By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The Obama administration stepped up its efforts yesterday to salvage a four-year-old peace accord for Sudan, convening officials from 32 countries and international organizations amid fears that Africa's longest-running civil war could resume.
The conference came after years in which the world's attention was focused on a separate Sudanese conflict, in the western region of Darfur. In the meantime, implementation of the agreement ending the country's north-south fight has lagged.
"Time is urgent. It's time to move forward," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, urged officials who packed a conference room at Washington's Park Hyatt hotel. They included representatives from the U.N. Security Council's five veto-wielding powers, the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Kenya, and large delegations from the two Sudanese sides.
The 2005 peace accord, a top priority of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, was hammered out after 22 years of war between Sudan's Arabic-speaking and predominantly Muslim northerners and the mostly animist and Christian southerners, who claimed discrimination.
The agreement gave the southerners religious and political autonomy and a role in a unity government until 2011, when they are scheduled to vote on self-determination.
After that accord was signed, "basically everyone walked away, patted themselves on the back, said 'Didn't we do a good job?' and focused on Darfur for the next four years," said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide organization at the Center for American Progress.
But now there are fears that the slow implementation of the peace accord could reignite the civil war, which has claimed more than 2 million lives.
"If the war in the south began again, it would make Darfur look like a Sunday picnic," Prendergast said. The Sudanese government and allied militias have waged a brutal fight against rebels in the Darfur area, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians dead from disease and violence.
The most explosive issue in the peace process is the referendum on the future status of the oil-rich south. Many observers believe the southerners will vote to break away, taking most of the country's wealth with them.
Attendees at the conference produced a communique late Tuesday pledging to draw up action plans to "urgently address outstanding implementation issues" and support the peace process. Gration agreed to return to Sudan at least twice during the summer to mediate between government and rebel officials on issues such as security, demarcation of the north-south border and the referendum, his aides said.
Gration plans to travel to the oil-rich Abyei area near Sudan's north-south border in mid-July, when an international arbitration board is expected to rule on the area's disputed boundaries. During a series of meetings in recent days, the U.S. envoy got commitments from the Sudanese government and rebels to recognize the decision, according to his aides. The Sudanese government had rejected a previous decision on boundaries from an international commission and last year attacked the town of Abyei.
"We have been able to lay a foundation. We've been able to get an understanding of what the issues are, clarify the red lines on each side," Gration said of his talks with the two sides.
Luka Biong Deng, a member of the southern Sudan delegation, said yesterday's conference was "a major achievement by the special envoy." However, he indicated that deep distrust remains toward the government led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
"People may be coming here for a public relations exercise, but not to commit themselves," Deng said.
The Obama administration is finishing a lengthy policy review on Sudan that has been marked by disagreements over how many "carrots" it should offer to Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes in Darfur. There also appears to be a rift in the administration over whether to characterize the violence in Darfur as an "ongoing genocide."