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UN peacekeeping chief warns of risks ahead of independence vote in southern Sudan

The peace process that ended two decades of war between northern and southern Sudan, culminating in next month’s referendum on independence for the country’s south, risks unravelling unless both sides reach agreement on the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, the United Nations peacekeeping chief warned today.

“We are confronting the most critical period of the peace process,” the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy, said in a briefing to the Security Council. “The days and weeks to come will determine the future of Sudan for the next decades.”

However, while hailing the successful conclusion of voter registration in southern Sudan ahead of the 9 January vote, Mr. Le Roy voiced deep concern over the lack of accord on the terms of a simultaneous referendum on the final status of Abyei, a region which straddles northern and southern Sudan.

“The current impasse on the referendum in Abyei is deeply worrying… An agreement has still not been found and tensions on the ground are rising,” he said, noting that political and historical sensitivities are making it even more difficult for one side to consider options that its constituents could view as concessions.

Mr. Le Roy said that the parties cannot afford to not resolve the question of Abyei as tensions and frustrations on the ground will only grow, which will make the matter even more delicate to resolve, especially as the migration of the Misseriya into the area has already begun. The Misseriya are nomadic cattle-herders, linked to northern Sudan, and they have clashed with the Dinka, an ethnic group located in Abyei, in the past.

“In such a climate, any security incident can derail the CPA process,” he added, referring to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war. “The parties must show responsible leadership and recognize that difficult compromises are necessary to ensure peaceful coexistence between the communities.”

Mr. Le Roy stressed it was important for the sides to reach agreement on these CPA issues before the referendum. He noted that one of the most serious questions is that of citizenship since possible changes in legal, employment and property status will be a major concern for southern Sudanese living in the north and northern Sudanese living in the south.

But he cited the registration success in southern Sudan, despite the tight electoral calendar, as “an example of what the North and South can achieve when they work together. It is vital that the parties continue their efforts and preserve an environment favourable to holding a referendum that is free and without violence.”

In his remarks to the Council, the head of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Panel on the Referenda in Sudan, the former Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa, said the registration process was generally transparent with very few cases of rejection reported, and that both sides had given unequivocal public assurances about respecting the outcome.

The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which has nearly 11,000 uniformed peacekeepers in southern Sudan, has been working on options for a possible increase to prevent any deterioration in security after the referendum, and to lift its capacity to monitor possible cease-fire violations and protect civilians throughout the mission area.

Mr. Le Roy said that in the meantime, UNMIS is increasing its presence in hot spots with its existing force, redeploying troops to areas such as Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and a new site near the border between Upper Nile and White Nile states.

“While UNMIS continues these efforts, we must emphasize that the presence of UN troops alone will not be enough to prevent a return to war, should wide-spread hostilities erupt,” the peacekeeping chief said. “Only a demonstrated commitment by the parties to refrain from inflammatory statements, uphold the CPA ceasefire mechanisms, and engage in dialogue to settle differences will succeed in maintaining peace.”

Mr. Le Roy added that in the unlikely event that the referendum leads to large-scale violence, approximately 2.8 million people could be internally displaced and another 3.2 million people may be negatively affected by breakdowns in trade and social service delivery. “In this scenario, up to USD 63 million may be required to provide emergency assistance to those in need,” he added.

Mr. Le Roy also noted that restrictions on UNMIS’ freedom of movement remain a major challenge in areas such as Southern Khordofan and Northern Abyei and he urged the Sudanese authorities to prevent such incidents and hold those responsible to account. UNMIS is also experiencing long delays in the receipt of nearly 350 Sudanese visas for its personnel, including those most needed in the upcoming referendum.

The Council, in a presidential statement echoing “deep concern” but also hailing southern Sudan’s successful voter registration, strongly urged the parties “to calm rising tensions in Abyei, to urgently reach agreement on Abyei and other outstanding CPA issues and to resolve critical post-referenda issues including border, security, citizenship, debts, assets, currency and natural resources.”

The Council also called on the parties “to find peaceful solutions to all outstanding matters, to never resort to war again, and that neither party should take any action or support any group that would undermine the security of the other.”

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