Sudan: Considering the Role of Internationals in the North-South Negotiations

In a keen analysis published on this blog, Eddie Thomas aptly diagnosed the challenges and risks present in “the final act of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)”””which includes next month’s nationwide elections, the South’s self-determination referendum in January 2011, and a complex series of North-South negotiations related to the outcome of this referendum:

…[T]he two parties [to the CPA] need to get to work on what the future holds for their country. They need to listen to the past, to the region””and most importantly of all they need to listen to, persuade, and explain to their people. Not listening, and not engaging are two of the big risks for the year ahead.

As for the international actors serving as “guarantors” of the CPA, they too face the risks of not listening and not engaging; in fact, certain external actors are already prone to these problems. In particular, the Obama administration seems deaf to the actions and interests of its fellow external partners, those entities such as the African Union and individual African and Arab states with deep interests in Sudan. If anything, the governments in Sudan’s neighboring countries have much higher stakes than the U.S. in the future peace and stability of Sudan, given that they will be greatly and immediately affected should the situation in Sudan deteriorate.

The United Nations Mission in Sudan, or UNMIS, is charged with supporting and monitoring the implementation of the CPA. Given its mandate in Sudan, the UN would be well placed to serve as the coordinating body for international input in the upcoming negotiations. The UN, however, is not taking an active role in promoting multilateralism vis-í -vis Sudan, specifically by convening the key internationals and CPA guarantors to stake out common positions and points of disagreement. IGAD held a summit in Nairobi this month to focus minds in the region on CPA-related issues and the African Union is engaging directly with the NCP, SPLM, and opposition parties participating in the electoral process. Meanwhile, UNMIS is focused on technical issues such as assisting with the distribution of ballots for the elections and assisting the World Food Program in prepositioning food in insecure areas of southern Sudan in advance of the rainy season. In assessing the UN’s role (or lack thereof) past, present, and future in the North-South negotiations, it is worth wondering if the UN is moving in the direction of becoming primarily a project implementation body for donor governments instead of the custodian of global norms and international cooperation.

Based on the current status of CPA implementation and the daunting number of issues surrounding the southern referendum and its outcome, external actors who committed to supporting the Sudanese parties in implementing the CPA should be concerned””not because the parties are not making forward progress on CPA implementation, but because the parties are engaging in the “risky” behavior that Eddie Thomas warned of.

It is also clear that the “elite bargaining” referred to by Thomas is likely to be the primary mode of deal-making in the run-up and aftermath of the referendum. The parties are generally not listening to their people and not sharing the outcomes of their elite deals with their local constituencies. They are prioritizing their own aims of preserving their power bases in North and South respectively as opposed to seeking the input of their people and considering how decisions will impact communities. At the same time, the internationals engaged on Sudan remain concerned about upholding the “spirit” of the CPA””democratic transformation of Sudan””while simultaneously seeking stabilization of post-war Sudan. Attempting to enact democratic reforms and push for good governance and political freedoms at this juncture, when Sudan is likely to split into two nations next year, is a highly ambitious program that the Sudanese parties may not wish to attempt at this time for a number of reasons. The CPA guarantors should temper their expectations of what is feasible at this late stage in the CPA’s interim period, for the simple reason that stabilization, democratization, and state formation are each enormous undertakings in their own right; trying to force the three processes in parallel could be dangerous.

The CPA guarantors cannot pressure the parties into abandoning their preferred strategy of elite bargaining. The internationals can’t force more “democratic outcomes” in the upcoming negotiations simply by being in the room. However, an effort led by a coalition of external actors working together to support the negotiations could create credibility and coherency that has been sorely lacking in the recent attempts of individual international actors to engage in North-South negotiations, most recently over the disputed census and last year over the referenda and security laws.

Realistically, a coordinated effort by the key international actors engaged on Sudan””from Egypt and the U.S. to the African Union and the Arab League”” to engage and support the upcoming North-South processes could have a range of outcomes, some more positive than others. A somewhat rosy prediction is that a coordinated and coherent international position could encourage the parties to make decisions that would benefit their constituencies instead of merely preserving their (respective) elite interests. In this scenario, if the diplomats in Washington and Cairo banded together along with the AU to implore the NCP and SPLM to reform the National Security law in advance of the referendum, the parties would be more likely to listen than if only the Obama administration was berating them, for example. Alternately, a united stance by the CPA guarantors””themselves the elite representatives of powerful entities””may simply encourage elite bargaining between the Sudanese, which could prevent a return to war but stymie political reform within and among Sudan’s ruling parties. But in any case, cooperation between the internationals will encourage cooperation between the Sudanese. Merely from a pragmatic sense, a united international presence inside or outside of the negotiations will help prevent one or both of the parties from engaging in “forum shopping,” stalling tactics, or any other efforts to play the CPA guarantors against each other in order to draw out what is already destined to be a protracted and complex negotiations process.

