Key leaders of north and south Sudan promised Friday to ensure that next January's planned referendum on independence for the southern region will go forward peacefully and on time. The pledges came at a meeting at the United Nations attended by world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama's presence at the U.N meeting underscored the deep concern in Washington that Sudan's north-south peace process will derail unless the referendum goes ahead as planned without violence.
A six-year Sudan peace plan reaches a climax in January when the autonomous southern region votes on independence, and the oil-rich central Abiyeh region decides whether it will join the south.
Preparations for the voting, including delineation of a prospective north-south border, are far behind schedule.
In remarks to the meeting, President Obama said the Sudanese parties are at a critical juncture and the stakes are enormous. "At this moment, the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. What happens in Sudan in the days ahead will decide whether a people who have endured too much war move toward peace of slip backward into bloodshed. And what happens in Sudan matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa and it matters to the world," he said.
U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan has been complicated by the the Darfur conflict in western Sudan, which has led to international war crimes charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
The United States shuns direct contact with the Sudanese leader and accuses him of foot-dragging on the referendum. Mr. Obama made clear that the future of U.S.-Sudan relations depends not only on a successful referendum but accountability for Darfur crimes. "Now is the moment for all nations to send a strong signal that there will be not time and tolerance for spoilers who refuse to engage in peace talks. Indeed there can be no lasting peace in Darfur, and no normalization of relations between Sudan and the United States, without accountability for crimes that have been committed," he said.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who spoke for the National Congress Party leadership, complained of the demonization of President Bashir, and said his contributions to the north-south peace process have been critical.
Taha said the mainly-Muslim Khartoum government prefers a referendum outcome that preserves Sudan's unity, but is prepared to accept the separation of the mostly-Christian and animist south. "I would like to recall before you here the determination and willingness of our government, particularly its leader, President Bashir, to make the difficult decisions without which peace was unattainable - the most of important of which is accepting the risk of relinquishing a cherished part of your history and future, and a valued part of your country," he said.
Southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir, first vice president in the Khartoum unity government, said the northern authorities have not made unity an attractive option, and that all signs point to a secession vote.
If that occurs, he said the south is ready to work with Khartoum authorities for long-term peace and stability. "We are genuinely willing to negotiate with our brothers in the National Congress Party, and we're prepared to work in a spirit of partnership to create peaceful and sustainable good relations between the north and southern Sudan for the long-term after the referendum. It is in our interest to see to it that northern Sudan remains a viable state, just as it should be in the interests of the north to see southern Sudan emerge also as a viable state," he said.
The north-south civil war was Africa's longest running conflict until it came to an end with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord or CPA. It is believed to have killed nearly two million people while displacing millions more.
The CPA provided for the coalition government in Khartoum and six years of autonomy for the south, to be capped by the January 9, 2011 referendum.