Several leading U.S. lawmakers say this is a critical moment for Sudan. They called on their congressional colleagues Wednesday to refocus on the country's instability and help shape the Obama administration's policy on Sudan.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Democrat John Kerry chaired a hearing on U.S. policy in Sudan, the comprehensive peace agreement and the ongoing crisis in Darfur.
Kerry noted that the people of southern Sudan are scheduled to vote in a referendum on independence next January, and said every "credible" public opinion survey indicates that they will vote for independence.
Kerry said the stakes for the war-torn country are clear. "According to [U.S.] Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, while a number of countries in Asia and Africa are at significant risk of a new outbreak of mass killing over the next five years, southern Sudan is the place where 'a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur,'" he said.
President Barack Obama's special envoy for Sudan, Retired Air Force General Scott Gration, testified before the Senate committee. He faced numerous questions about why violence, particularly against women, is still raging in Sudan -- five years after the comprehensive peace agreement was implemented.
Gration called on United Nations forces to step up their efforts. "The U.N. forces, the U.N. aid forces, have to provide an umbrella of security, more than they are doing right now. In most areas, they do not patrol past 10 o'clock at night," he explained. "And they do not patrol where the women have to go out and collect firewood, and those kinds of places. I believe in the short term, there has to be more security that is put on there."
Recently, Gration has been criticized by a senior Republican lawmaker and several advocacy groups. In a letter to President Obama last week, Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia asked Mr. Obama to put Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in control of what he termed a "languishing" U.S. policy toward Sudan.
"What we're asking is that Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice take this policy back into the head office. Rice knows this policy. I worked with Susan Rice when she was in the Clinton administration. She is tough, pragmatic and understands the whole issue of Darfur, the north-south agreement. But the Secretary has got to start engaging," Wolf said.
Wolf criticized Gration's efforts to engage the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir. He said Gration has failed to recognize the true nature of the Sudanese leader, who is accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Gration answered the criticism briefly at the Senate committee hearing, saying that Ambassador Rice is taking action and that Secretary Clinton is in charge on Sudan. "I think Ambassador Rice is already working in her job as [U.S.] Ambassador in the U.N. to highlight these issues. She has called for hearings; she is working the issue very hard. And we are in constant communication. Secretary Clinton has been superb and continues to help in every way she can to raise this level," he said.
A coalition of 25 Sudan and Darfur activist groups have endorsed Representative Wolf's appeal, voicing concern about what they call the Obama administration's weak implementation of its declared Sudan policy.