23 August 2010

Sudan: U.S. Indecisive As Tension Builds Up Over Vote

Photo: Peterson Githaiga/Nation
Members of the United Southern Sudan Youth for Referendum during a peaceful demonstration at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park early this month.

New York — With less than four months until South Sudan's scheduled referendum on secession, the Obama administration as well as advocacy groups in Washington appear uncertain as to what course of action the United States should take.

The president's top advisors on Sudan are reported to be divided on US policy in the run-up to the vote that is supposed to take place on January 9.

Citing multiple but anonymous sources, a blogger on the Foreign Policy magazine website recently recounted a dispute over Sudan between Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Major General Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy for Sudan.

Ms Rice was said to be "furious" over Mr Gration's proposal at a White House meeting to make the referendum, rather than the Darfur conflict, the Obama administration's top Sudan priority.

Mr Gration was also reported not to favour additional US pressures on the Khartoum government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Mr Gration's plan, as did most of the meeting's participants, blogger Josh Rogin wrote.

Some Sudan-focused US activist organisations are also displeased with Mr Gration's approach.

The Enough Project, which campaigns against mass killings in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, complained last week that Mr Gration and Ms Clinton "are now pushing a Sudan policy in which much-needed additional pressures are markedly absent."

Enough and other groups argue that issues that could reignite armed conflict will remain unresolved prior to the referendum unless the US takes a harder line toward Khartoum.

These advocates emphasise that Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes and say he should be treated as an international pariah.

The Obama administration's approach has been too passive, Enough contends.

President Bush's envoys were instrumental in bringing about an agreement in 2005 that put an end to the 20-year war between Khartoum and South Sudan that had taken an estimated two million lives.

It is that agreement, which contains a provision for the secession referendum, that has formed the framework for the Obama administration's own approach to Sudan.

When campaigning for the presidency, Mr Obama said he would push Khartoum to end the war in Darfur and to adhere to the North-South treaty.

But many advocacy groups in Washington say the president's deeds have fallen far short of his words on Sudan

Enough gave an account of a recent event at which Mr Gration expressed satisfaction with moves by the ruling parties in Khartoum and South Sudan to negotiate on North-South issues, with the United Nations and African Union, rather than the United States, taking the lead role as mediators.

With the AU and UN having assumed leadership on the negotiations that will presumably follow the referendum, the US will be able to concentrate on providing food and similar types of support, Mr Gration said, according to the Enough account.

Such a focus by Washington would help "keep the place together," Mr Gration reportedly suggested in regard to South Sudan in the aftermath of the referendum.

"General Gration and other US officials are increasingly voicing a mantra that the United States has no influence in Sudan," Enough added.

The role of the UN Security Council in regard to the South Sudan referendum also remains unclear.

Under the current leadership of Russia, the council has scheduled no discussions on Sudan during the month of August.

The council did issue a statement in June urging parties in Sudan to implement the peace agreement between them that calls for a secession referendum to be held in 2011.

The vote should take place as scheduled in January, the council said.

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