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Activists Dismayed at U.S. Reaction to Sudan Polls

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Apr 20 2010 (IPS) - Activist groups called here Tuesday for the administration of President Barack Obama to hold the Sudanese government accountable for what the White House itself called “serious irregularities” in carrying out the past week’s elections.

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan on Apr. 12, 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan on Apr. 12, 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

“President Obama must lead world leaders to not recognise (President Omar al-) Bashir as a legitimately elected leader and to press for meaningful steps towards political freedom in Sudan in the run-up to next year’s referendum to determine independence for South Sudan,” said Mark Lotwis, acting president of the Save Darfur Coalition, in one of a series of statements issued by various groups expressing disappointment with Washington’s reaction to the vote.

That reaction came in the form of a statement issued by the White House early in the day that noted a number of major deficiencies in the electoral process as reported by international observers but did not hint at any punitive action against Bashir, who, despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, is likely to win in a landslide, according to the official count of early returns.

“The elections held recently in Sudan were an essential step in a process laid out by Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA),” the White House said.

“The United States notes the initial assessment of independence electoral observers that Sudan’s elections did not meet international standards. Political rights and freedoms were circumscribed throughout the electoral process, there were reports of intimidation and threats of violence in South Sudan, ongoing conflict in Darfur did not permit an environment conductive to acceptable elections, and inadequacies in technical preparations for the vote resulted in serious irregularities,” it said.

“The people of Sudan are to be commended for their efforts to make Sudan’s first multi-party elections in over two decades peaceful and meaningful,” it went on, adding that “all parties should draw on this experience to improve preparations for future elections and referenda.”


It added that Washington “remains committed to working with the international community to support implementation of outstanding elements of the CPA and ensure that the referendum happens on time and that its results are respected.”

A similar statement was issued Monday by the so-called Sudan Troika – the U.S., Britain and Norway – that helped mediate the 2005 CPA between the Bashir government and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), ending a 22-year-old civil war in which some two million people are estimated to have died.

Both statements appeared to confirm that Washington will continue working with a Bashir-led government in hopes of ensuring that next January’s referendum on South Sudan’s independence comes off smoothly, and the country does not plunge back into civil war.

Last week’s election covered all seats in parliament and local governments, as well as the presidency. It was boycotted by most of Sudan’s major political parties, including the Umma National Party of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi who was overthrown by a military coup led by Bashir in 1989.

They charged the government and Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) with intimidation and vote-rigging. These allegations have been largely confirmed by international observers, including delegations from the European Union (EU), which was forced to withdraw its members from Darfur due to the reigning insecurity there, and the Carter Centre.

Delegations from the Arab League, the African Union and China, which has major investments in Sudan’s growing oil industry, were more positive in their assessments, while the United Nations has yet to comment.

Despite withdrawing its own presidential candidate from the ballot last month, the SPLM announced its acceptance of the results in a joint statement issued with the ruling NCP in Khartoum Tuesday. The SPLM was also accused by opposition parties of intimidation and vote-rigging in areas under its control.

The Obama administration has reportedly been split over the past year between those, led by his special envoy on Sudan, ret. Gen. Scott Gration, who have argued for a policy of constructive engagement with Bashir, and others, notably U.N. Amb. Susan Rice, who have long insisted that sticks have always been more effective in dealing with Khartoum than carrots.

By not hinting at any consideration of imposing new sanctions in light of the “serious irregularities” that flawed the election, Tuesday’s White House statement suggests that Gration retains the upper hand in the internal debate.

Gration has reportedly argued that Bashir and the NCP can be persuaded to accept the South’s secession after a referendum and thus avert a new civil war.

His foes, which include most of the activist groups, believe that he is naïve and that Washington’s muted criticism of the election and its likely acceptance of the result will actually undermine prospects for successful implementation of next year’s referendum.

“Each time the Obama administration does not stand on principle and build international consequences for further abuses of human and civil rights, a powerful signal is sent to the Sudanese parties that fulfilment of commitments and agreements is not important,” said John Prendergast, a Sudan specialist at Enough and former National Security Council official under President Bill Clinton.

“Unless President Obama implements his own stated policy of imposing consequences for unmet benchmarks, the potential increases for obstructions around the referendum and Darfur peace negotiations and thus a return to full-scale national war,” he added. “The stakes continue get higher in Sudan, and the administration’s bar for moving forward continues to get lower.”

Eric Reeves, a leader of the Darfur movement, agreed, asking, “Why should we think that by even partially legitimising the presidency of Omar al-Bashir we are boosting the chances for the referendum?”

In the absence of strong international pressure, he noted, Khartoum has stalled since 2005 on resolving key issues – including the delineation of the north-south border, and how oil revenue will be shared and citizenship determined in the event of a secession – that must be decided before the impending referendum.

“Continuing acquiescence isn’t a strategy, but simply – for the moment – the path of least resistance,” he said.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

 
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