Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Groups campaigning against slavery are hopeful that a long-awaited peace agreement in Sudan, expected soon, will bring slavery to a close in the war-ravaged African nation.
Negotiators for the Sudanese government and southern rebels are hammering out remaining issues in talks hosted by Kenya, and a major announcement on a comprehensive deal to end the 20-year-old conflict could come at any time.
But according to a rebel representative at the peace talks, there have been no discussions on how those Sudanese who have been enslaved during the country's civil war will get their freedom.
"We believe such issues will solve themselves once peace and harmony is achieved in Sudan," said the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tens of thousands of Sudanese people, mainly southern women and children, have been abducted and forced into slavery since 1986, according to the London-based group, Anti-Slavery International.
Anti-slavery groups say that pro-government militias typically raid villages in the south, abducting mainly black African children and women, who are then taken north to work as farm laborers, domestics, and concubines for their Arab Muslim masters.
Anti-Slavery International director Mary Cunneen said an end to the civil war, "means a real chance" for both sides to work together, and with humanitarian and relief groups, to end the system of slavery.
"We must not allow this opportunity to be missed," she said.
Cunneen urged Khartoum and the SPLA to act to stop the abductions, saying they should announce publicly that the abuses are illegal. They should also develop laws to protect people and penalise offenders.
U.S. campaigners like the American Anti-Slavery Group have helped to free slaves, encourage divestment in oil companies doing business in Sudan, and to put the issue of modern-day slavery onto the foreign policy agenda.
Some Western groups have over the years paid to redeem slaves -- most of whom are Christians or animists -- although the tactic has been called into question by other campaigners.
Anti-Slavery International said that even in situations where some slaves get freedom, "the war has prevented safe return" to their villages in the south.
An end to the war will make a difference in this regard, it suggested.
New day coming
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and SPLA leader John Garang and their delegations are working on final issues in the way of a comprehensive peace agreement.
These include political arrangements and a decision on which side will take control of three still-disputed areas in western Sudan during a six-year transitional period.
That period of power-sharing is to end with a referendum on whether the south will secede.
A Kenya-based regional analyst and Sudan expert, Akasha Alsayeed Akasha, said peace negotiations from the start centered on creating a united country, and so a peace deal is likely to help bring about social harmony.
A first agreement signed by the sides in July 2002, the Machakos Protocol, stated that "Sudan shall be a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation."
The protocol, which formed the foundation of the present negotiations, said that no cultural, religious or ethnic group would be considered superior to others.
The U.S., which has played an important role in pushing the sides toward an agreement, has been applying pressure on Khartoum to prevent the abuse of civilians in the south.
In October 2002, President Bush signed into law the Sudan Peace Act, which provided for economic sanctions against Khartoum if it did not engage in peace talks in good faith, or interfered with humanitarian efforts in the south.
U.S.-led monitors in "civilian protection monitoring teams" have also investigated and reported attacks against non-military targets.
The U.N. has named 2004 as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition.
The world body is urging governments to develop and implement laws against slavery and to ensure that those who continue to enslave are prosecuted.
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