By Emily Brown Staff Editor December 13, 2010

The upcoming referendum to determine South Sudan’s independence requires U.S. pressure and influence to support a fair and peaceful vote and transition. As the largest African country with many ongoing conflicts, a calm referendum is essential to stability in the region. Southern Sudanese are expected to vote overwhelmingly for secession from Sudan on January 9, 2011. In a separate vote, the oil-rich Abyei region located at the north-south border will choose to either join the south or remain with the north in the event of a southern secession.

A long history of tension and violence in Sudan stems from its ethnically diverse population, religious discord, and years of inequity between the more developed north and the less developed, but oil-rich, south. In 2005, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and southern rebels signed the United Nations-backed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, which killed an estimated 2.2 million people. For the most part, the agreement has stopped violence in the south. However, before the CPA was signed, a new conflict had already surfaced in the western province of Darfur in early 2003. As a result of the conflict, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir in March 2009 charging that he committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Part of the CPA established a deadline for a referendum on South Sudan’s self-determination. Both the north and south have said they want to avoid another costly war. Leaders from both sides, including Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader and president of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit , acknowledged that they need each other — the south has most of the country’s oil and the north has most of its infrastructure. Still, the north is against secession of the south. If the referendum is passed, it is widely thought the potential for violence and instability is high.

In response to this threat of violence, the United Nations (UN) is negotiating a 2,000 troop increase in its peacekeeping force with Sudan. However, no formal proposal has been made to the UN Security Council. The Khartoum government opposes allowing more international troops in the country.

Logistical preparations for the plebiscite are encountering repeated setbacks as well. No accord on voting conditions in Abyei has been reached between local leaders and Khartoum, and the government is still soliciting bids for printing ballots.

Additionally, the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission extended voter registration by one week, to December 8, to respond to complaints filed by the NCP. The party charged that southern Muslims had been prevented from registering, and that registration centers in the north were located far from where southern communities lived. SPLM leadership contended that voter registration was low in North Sudan due to intimidation by NCP members. The NCP warned that it may not recognize referendum results if there are irregularities in the registration process.

The non-governmental Carter Center’s team of monitors says that the NCP and SPLM “are creating a climate of fear and distrust” by trading accusations over the registration process and other logistical matters.

With a month to go before the plebiscite, leadership from the north and south remain undecided on a number of issues including border demarcation, sharing external debt, and post-referendum preparations relating to security, liabilities and assets, oil revenue sharing, and citizenship. However, Sudan’s history of eleventh-hour deal-making suggests there may be potential to negotiate an adequate settlement.

On November 16, the UN Security Council called on parties to the CPA to take “urgent action” to ensure the holding of a peaceful and credible referendum on January 9. The five-member body also stressed the need to make “rapid progress” on a way forward for Abyei’s vote.

The United States extended sanctions against Sudan on November 1 that involve restrictions on trade and investment and the freezing of assets of certain Sudanese government officials. The move is widely considered a form of pressure against Khartoum ahead of the referendum. Washington’s promise to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Sudan is contingent on a peaceful referendum and acceptance of the results. The United States will also move to take the country off the list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July 2011, but this is also contingent on improving the situation in Darfur. Already these incentives have instigated actions toward resolving issues and preparing for a timely vote.

Other international actors are exerting strong pressure on Sudan to meet the obligations of the CPA, mainly the referendum. Participants at a joint European Union-African Union summit adopted a resolution urging all parties in the country to accept the results of the referendum. Moscow and Beijing have both publicly stated their support for the peace process, including southern Sudan’s right to self-determination. A joint statement by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway on the referendum urged both Sudanese parties to “make clear that the rights and safety of southerners living in the north and northerners living in the south are fully protected throughout the referendum process and beyond.” These actions and others make clear international interest in fulfillment of the CPA and prevention of further violence in the wake of the votes.

Washington should continue to encourage the international community, especially African nations and Khartoum, to respect the outcome of the vote. After all, the stakes are high: should the referendum occur on schedule, it will be a fulfillment of the last key pillar in the implementation of the CPA, and a milestone in the positive transformation of Sudan.

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