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Can the World Prevent a War in Sudan?

January 10, 2011

Yesterday, January 9, the people of Southern Sudan began a historic referendum that may lead to the creation of their own independent state, but could also open the way for a return to violent conflict in this already war-ravaged region.  A 2005 peace agreement between North and South Sudan, brokered with strong US support, set the stage for the referendum but also left critical questions, like the sharing of oil resources and demarcation of key borders, unanswered.   If the South chooses to secede, these questions will have to be answered through peaceful negotiation – or could easily spark new violence.  The South itself will also have to deal with political jockeying for power and conflicts between groups over very scarce economic resources. The new country will be one of the poorest and least developed in the world, with an average life expectancy of just 42 and an adult literacy rate of just 15%.  (See more country facts here and photos of the capital Juba here.)

Remarkably, though, the Sudan referendum has also become a significant moment of global engagement in the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict.  The people of Sudan themselves are calling for peace and acting to help prevent violence.  Samantha Power, Special Assistant to President Obama and head of the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights in the National Security Council, has said she’s never seen so much political energy and resources from the US government invested in preventing a war before it happens.  Former President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and a group of other international elders are in South Sudan monitoring the referendum and urging peaceful cooperation whatever its outcome.  The State Department has sent a team of the Civilian Response Corps on a “conflict prevention mission”.  And dozens of non-governmental groups from across Africa and the world are acting as monitors, helping to prevent local violence, and calling on policymakers to help ensure the country does not fall back into war.  One new preventive project, a collaboration among the Enough Project, George Clooney’s Not on Our Watch foundation, the UN,  Google, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and MTV, is even using  satellite imagery to “Help Stop a War Before It Starts”.

Can the world prevent a war before it starts?  Maybe not, but how amazing that we are indeed trying!  What happens in Sudan over the coming months may demonstrate just how far efforts to help prevent deadly conflict have come, or how far they still have to go.  What is clear is that FCNL’s Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict agenda has moved onto the US and international agenda in not just words, but in practical policy initiatives and dedicated resources.  For the people of Sudan, and for the world, that is a very encouraging way to start the new year.

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