As Sudan Referendum Nears, Northerners Brace for Backlash

Juba, January 8, 2011 -- A giddy optimism prevails in Juba, in Southern Sudan. Almost everyone in this dusty boomtown -- from teachers and students, to politicians and bodaboda taxi drivers -- says they will choose separation from the North in the January 9 referendum for southern independence.

If they do, the ten southern states of Sudan will become Africa's newest nation, with enormous state-building challenges ahead. They will have to build the rule of law from scratch here and end entrenched patterns of communal violence and human rights abuses, especially by southern security forces.

Meanwhile, in Sudan's northern states, which will also emerge as a new country, the mood is grim. In recent weeks, the Khartoum government has stepped up its hostile rhetoric and cracked down on northern human rights activists, journalists, critics, and opponents of the ruling party. In Darfur, where rebels and government forces continue to clash and peace remains distant, the Khartoum government has resumed attacks on civilians.

World leaders have understandably pressed Sudan, Africa's largest country, to conduct the referendum peacefully, and on time. The vote is a milestone in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan's brutal 22-year civil war, and its peaceful conduct is key to regional stability.

Implementation of the agreement has been halting and incomplete, but the parties have not resorted to violence against each other. The main flashpoints for renewed conflict -- disputed and militarized parts of the North-South border -- have not escalated despite provocations on both sides. Voter registration for the referendum, which I observed in several southern towns in November and early December, was relatively calm and for the most part free of the political intimidation, arrests, violence and fraud that tainted national elections in April.

The northern ruling National Congress Party seems to have come to terms with its likely loss of the South, which contains about a quarter of the country's population, a third of the land, and 70 percent of the oil reserves. Last week, President Omar al-Bashir promised to respect the outcome and support Southern Sudan should it secede. Such positive, peaceful messages are exactly what the world wants from al-Bashir at this critically important moment for North and South.

To be sure, plenty could still go wrong during and after the vote -- especially if the ruling party contests the results or if the parties fail to agree to a solution on Abyei, the disputed oil-producing area straddling the North-South border. Northern and southern armies and allied militias clashed there in May 2008 and threaten to clash again. Abyei was to have its own separate referendum starting on January 9 as well. But with no agreement about voter eligibility or land rights there, the political parties have put it on hold, indefinitely. All eyes should remain on this possible trouble spot.

All eyes should also stay on Sudan's human rights record. For all their progress on the referendum, Sudan's leaders have ignored the other aspects of the 2005 peace agreement, such as reforming the brutally repressive national security service and criminal laws that violate Sudan's constitution, or ensuring accountability for human rights violations across Sudan. The fact is, al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for serious crimes committed in Darfur, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, while his government continues to engage in abusive, repressive tactics.

Just before Christmas, al-Bashir disparaged the idea of a society with ethnic and religious diversity and declared that if the South secedes, Sudan will impose strict Islamic sharia laws and make Arabic the only official language. Last month, in response to a broad public outcry, he defended public floggings for "indecent and immoral acts" -- women wearing trousers, for instance -- while police violently suppressed women who gathered to denounce the practice. High-level ruling party officials have threatened to strip the 1.5 million southerners in northern states of their rights in the event of southern independence.

Based on these threats and incidents, and past government practice, northern civil society members are bracing for more repression. In recent weeks, the government's security forces arbitrarily arrested a group of Darfur activists and journalists, who remain in detention without charges. The authorities have targeted other prominent members of civil society, including by jailing the executive director of a prominent Sudanese human rights group on baseless charges, and used violence to suppress peaceful gatherings by opposition party members.

In Darfur, meanwhile, for the eighth year in a row, Sudan is carrying out aerial bombing and attacks on civilians. Peace talks have sputtered to a halt, and the resurgence of clashes has brought renewed targeting of civilians on the basis of their ethnicity.

Little detailed information is available about the conditions on the ground. After the March 2009 announcement by the International Criminal Court of charges against President al-Bashir, he expelled international organizations and shuttered Sudanese human rights groups. The result is an information vacuum, which the Sudanese government has maintained by repressing activists and journalists working on Darfur and restricting the access of the UN and other international organizations to conflict-affected areas.

International actors engaged on Sudan -- foremost among them the United States and African Union -- consider Sudan's human rights record and justice for crimes in Darfur a "second-tier" issue, subordinate to the "first-tier" issues that they felt Sudanese leaders needed to resolve to carry out a peaceful, credible referendum. Their focus on averting renewed conflict is both necessary and laudable. Sudan's 22-year civil war killed more than 2 million people.

But focusing on the agreement's end goal -- a peaceful referendum -- rather than the real reforms the peace agreement called for is short-sighted. Sudan's leaders and international supporters of the referendum process have collectively failed to address the very sorts of human rights violations that gave rise to Sudan's civil war in the first place -- indiscriminate attacks on civilians, denial of basic rights, and political repression.

As experience demonstrates, accountability is a critical component of lasting peace and stability. Justice and human rights issues need to be addressed at the same time as peace processes, not at some future indeterminate date. Sudanese people have seen how impunity fuels abuse: lack of accountability for attacks on civilians by militia during the long civil war probably factored into Khartoum's decision to use the same strategy again in Darfur.

The African Union's High Level Panel on Darfur, in its October 2009 report, recognized this crucial nexus, which others continue to ignore. Sadly, the Sudanese government has made no meaningful progress in the implementation of the panel's recommendations for more than one year, and international actors have not sufficiently pressed Sudan to act on the report's findings.

With the North-South referendum now clearly in sight, it is high time for world leaders to press Khartoum to secure a sustainable, enduring peace. It can do so by ending its long history of abuses, respecting the will of the voters, and fulfilling basic commitments to dignity and justice. Sudan's long-term stability, in the North and South, as well as in Darfur and the troubled East, will depend on guaranteeing these fundamental rights.

Jehanne Henry is a senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and in Southern Sudan to observe the referendum.