(CNSNews.com) – The United Nations has moved quickly to quell anger resulting from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s reported remark that the U.N. would “work hard to avoid a possible secession” of southern Sudan in a referendum scheduled for next January.
The weekend comment prompted protests from south Sudanese, who said Ban was out of line taking a stance on an issue that the people of Sudan alone should decide.
The referendum, which could result in Africa’s biggest country splitting into two, is an extremely sensitive issue for Sudanese – and an important one for the wider region, already a zone of instability, conflict and Islamic extremism.
Southerners are widely expected to vote overwhelmingly for independence, and many experts on the region have warned that the long and costly war between the Islamic regime in Khartoum and the mostly Christian and animist south could resume as a result.
Some are also concerned that the U.S. and other Western countries are not doing enough to prepare for the likelihood of a vote for independence – and not making it sufficiently clear that they will support an independent South Sudan.
A spokesman for Ban issued a statement Tuesday saying, “Any suggestion that the United Nations may have taken a position that may prejudge the outcome of such a referendum is incorrect.”
The statement implied that Ban had been misquoted, calling the original news report “erroneous.” The comment causing the furor was made in an interview with the French news agency AFP and Radio France International before an African Union (A.U.) summit in Ethiopia on Saturday.
According to AFP, he said, “Whatever the result of the referendum we have to think how to manage the outcome. It is very important for Sudan but also for the region. We’ll work hard to avoid a possible secession.”
Other comments in the interview – and his remarks delivered at the A.U. meeting – made it clear that Ban sees the U.N. as having an obligation to maintain peace irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.
In response to his reported comment, a minister in the southern Sudanese regional government, Luka Biong Deng, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that it was “not the responsibility of the U.N. to help the people of the south to take either decision.”
At a small protest held at the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) compound in Bor, a town some 120 miles from the south Sudanese capital, Juba, demonstrators held placards bearing slogans including “Our own land, our own country” and “Ban Ki-moon is not God to determing [sic] our fate.”
According to the Sudan Tribune, the protesting group said in a written statement handed to U.N. officials that Ban’s comments did not take into account the negative aspects of Sudan’s supposed unity.
Sudan had never been at peace not because the people were opposed to peace but because of misrule by the government in Khartoum, it said.
The January 2011 referendum is meant to be the culmination of a six-year process launched by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 to end the 21-year north-south civil war that cost an estimated two million lives.
The CPA provided for a semi-autonomous government in the south, agreements on sharing oil and other resources, national elections in April 2010 – the first since 1986 – and the referendum on whether the south should become independent or remain part of a united Sudan.
The agreement envisaged that the creation of good governance during the six-year implementation period would “help create a solid basis to preserve peace and make unity attractive.” But the ultimate decision on unity or secession would be up to the citizens.
Although Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said he will accept the referendum result which ever way it goes, few expect Khartoum to accede to the country splitting without a fight, particularly as the country’s main oil producing region, Abyei, is located along the north-south border.
According to the IMF, oil represented 95 percent of Sudan’s export revenues and 60 percent of government revenues in 2008. (As part of the January referendum, the people of Abyei will separately decide whether to join the north or the south.)
More than 2,500 deaths were reported in southern Sudan last year, in violence attributed by some civil society groups to deliberate attempts by Khartoum to fuel conflict by supplying weapons to selected ethnic groups and militias.
‘Opposition to secession will strengthen support for that option’
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who writes extensively on Sudan, said Tuesday that Ban had perhaps inadvertently revealed too much of his or the secretariat’s thinking. He said he doubted that AFP would have “got such an important quote wrong.”
Ban’s reported comments on secession would reinforce a widely-held view in the south that the international community, particularly the A.U. but also the U.N., opposes secession, Reeves said.
“My sense is that such opposition to secession will only strengthen the will of southerners (and the people of Abyei) to vote for this option in the January 2011 referendum.”
Reeves took issue with the international community’s approach to the situation, saying it was “not doing nearly enough to make possible a ‘soft landing’ in the event of a secession vote.”
He said President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has signaled his opposition to secession, and was “more concerned with pleasing the regime in Khartoum.”
Many Sudan advocates are critical of Gration, who has pushed for normalizing relations with the Sudanese government and easing sanctions, despite Bashir having been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur, where a conflict not directly related to the north-south one began in 2003.
Asked what action the U.S. should now be taking with regard to a predicted vote for independence next January, Reeves said Washington should make its position clear.
“The U.S. needs to declare – now, clearly, forcefully – that it will support South Sudan if it votes for independence,” he said. “This means economic, diplomatic, political, and military support (the latter primarily in the form of equipment, training, and logistics).
“Without such public U.S. commitment, the Khartoum regime will calculate that the U.S. will continue with only rhetorical objection in the event war resumes between North and South.”
Despite the ICC indictment, Bashir took part in the A.U. conference in Addis Ababa.
At a press briefing in New York, Ban spokesman Farhan Haq was asked about Ban’s decision to take part in an event also attended by the wanted president.
“As we’ve stated before, contacts between U.N. officials and persons indicted by the International Criminal Court are to be limited to what is strictly required for carrying out U.N.-mandated activities,” he replied. “Any such meeting should be seen in that respect.”
Haq said he had nothing to say on what exchanges had taken place between Ban and Bashir.
Since the indictment was announced early last year, Bashir has traveled on a number of occasions to countries in Africa and the Middle East. The A.U., Organization of the Islamic Conference and Arab League are opposed to ICC action against Bashir.
According to U.N. estimates, some 300,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million driven from their homes since fighting broke out seven years ago between militias backed by Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur.