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Intensifying Diplomacy on Sudan

Author: Payton L. Knopf, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, 2010-2011
October 4, 2010

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President Barack Obama's presence at a high-level meeting on Sudan at the United Nations on September 24 was the most recent sign of his administration's intensified diplomatic efforts to avert a catastrophic return to war in Africa's largest state. On January 9, southern Sudan is scheduled to vote in two referenda. One is on self-determination for the south; the other is on the disposition of the oil-rich and ethnically divided region of Abyei. Both are cornerstones of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan's civil war.

After reports of internal Obama administration squabbling over whether and how to engage with the government in Khartoum, the president's presence at the UN meeting, the roll-out of a new U.S. strategy on Sudan ten days earlier, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent phone calls and meetings with senior northern and southern leaders all seemed designed to promote policy coherence and message discipline.

The next three months will test whether this approach succeeds in inducing the key political actors in Sudan to manage successfully the referenda and the post-referenda environment. Four factors will determine its effectiveness:

1) Having refocused efforts on Sudan, the administration must sustain its diplomatic approach, maintaining unity both within the U.S. government and among the key international stakeholders of the CPA

2) The administration must work with the parties and other stakeholders to reconcile the tension between the credibility of the referenda--preparations for which are woefully behind schedule--with the date of the referenda, which is sacrosanct for southern Sudanese

3) Western governments, and the United States in particular, must establish a framework for their post-referenda relationship with northern Sudan

4) U.S. goals and strategy for addressing the situation in Darfur must be articulated in more detail and must be consistent with efforts to promote fulfillment of the CPA.

Maintaining Diplomatic Unity

The Obama administration's renewed engagement has been rightly applauded by the media and by advocacy groups. However, expectations are now higher than ever that Washington can steer the parties toward an outcome in January that upholds the core of the CPA--including southern Sudan's right to self-determination--but avoids a return to war sparked by disputes over borders or the disposition of the oil fields.

If fair, a referendum on self-determination will certainly lead to southern independence, while flawed referenda are likely to spawn attempts by Khartoum to deny the results, as well as to embolden other African voices opposed to secessionist movements.

The stakes are high. Collapse of Sudan into civil war will undercut U.S. credibility as a peacemaker in Africa and further destabilize one of the world's most volatile regions. Civil war will also erode confidence in African states' ability to resolve the continent's conflicts--given that both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) were witnesses to the CPA--and exacerbate tensions throughout Africa over the issue of self-determination for secessionist movements.

The September 24 meeting and resulting communiqué demonstrated solidarity within the international community on the importance of credible and on-time referenda, of developing post-referenda arrangements between north and south, and of acknowledging that the parties' obligations to the CPA do not end on January 9. Consistent re-affirmation of these benchmarks will be critical to pushing the parties to overcome the political and logistical obstacles to the referenda over the next one hundred days. The planned visit by a UN Security Council delegation to Sudan this week provides an opportunity for reiterating publicly the international expectations of the parties. In addition, Uganda, the UK, and the United States--each with a stake in Sudan--hold the presidency of the Security Council in October, November, and December, respectively. A Council resolution during this period would send a further signal of the seriousness of purpose embodied in the September 24 communiqué.

Reconciling Credible and Timely Referenda

The tension between credible referenda and timely referenda present another challenge. As a result of political machinations between the parties, the institutions for administering the referenda are nascent or yet to be established, meaning technical preparations--including design of the ballot and voter registration--are behind schedule. Re-energized engagement by the international community on this issue, including the UN secretary-general's appointment on September 21 of a panel to assist and monitor execution of the referenda, are laudable.

However, the United States and other stakeholders must assess whether credible referenda are possible on January 9 given the current state of preparations. They must also, without inadvertently encouraging northern obstructionism, begin to develop alternative scenarios through quiet discussions with the parties. If fair, a referendum on self-determination will certainly lead to southern independence, while flawed referenda are likely to spawn attempts by Khartoum to deny the results, as well as to embolden other African voices opposed to secessionist movements.

Establishing a Framework for U.S.-Sudan Relations

On September 14, the U.S. government outlined four stages >for improved U.S.-Sudan relations. U.S. engagement on Sudan has long centered on setting benchmarks for normalized relations and consequences for failure to comply, with mixed results. The CPA timeline and a reinvigorated focus on Sudan throughout the international community may provide added leverage for securing Sudanese compliance with this latest set of stages. But the United States must be prepared for Sudan to fall short on one or more, even if the referenda and the transition to southern Sudanese independence can be managed without mass hostilities.

The difficulty in addressing the situation posed by the International Criminal Court's (ICC) indictment of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is an example of the risks inherent in a "carrots and sticks" approach. President Obama iterated during the UN meeting that "there can be no lasting peace in Darfur--and no normalization of relations between Sudan and the United States--without accountability for crimes that have been committed." But there is little likelihood that Sudan will turn over Bashir to the ICC, and therefore every chance that the relationship it seeks with the United States cannot be realized. Given that the northern elite's desire for better relations with the U.S. constitutes Washington's principle source of leverage, this inherent dichotomy decreases U.S. capacity to affect a change in Khartoum's behavior.

U.S. policymakers should therefore focus more on exploring how to engage Khartoum than on whether to engage Khartoum, since the United States will have abiding policy interests concerning Sudan for years to come. Reports that one of the State Department's most senior and well-respected diplomats will be sent to Khartoum as charge d'affaires in the near future is an important step in moving beyond using the assignment of senior diplomats as a reward to the regime. The complexity and seriousness of U.S. interests requires sustained, adept diplomacy to achieve U.S. objectives.

Redefining Goals for Darfur

U.S. policymakers should therefore focus more on exploring how to engage Khartoum than on whether to engage Khartoum, since the United States will have abiding policy interests concerning Sudan for years to come.

Finally, the administration will have to confront the shifting reality in Darfur. The UN-AU peacekeeping force alone cannot resolve the underlying tensions in that region and, in fact, has not proven able to stem the rising violence. The political morass of competing and ever-splintering rebel groups and competition among tribes, often fed by Khartoum, pushes prospects of long-term stability further into the distance.

An important step toward progress would be for the United States to build a new international consensus defining "resolution of the Darfur conflict." Darfur likely will remain a volatile region for some time, but the international community could pursue realistic goals for ending the most egregious violence; fulfilling Darfuris' aspirations for autonomy, compensation, and wealth-sharing; and fostering inter-tribal reconciliation. After years of stalled peace agreements and internationally sponsored negotiations that lead to minimal progress, improved conditions in Darfur are most likely to be achieved in discrete diplomacy with Khartoum, with Darfur rebel leaders, and with key tribal constituencies rather than in high-profile negotiating sessions in foreign capitals.

Having invested in supporting the CPA, with its massive reform of Sudan's governing structure--a commitment reaffirmed by the Obama administration and other international stakeholders last week--the United States and its partners must sustain serious and coordinated high-level engagement. The country's challenges will continue to be myriad, but a loss of focus and dilution of diplomatic cohesion over the coming months will have dramatic consequences for the stability of the country and for U.S. interests in the region.

The author is a Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Department of State currently in a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. government, or the Council on Foreign Relations.

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