The United Nations human rights chief today urged authorities in Sudan’s north and south to ensure that the upcoming referendum on the future status of the south is not marred in any way by abuses of voters’ rights.
The vote on whether the south should secede from the rest of the country is set to take place between 9 and 15 January, and is the culmination of the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended two decades of war between the north and the south.
“This is a critical moment in Sudan’s history,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a news release, just days ahead of the referendum.
“It is essential that the vote is free and fair, and that the national Government and the Government of South Sudan take swift and effective measures to halt any attempts to intimidate any groups or individuals, or to subvert the result.”
The High Commissioner called on authorities to ensure that the vote “is not marred by any abuses of voters’ rights before, during or after the referendum.”
She noted that recent public statements by Sudanese leaders give rise to “cautious optimism” that they are indeed keen to avoid any actions that would undermine the credibility of the vote.
“Nevertheless,” she added, “the run-up to the referendum has been marked by some worrying trends, including restrictions in press freedom and a number of arbitrary arrests and detention. Both Governments must ensure that these problems do not re-emerge over the next few days and weeks.”
She urged the authorities to “guard vigilantly” against intimidation against the more than 1.5 million southern Sudanese living in the north, as well as against northerners living in the south. In addition, she encouraged both parties to negotiate a number of critical issues that have still not bee resolved, including future arrangements on citizenship and nationality, the sharing of assets and liabilities, including oil and water, security and obligations under international treaties.
More than four million Southern Sudanese voters are registered for the referendum, which will take place in both north and south Sudan and in eight other countries with significant diaspora populations – Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States.
David Gressly, the UN Regional Coordinator for Southern Sudan, told a news conference in the southern capital of Juba that everything “appears to be on track” for the polls.
“Today the culmination event of Sudan’s six-year-old peace process is just around the corner, and it is vital that the process be peaceful, orderly and credible to ensure wide acceptance of the referendum voting at home and abroad,” he stated.
“Everyone involved in the referendum – from the voters and the foreign and domestic observers to the referendum centre officials and police officers charged with providing security – should do their part to safeguard the integrity of the process.”
With just a few days to go until the voting begins, members of the UN panel tasked with monitoring the referendum have arrived in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for their latest visit.
The three-member team, headed by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, will travel around the country this month as they monitor the polling, counting and aggregation of results phases of the referendum, as well as meet with relevant officials.
“We are on the eve of a historic moment for the people of Southern Sudan. This vote is the culmination of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought an end to a conflict that caused so much misery and cost so many lives,” said Mr. Mkapa.
“We urge everyone who has registered for the referendum to vote so that the will of the people can be expressed. We hope that the voting will be peaceful and orderly and we call on voters to be patient if the queues are long or if there are logistical challenges.”
This is the fourth visit to Sudan by the panel, which also includes António Monteiro, a former foreign minister of Portugal, and Bhojraj Pokharel, a former chairman of Nepal’s election commission.
The panel is playing a good offices role on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was requested by the parties to the CPA to set up a UN monitoring body to enhance the credibility of the referendum and ensure that its result is accepted by the people of Sudan and the international community.
It is also tasked with monitoring a separate referendum on the status of Abyei – an oil-rich area on the border between the north and the south – that was supposed to take place simultaneously with the vote on Southern Sudan but preparations for which have been delayed.
While welcoming the progress made towards a “peaceful and credible” referendum in Southern Sudan, the Security Council today noted with “deep concern” the absence of an agreement on Abyei.
“The members of the Council strongly urge the parties to quickly reach agreement on Abyei and resolve critical post-referendum issues, including the border, security, citizenship, debts, assets, currency and natural resources,” Ambassador Ivan Barbalic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which holds the Council’s presidency for January, said in a statement read out to the press following a closed-door meeting on Sudan.