World needs to act now to prevent new Sudan war, ten aid agencies warn

By jlee

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Major conflict could return to southern Sudan unless there is urgent international action to save the north/south peace agreement that ended one of Africa’s longest and deadliest wars, ten aid agencies warned today.

In a new report, “Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan”—released shortly before the fifth anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—the agencies said a lethal cocktail of rising violence, chronic poverty, and political tensions has left the peace deal on the brink of collapse.

“It is not yet too late to avert disaster, but the next 12 months are a crossroads for Africa’s largest country. Last year saw a surge in violence in southern Sudan. This could escalate even further and become one of the biggest emergencies in Africa in 2010,” said co-author of the report Maya Mailer, policy adviser for Oxfam.

In 2009, some 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 fled their homes -  a human toll greater than that of Sudan’s strife-torn region of Darfur last year. The rest of the world has largely overlooked this suffering, according to the agencies. Communities say that women and children have increasingly been targeted in attacks on villages, and that the government of southern Sudan and international peacekeepers have not been able to protect them.

The report says the next 12 months will see a number of potential flashpoints that, if not properly prepared for, could spark new violence. These include Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years, and a referendum in which southerners will vote on whether to remain united with the north or to secede.

To safeguard civilians at this fragile juncture, the agencies urged the UN Security Council to ensure that protecting civilians becomes a core priority for the UN peacekeeping force, UNMIS. The agencies also called on the international community to help mediate between the northern and southern parties before the elections and referendum to reduce the likelihood of conflict, and to help the government in the south provide security.

The agencies also warned that growing frustration over the lack of development in southern Sudan is harming the chances for peace. Less than half the population in this part of the country has access to clean water, and maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the world. Some 80 percent of adults cannot read or write, and one in seven children dies before age five. In a region the size of France, there are fewer than 31 miles of tarmac road; during heavy rains, many areas are cut off for months at a time, making the delivery of humanitarian aid almost impossible.

“After five years of peace, southern Sudan remains one of the poorest regions on earth. People hoped the peace would bring economic benefits and development, but this has happened far too slowly and in some areas not at all. We are very worried about children, who seem to be increasingly targeted in attacks on villages. International donors and the government must urgently improve aid to these areas,” said Francisco Roque, Country Director of Save the Children in South Sudan.

A return to conflict would have devastating consequences that extend far beyond southern Sudan, the agencies said. The civil war was responsible for the deaths of 2 million people and forced around 4 million to flee their homes, many into neighboring countries. The war destabilized the entire region, fueling conflicts and suffering across central and eastern Africa.

The crisis in southern Sudan is escalating at a time when the situation in Darfur, in western Sudan, remains one of the world’s biggest humanitarian emergencies. The agencies warned that there cannot be sustainable peace in Darfur if the peace between north and south is allowed to fail.

“Sustained diplomatic engagement from the international community, including Sudan’s neighbors, is what is needed. This helped achieve what many thought was impossible and secure the peace agreement in the first place. Now engagement is needed again to ensure that all that effort does not go to waste. A return to war is by no means inevitable, but it depends on whether the world heeds the warning signs of the past year and has the political will to save the peace,” said Paul Valentin, International Director of Christian Aid.