Sudan: Tribunal Cuts Size of Disputed Abyei Region

SPLA fighters in Juba after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
22 July 2009

An international tribunal has cut the size of the disputed Abyei region of Sudan, rejecting the formal claims of both north and south Sudan and slicing at least 18,000 square kilometres from the disputed territory.

A tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled Wednesday that a boundaries commission set up under the 2005 north-south peace accord had exceeded its mandate, and moved the region's northern border about 25 kilometres to the south. It also reduced the size of the region to the east and west.

The tribunal's cuts excluded from Abyei more than 45,000 square kilometres of land formally claimed at the tribunal by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which dominates southern Sudan. But the newly-drawn boundaries nevertheless render Abyei more than twice the size formally advocated by the northern government.

The area is rich in oil. The issue of oil rights was not addressed by the tribunal, but The Associated Press reported from The Hague that a spokesman for the Khartoum-based government in the north called its ruling a victory.

"We welcome the fact that the oil fields are now excluded from the Abyei area, particularly the Heglig oil field," AP quoted him as saying.

Abyei is in central Sudan, lying roughly between the north and the south. Its residents will have the right in 2011 to decide in a referendum whether they want to be part of northern or southern Sudan.

The Hague tribunal was at pains to emphasize that its decision did not affect the grazing rights of either the Ngok Dinka people who live in the heart of Abyei, popularly held to support the government of Southern Sudan, or the Misseriya people to the north.

It pointed out that a protocol on Abyei which formed part of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 guaranteed the traditional rights of the Misseriya and other nomads to graze cattle and move across the Abyei area.

The decision would therefore not have any impact on these people's lives, said the presiding arbitrator, Professor Pierre-Marie Dupuy of France. "Grazing rights will not change... boundaries are not barriers," he added.

The Abyei protocol of the CPA provided that a boundaries commission should demarcate Abyei, which was defined as "the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan (a province of Sudan) in 1905." The commission's decision was referred to international arbitration when the Sudanese government contested it.

The tribunal comprised five arbitrators, two appointed by either side and one, the presiding arbitrator, appointed by the court. Four of the arbitrators endorsed the ruling, including the two appointed by the SPLM/A and one appointed by the Khartoum government.

But the fifth, a Sudanese government appointee, attacked the majority in a scathing dissent in which he accused his fellow panelists of "dabbling into compromise" and of failing "utterly" to take into account the rights of the Misseriya.

The AP quoted Riek Machar Teny, deputy chairman of the SPLM, as saying: "I think the decision is balanced. We are committed to respecting it... I think this is going to consolidate peace in Sudan. It is a victory for the Sudanese people and a victory for peace."

The members of the tribunal were: Judge Awn Al-Khasawneh of Jordan (the dissenting panelist) and Professor Gerhard Hafner of Austria (both appointed by the Sudanese government); Professor W. Michael Reisman and Judge Stephen W. Schwebel of the United States (appointed by the SPLM/A) and Professor Dupuy, appointed by the court.

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