World leaders have gathered in New York to help push negotiations regarding southern Sudan's referendum on secession. With just over 100 days until the vote, critical issues such as border demarcation and voter registration have not been settled. But aid groups say issues such as southern violence and poverty could spark further conflict if not seriously addressed.
As the January 11 referendum on South Sudan approaches, observers worldwide are raising concerns that time may be running out on the critical vote. Voter registration has yet to begin and political deadlock has stalled over critical issues such as border demarcation and oil-sharing.
Southern Sudan is widely expected to choose independence in the January vote and, in an effort to ensure a peaceful split, world leaders will bring together representatives from the North and South to jumpstart talks on those critical issues. The discussions have drawn significant international attention and will be attended by presidents from across east Africa and Europe as well as U.S. President Barack Obama.
But a collection of humanitarian aid agencies working in Sudan warned that issues of security and development were being overlooked in the global discussions. A representative from UK-based Oxfam, Alun McDonald, says the political issues have overshadowed ongoing violence in the region.
"Amid all of the politics, what tends to get overlooked is the violence that people in South Sudan, people in Darfur are still facing and could potentially face more of in the run up to and after the referendum," said Alun McDonald. "So they really need to be talking about how to ensure it goes peacefully and how to protect civilians in Sudan from that violence."
In a statement released Friday, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Tearfund, World Vision and Christian Aid warned the next few months would be critical for ensuring peace and stability both before and after the election.
While international attention is focused on North-South tensions, three separate rebellions in the south have been sparked by internal grievances in recent months. At least one of these conflicts, in Jonglei State, is ongoing and Geneva-based Small Arms Survey warns that all three represent grievances which could destabilize the south after independence.
McDonald also warned that poverty and development needed to be addressed before peace was possible.
"Southern Sudan is incredibly poor," he said. "It is one of the poorest, least developed regions in the world. People do not have access to clean water, schools, hospitals, none of the basic services that have been discussed in New York already this week are available in southern Sudan for most people. I do not think any peace deal can be really sustainable, can last, unless that kind of poverty and lack of development is addressed."
But McDonald says it was not too late to ensure a peaceful referendum. The Oxfam representative said high level talks could provide stability and restart dialogue between the North and South. But McDonald said long-term discussion about development and security should begin immediately to ensure a peace both before and after the referendum.
The January vote is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended more than 20 years of civil war in 2005. The goal of the agreement was to make unity attractive through resource sharing and southern development, but the government of South Sudan says Khartoum has failed to live up to the agreement.