Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Free campaigning needed in Sudan referendum

Key January vote will decide if Southern Sudan will be independent from Khartoum.

Northerners in Southern Sudan also told me they worry about retaliation against them if, for example, southern minorities are mistreated in the north. To his credit, Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, has repeatedly pledged that his government would protect northern minorities in the south.

“They believe Southern Sudan is their home and they’re welcome,” he told a group of international diplomats in New York at the end of September. The northern ruling party should likewise immediately reassure all southerners living in their jurisdiction — loudly and clearly.

Meanwhile, the parties have failed utterly to resolve key disputes over the oil-rich area of Abyei, straddling the north-south boundary, and tensions are running high between the Dinka communities and the Misseriya quasi-nomads, who both claim rights to the land. The area is heavily militarized, and if the political parties do not work toward a solution here, armed groups could again resort to force, killing and maiming local civilians and destroying their properties.

In Darfur, the Khartoum government continues its violent anti-insurgency war, attacking civilians in violation of international law while keeping the territory under a state of emergency and suspending basic rights. In September, government backed militias attacked a market in North Darfur, killing some 40 civilians. Human Rights Watch received reports this week that government forces continue to bomb villages in the remote Jebel Mara area of Darfur.

Regardless of the outcome of the southern referendum, the Khartoum government must to stop attacking civilians in Darfur and start making good on its promises to protect civilians and end impunity for its own soldiers and allied militias.

In Southern Sudan, disputes arising out of the April elections have set off clashes between the southern army and opponents of the southern ruling party. In Jonglei state, for example, in August, southern soldiers were still pursuing a renegade commander who took up arms after he lost the governorship. In Upper Nile, thousands of soldiers spent weeks this summer carrying out violent campaigns against militia groups opposed to the southern governing party. In both places, Human Rights Watch found evidence of killings, beatings, rapes, and other abuses by soldiers.

For January referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan to be peaceful, free, and fair, the parties need to do more now to open up space for political expression, resolve key issues on Abyei, and clean up their respective security forces and hold them accountable for abuses throughout Sudan, including Southern Sudan and Darfur.

Jehanne Henry has been the senior researcher on Sudan for Human Rights Watch since November 2007. Prior to joining the organization, she served as a human rights officer with the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) based in North Darfur.