If the diverse array of international actors involved in Sudan could manage to find and build consensus to support the upcoming negotiations over post-referendum arrangements, then they would be leading by example for the NCP and the SPLM/A. Sustained and united international feedback into the upcoming North-South negotiations won’t necessarily yield a revolution in the internal thinking and calculations of the two parties in the negotiations; the parties will still likely act to preserve their own interests, just as elites around the world do. International input could, however, reduce the likelihood that the Sudanese parties will resort to zero-sum decision-making and outcomes that endanger the lives of their constituencies, the people who are most affected by the future peace and stability of their country.

Maggie Fick is the Juba-based southern Sudan field researcher for the Enough Project. She wrote this post in her personal capacity.

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5 thoughts on “Sudan: Considering the Role of Internationals in the North-South Negotiations

  1. What is happening today is, in important ways, reminiscent of the political positioning that occurred a decade ago on the eve of the (re-)launch of the IGAD peace process in late 2001. It was clear that the problem of the north-south war and the problem of undemocratic government needed to be solved, the question was, how to prioritize and combine them. Those of us who pushed for the NDA to be included in the IGAD process were not successful. The position reached in the two Kampala forums co-organized by Justice Africa in 1999 and 2001 was that democratization should be a co-equal priority with peace. However, the negotiations that led to the CPA were conducted exclusively between the GoS and SPLM. The civilian parties included in the GoNU as an afterthought, with elections designed as a mechanism to support the implementation of an agreement already reached. It is still controversial whether that was a necessary prioritization or a fatal compromise at the expense of democracy.

    On the topic of the role of the UN, there are also important differences of opinion. The CPA calls for a “lean, effective, sustainable and affordable UN peace support mission” (Chapter VI Article 15.1) which is essentially a technical support to the implementation of the CPA. A much more important role is given to the Assessment and Evaluation Commission. (It is ironic in retrospect to recall the message of the special envoys in the Machakos talks, that the Sudanese should not expect a UN peacekeeping mission, perhaps at most a few ceasefire monitors, and that the burden of the monitoring would fall on the parties themselves.)

    The difficulty that has arisen is that UN peace support missions are run first and foremost as technical (logistical and administrative) exercises, and have become so huge and complex, while troop contributing countries are so risk averse, that the greater part of the energy of the mission is devoted to sustaining the mission itself. The reality that a mission, even with a limited technical mandate, must define itself as supportive to a political process, is too easily obscured. This is partly a result of the decision by the former UNSG Kofi Annan to make the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations senior to the Department of Political Affairs. In the case of Sudan, it has meant that the UN has struggled to find a political role or voice. With a new Joint Special Representative for UNAMID and a new SRSG for UNMIS, this may change. (See the UK Associate Parliamentary Group on Sudan’s report, featured yesterday, on this subject.)

  2. Dear Maggie Fick,

    I would think that a basic issue we have to address, is that some tend to take the result of the referendum as MUST-BE-SECESSION.

    These groups ignore the real options included in the CPA.

    Some, for their own interests see secession as the only Possible and Plausible result, to the extent that we must ask the question as to whether a vote for unity will also be accepted by these groups and their international supporters.

  3. It is amazing to see that the UN’s role in Sudan’s elections seems to be to transport ballots and ballot boxes and sign off on whatever decision the NEC makes. You are right that for the UN, democracy is a (project) and not a (principle).

  4. Dear all,

    In my limited experience in Sudan thus far I am finding it essential to look at the past to understand the present moment. It is not surprising, therefore, that the parallel and conflicting issues of elite bargaining and democratization are nothing new to Sudan, and if anything, are currently reemerging because of decisions made during the CPA negotiations; on that note, thanks for your historical insights, Alex.


  5. It has come to my attention that some population in the regions of Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile believe that they will have a vote allowing them to choose to join the South or remain in the North. Officially, however, it is only Abyei that has this option (this was noted in an NDI focus group publication).

    This appears to be a rather dangerous situation that could present significant problems to the process if voters in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile are not made aware of their actual situation before this all comes to pass.

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