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UN: Sudan at 'Critical Juncture'

The United Nations says the next 12 months in Sudan will be critical to ending the Darfur conflict and bringing a democratic transition to the country. With national elections scheduled for April and a referendum on the determination of Southern Sudan early next year, a senior U.N. official warned Thursday it is urgent that several key issues in Darfur be resolved.

The director of the Department of Peacekeeping's Africa Division, Dmitry Titov, told the 15-member Security Council that all Darfurians must be represented in the electoral process, real progress must be made in the Doha negotiations between the government and rebel groups, and military activities in the region must end.

He added that the most pressing political issue in Sudan and Darfur is the upcoming national election. Titov told the council that Sudan's government must take concrete steps to ensure that the vote is "free, fair and credible."

"Among measures which should have been put in place were those necessary to ensure the meaningful participation of internally displaced persons, refugees and other groups affected by the conflict," Titov said.

Titov said that very few internally displaced persons have been registered to vote in Darfur. He added that after the elections, a major challenge will be to ensure that elected officials actually represent the interests of those who were left out of the electoral process.

Titov said the National Electoral Commission faces enormous technical challenges, including the establishment of hundreds of thousands of polling stations and the transportation of large quantities of electoral materials to remote locations.

The hybrid African Union-U.N. mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, is ready to assist the National Electoral Commission on technical issues. But Titov said the commission has requested limited assistance.

On the mediation front, Titov noted that work continues toward a negotiated settlement of the Darfur crisis using a three-track approach.

"First, Joint Chief Mediator [Djibril] Bassolé has worked with the belligerent parties to facilitate direct negotiation of a peace agreement," Titov said. "Second, the mediation has expanded the consultations to include Darfurian civil society. Third, it has worked toward improvement of Chad-Sudan relations."

On the last point, the United Nations has welcomed Monday's meeting in Khartoum between Chadian President Idriss Deby and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir as well as the Accord of Normalization of Relations signed last month between the two feuding countries. That agreement is expected to serve as the basis for increased security along their common border.