments to prevent a reigniting of civil war between the north and south, but the question remains whether that investment can prevent additional violence against civilians.

 This is the first of two Stimson spotlights on the challenges to and opportunities for the United States and the international community to protect civilians from atrocities in Sudan. This piece outlines various flashpoints that could spur widespread or systematic violence against civilians. The second will examine new and necessary approaches to intervention.


By Alison Giffen – Much of the world will watch Sudan closely over the coming weeks to see whether northern Sudan peacefully accepts the outcome of southern Sudan’s likely vote for independence. For the international community, a win will not, and should not, be determined by the prevention of war between the governments of northern and southern Sudan. A peaceful separation is just one benchmark of success. As evidenced by failures in Darfur, Rwanda and Congo, the international community’s engagement should – and will – be judged by efforts to successfully prevent and respond to violence against civilians throughout Sudan over the coming years of transition.

The international community has invested extraordinary diplomatic resources to prevent the reigniting of Sudan’s north-south civil war, one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted at a November ministerial meeting on Sudan,

We have spent more than $200 million to help mitigate conflict … and [sent] a whole raft of people to try to increase our presence in Southern Sudan as well as to work with both the government in Khartoum and the SPLM in Juba.

The European Union, the African Union and many other stakeholder nations have also invested millions in humanitarian and development aid and, like the United States, augmented diplomatic efforts in recent months to prevent the unraveling of the north-south peace agreement. The United Nations, its member states and agencies, are also deeply engaged through various interventions including the United Nations Mission in Sudan, a large peacekeeping operation deployed in 2005 and designed to primarily monitor and help implement the north-south peace agreement.

But the array of existing and potential threats to much of the civilian population in Sudan will seriously test this investment. For decades, the international community’s approach to Sudan has failed to effectively protect its civilians, at great human, financial and political cost. In part, this resulted from focused interventions that, metaphorically, doused one fire while another sparked. To do better at protecting Sudan’s people from new conflagrations, the international community must understand, monitor and be prepared to address, at a minimum, three potential flashpoints that could spark conflict in the coming months and years.

Linchpin issues: The signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army, now Movement, (SPLM) suspended, but did not end the war. Unable to come to agreement on some of the stickiest issues, the CPA signatories pushed final negotiations on the north-south border demarcation, borders of the Abyei region, and the post-referendum question of citizenship and sharing of oil revenue into a five-year interim period between 2005 and 2011. These issues have been the focus of extraordinary diplomatic attention over the past 6-12 months. Now, just days before the start of voting, few of these issues have been resolved to the satisfaction of either party, let alone other stakeholder communities on the ground.

Unrealized reforms: Linchpin issues have monopolized the diplomatic and media spotlight of late, but other unrealized CPA provisions could also ignite instability. The CPA gave the warring parties two options: make unity attractive during the five year interim period, or offer southerners (and the contested Abyei border region) the option to secede in 2011. CPA peace dividends included improved, decentralized and more representative governance; infrastructure and services; and equitable access to resources across northern and southern Sudan. After five years, neither the northern nor southern governments, nor the international stakeholders that brokered the peace, have been able or willing to realize the promised development and decentralization dividends that could make peace – not just northern-southern unity – attractive.

Without these dividends, the NCP is vulnerable to political and armed challenges even though it has systematically and skillfully dismantled opposition political parties, the independent press and civil society organizations. But elements within the NCP that object to the CPA and the division of Sudan, or who are simply jockeying for power, can easily galvanize or purchase support from a disgruntled and dissatisfied populace that has few other options for change.  

Fissures within southern Sudan will also be stressed after independence, as the south loses the common enemy of the north. The SPLM and its army have a bloody history of conflict with splinter movements and sizeable militias that serve at the pleasure of the highest bidder. These armed actors have never been fully disarmed, demobilized or integrated into the southern army, and are ready to revert to armed opposition, as demonstrated by the violence that followed disputed results of the 2009 Government of Southern Sudan elections. With a five-year reputation for corruption, nepotism, tribalism and failure as a governing party, the SPLM leaders dominating the nascent Government of Southern Sudan will likely face many challenges from within and outside its political and military ranks as it seeks to transition to a fully autonomous and representative government.   

Unresolved conflicts: The international community has yet to successfully mediate conflicts in Sudan’s other marginalized regions. A rebellion in East Sudan raged from the 1990’s through October 2006, when the East Sudan peace agreement was finally negotiated by Eritrea. With few international stakeholders, it has yet to be fully implemented. But East Sudan is vulnerable to famine and flood that, combined with armed conflict, could culminate in a costly crisis. To the west, violence against civilians in Darfur persists, and the conflict continues to outpace international efforts to construct a durable peace.  

Moreover, Sudan’s conflicts have not been contained by its borders. Sudan is currently Africa’s largest country and is bordered by nine others, many grappling with instability and conflict. Each neighbor has a history of entanglement in Sudan’s conflicts, actively or passively giving quarter to Sudan’s millions of refugees, various armed actors, and their supply lines. For example, Darfur’s conflict has largely been sustained through proxy warfare between Sudan and Chad.

Each of the above flashpoints could trigger serious violence against civilians in Sudan. The challenge for international stakeholders over the coming months and years will be to sustain, allocate and apply diplomacy and assistance to both ensure peace between northern and southern Sudan and to effectively prevent and respond to a range of potential crises that could cost millions of more civilian lives.



Photo Credit: A young boy on the air-strip near Thiekthou, Sudan in August 1998. (UN photo # 31449 by Eskinder Debebe)⟨=en&id=314/31449&key=70&query=sudan&sf



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