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How to Secure Peace in South Sudan

Author: Payton L. Knopf, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, 2010-2011
July 13, 2011

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JUBA, South Sudan -- The Republic of South Sudan marked its official independence here July 9 under an intense sun and the watchful gaze of a statue of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, who led the struggle for independence during a twenty-two-year civil war that cost the lives of an estimated four million southern Sudanese. Those hostilities culminated in the landmark 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), an all-too-rare victory for international diplomatic efforts to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict, with lessons for dealing with what could be a rocky period between north and south in the months and years ahead.

The United States in particular played a vital role before, during, and after the CPA. Three elements of the U.S diplomatic intervention were key to the agreement's success and could serve as vital lessons in future initiatives to mitigate and resolve conflict in the country.

First, bipartisan, high-level, and consistent attention across multiple U.S. administrations sustained momentum for the negotiations toward the CPA and for implementation of the subsequent agreement. Such attention also ensured the allocation of the United States' significant resources to nurture and consolidate the peace, including several billion dollars in reconstruction, development, and humanitarian assistance. Congressional support and leadership was also critical in this regard.

Second, the United States entered the political process with significant leverage over both parties. The Bush administration capitalized on Khartoum's anxiety about possibly being targeted for U.S. military intervention after September 11, 2001, given its designation as a state sponsor of terror and its role as host for Osama bin Laden throughout much of 1990s; the administration conditioned any shift in the bilateral relationship on north-south peace. Conversely, decades-long efforts to alleviate the humanitarian suffering stemming from the war built strong bonds between the U.S. government and U.S. aid organizations and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the vanguard of the southern independence struggle. This proved crucial in facilitating compromises that made the CPA possible.

Third, the United States demonstrated the diplomatic pragmatism often required for dealing with entrenched conflicts. While there is certainly no equivalency between the actions of the northern government and the SPLM during the war in light of the brutal atrocities committed by various regimes in Khartoum, both sides had blood on their hands. But the United States was still able to reach out to the parties to mediate an agreement toward a longer-term peace.

The United States must once again lead the international community, including the UN Security Council, in addressing renewed mass insecurity in Sudan. To ignore the reasons for its past success would be to squander a watershed moment for this long-suffering land.

The Obama administration would be well served by bearing in mind these lessons after the glow of independence celebrations fade. Beyond the obvious challenges of supporting the development of the South Sudanese state--a vast area that was largely ungoverned even during the colonial period and lacks even the most basic infrastructure--U.S. diplomatic muscle will be essential to address the simmering violence along the new border between North and South Sudan.

Even as the north's president, Omar al-Bashir, was attending the independence day ceremonies in the southern capital of Juba on July 9, the United Nations reported that the northern military was bombing South Kordofan, a northern state bordering South Sudan that was afforded a special status under the CPA. The Nuban residents of the state had largely sided with the SPLM during the civil war because of their own grievances about marginalization by the central government in Khartoum.

Under the peace agreement, "popular consultations" were to be held in South Kordofan as well as in Blue Nile, another northern state with similar links to the south, to determine their status within the north. But with popular consultations stalled and Bashir's eleventh-hour rejection July 7 of a framework political agreement negotiated in Addis Ababa, the northern military has moved into South Kordofan en masse and is clashing with the forces of SPLM leader Abdelaziz Hilou. The UN peacekeeping force that deployed as part of the CPA is being withdrawn; UN staff have been arrested by northern security services or are hunkered down awaiting evacuation; and estimates of the numbers of displaced persons range from seventy thousand to over half a million. Reports abound in Juba that the north is preparing a similar offensive in Southern Blue Nile state.

In addition, credible sources indicate that one or more of the Darfuri rebel movements have agreed to join forces with Hilou and Blue Nile governor Malik Agar, auguring the prospect of a broader war stretching across the days-old international border between North and South Sudan.

As international access to South Kordofan narrows and diplomatic focus is centered on the south's independence and the near total destruction of Abyei--another town on the north-south border--due to ethnic fighting earlier this year, the United States must once again lead the international community, including the UN Security Council, in addressing renewed mass insecurity in Sudan. To ignore the reasons for its past success would be to squander a watershed moment for this long-suffering land.

Payton Knopf is a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State currently serving as an International Affairs Fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed do not represent those of the U.S. government or the U.S. Department of State.

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