As the Arab Spring continues to dominate our media outlets, a crisis has unfolded in Sudan. Whilst events in the Middle East and North Africa warrant focus, we risk letting chaos in Sudan go by unnoticed and an opportunity for exerting our influence to pass us by.
Escalating violence in the disputed territory of Abyei and the state of South Kordofan has parallels with the crisis in Darfur in which 2.7 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed (according to the UN).
The international community was very slow to respond to the Darfur crisis. There is a danger that history will repeat itself.
In January I wrote of ‘cautious optimism‘ on the outcome of the vote for independence in the referendum on secession in South Sudan. I too warned that this vote marked an important milestone but that a Yes vote and independence would not inevitably be the panacea for Sudan’s woes.
Whilst real progress had been made, a number outstanding issues threatened to undermine progress and stability.
In May, when unidentified attackers fired on Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers, accompanied by a United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) convoy, Khartoum’s armed forces occupied the town of Abyei, a territory yet to be demarcated as either within the North or South; following separation. Violence ensued. Humanitarian agencies have reported over 110,000 displaced in the Abyei area and humanitarian access has been severely limited.
In South Kordofan (a former battle front during the decades of civil war in Sudan) earlier this month fighting erupted. 60,000 people are subsequently said to have been displaced. SAF has used aerial bombardment against the state capital, Kadugli. Much criticism has been levelled at the perceived failures of units of the UNMIS stationed in South Kordofan to protect civilians and guarantee humanitarian access.
The British government has been right in its condemnation of violence and calls for securing passage for humanitarian relief. The UK has encouraged the Sudan government to agree to a third party UN peacekeeping force in Abyei and has pursued diplomatic efforts in Khartoum, Juba and in Addis Ababa, where this week negotiations have been taking place between the government of Sudan and the government of South Sudan.
Whilst this is of course important, Britain has a responsibility, as a crucial player at the CPA negotiations, to ensure the political as well as diplomatic energy for measures to prevent further violence and the risk of a return to civil war in Sudan.
The government must exhaust all channels, using its unique position within the multilateral institutions of which it holds such influence, to secure robust and meaningful security arrangements in Abyei, South Kordofan and other trouble spots along the North/South border – the detail of which remains at the heart of the strife.
Second, the UK must work to secure the parameters for a UN presence beyond July 9th – the date set for independence of South Sudan – that will enable foundations for addressing the outstanding issues contained within the CPA.
International leadership and a renewed focus is what is needed now on Sudan. The UK must prove it has the commitment to engage in international institutions; through which we should to utilise our influence to prevent suffering for a people who have endured so much already.
Stephen Twigg is Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East