On Sunday, polls opened for a week-long referendum in which the people of South Sudan will decide on whether or not to secede from Sudan. In recent months, every objective international observer – and, in the last few weeks, even Sudan’s president, General Bashir, himself — has predicted that the vote will overwhelmingly favor separation. This likely outcome can be explained by the fact that the South Sudanese have not forgotten that, for two decades beginning in the 1980s, Khartoum had killed two million of their people in a ruthless prosecution of its side of a civil war — using tactics that included forcible mass starvation, enslavement, and aerial bombardment of schools, marketplaces, and hospitals; nor that the war had erupted in the first place as a rebellion by the South, which is largely Christian and animist, when the national government imposed extremist Islamic law on it, thus denying it religious freedom while revealing the fundamentalist character of the regime.
The referendum is a milestone in the fulfillment of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. A hard road remains ahead, but this peace process could conceivably turn out to be among the most successful purely diplomatic peace efforts in U.S. foreign-policy history. Pres. George W. Bush personally took up the challenge of ending Sudan’s long-raging North-South conflict in his first year in office. His administration played the pivotal role in brokering this accord over four years of intense American diplomatic engagement. Before then, the Clinton administration had sent aid to the South but had not undertaken the serious diplomacy needed to end the carnage. President Obama and his administration also deserve ample credit for their two years of effort that have ensured that the unscrupulous President Bashir, an internationally indicted war criminal and author of genocide, has upheld his side of the agreement in allowing this critical stage of the process, the southern referendum, to proceed.
In his New York Times op-ed Sunday on the Sudan referendum, President Obama, while rightly touting the importance of the voting now taking place, failed to say a word about the religious dimension of the conflict and, moreover, minimized the enormous diplomatic investment over two administrations that has brought the South Sudanese to where they are today. He neglected to mention anything about the key U.S. role during the administration of his predecessor in establishing this remarkable peace process and the far-reaching peace agreement that resulted. He seemed to reduce American leadership on Sudan to what he has done in just the last few months: “The historic vote is an exercise in self-determination long in the making, and it is a key part of the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war in Sudan. Yet just months ago, with preparations behind schedule, it was uncertain whether this referendum would take place at all. It is for this reason that I gathered with leaders from Sudan and around the world in September to make it clear that the international community was united in its belief that this referendum had to take place and that the will of the people of southern Sudan had to be respected, regardless of the outcome.”
The president’s rhetoric exaggerated the concern of the “international community,” but he was right to conclude his piece by firmly outlining U.S. expectations and suggesting American carrots and sticks that will be in store depending on the complete fulfillment of the CPA, as well as on a resolution in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. Addressing Sudan’s leadership, he asserted: “Those who make the right choice will be remembered by history — they will also have a steady partner in the United States.” These points would be better served by acknowledging just how steady the U.S. commitment to a just peace in South Sudan has already been — spanning two different administrations, representing both parties, and stretching over the last decade.
– Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.