Keeping an eye on the newest nation

  • 09 February 2011

This week marks the birth of the world's newest nation.

On 9 January 2011, the southern region of Sudan began a referendum process to decide whether it breaks away from the north. This week the voice of the southern Sudanese people was heard in their decision to form a sovereign state. The working title of the world's 193rd state is New Sudan.

While this is cause for great celebration, including for thousands of Sudanese living in Australia, the state begins its life with a history of gross human rights abuses. The possibility of extreme violence reigniting there in the near future looms large. It's also possible that instability in other nations of the region associated with north Sudan (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan) could spill over.

To prevent these events and their potentially devastating repercussions, the international community must prepare for any necessary intervention.

The history of the conflict in south Sudan that led to the rise of the independence movement gives ample reason to be concerned about what could follow the referendum result.

The referendum was a final step in a peace agreement settled in 2005 between the Khartoum-based Sudanese government and the effective government of south Sudan, the former rebels known as the Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Movement. The agreement ended a civil war that had continued for all but 11 years since Sudan gained independence from Egypt and Britain in 1956.

The conflict was driven by resource disparity and religious difference. Significant oil reserves sit in disputed territory between the north and south, and have driven funding for and continuation of the violence. Investment in services and infrastructure has been focused in the north. The religious divide between the largely Islamic north and the majority Christian south has also fed tensions.

The human toll of the north-south conflict between 1983 and 2005 was over 2 million people. The conflict caused the largest internally displaced population on the planet: 4.4 million people were forced to move elsewhere within Sudan.

A further 2 million fled to neighbouring countries and became refugees. Of these, almost 30,000 now reside in Australia. They have been the fastest growing ethnic community in Australia for most of the past decade.

From 15 November 2010, members of Australia's Sudanese community flocked to referendum registration centres in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Australia is one of only eight countries outside Sudan that hosted referendum voting. The government has given $3 million to support the referendum in Sudan and $1 million to assist in its administration in Australia.

Australia's other interest in the referendum process is that many of its most recent citizens have returned to Sudan to assist in the rebuilding process. Among those is Gatwech Puoch, previously of Dandenong, Vic., who is an elected member of the southern Sudanese interim parliament.

Access to oil wealth is the most likely reason for the north and south to return to civil war after this result. The side that loses access to this resource is unlikely to give it up willingly. Oil revenues are central to the economy of Sudan. The allegiance of the region in which the bulk of these reserves sit, Abyei, is yet to be determined. The referendum on that question has been postponed.

The international community should be alive to the possibility of a renewed conflict, and prepared to respond immediately to any human rights crisis that may unfold.

So far, Australia has deployed a mere 27 Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police peacekeepers to the United Nations Mission in Sudan. These personnel may be called upon to secure an area about the size of Victoria.

Australia cannot and should not stand by idly awaiting a flair in tensions. The lessons from Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur must be heeded.

Matthew AlbertMatthew Albert is the founder of the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program, Australia's largest Sudanese-specific service provider. 

Topic tags: New Sudan, referendum, Gatwech Puoch, Khartoum, Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Movement



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