President Obama Must Address Sudan at the UN General Assembly

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Jerry Fowler, president, Save Darfur Coalition; Haggag Nayel, secretary general, Arab Coalition for Darfur; and Dismas Nkunda, co-chair, Darfur Consortium

While President Barack Obama will speak to a number of pressing global issues when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly tomorrow, one topic he cannot neglect is Sudan. The President should seize the opportunity to build international support for policies to protect the human rights of all Sudanese and promote lasting peace in the country.

The stakes are significant. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, surrounded by nine other states which are, in one way or another, affected by its instability and insecurity. It is a bridge between the African and Arab worlds and a key to the balance of both. As leaders of advocacy coalitions in the United States, Africa and the Arab World, we see Sudan as a test of the Obama administration's strategy of multilateralism and America's ability to use its influence to champion human rights, resolve conflicts, and prevent mass atrocities.

Sudan has experienced conflict for years, including decades-long civil war between the North and South and extreme and targeted violence that American officials and others have termed genocide. The U.S. government helped end the civil war by pressing the Government of Sudan to agree to a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the leading Southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Since the CPA was signed in 2005, violence has been reduced in the South and the possibility of normal life has returned to many conflict-affected areas. A return to full-scale war, threatens, however, as the peace partners argue daily over the agreement's implementation. Stability in the South also has suffered from recent inter-ethnic clashes and attacks by the Lord Resistance's Army that have directly targeted civilians.

But while the fire in the South has been temporarily extinguished, the international community continues to neglect the suffering of Darfur. Today, nearly three million people remain in camps for internally displaced persons, unable to go home because of intimidation from government-supported militias, land occupations, banditry and a chaotic mix of intermittent violence between various armed groups.

Displaced and refugee women face a constant threat of systematic rape by fighters from these groups, and more than 1.8 million civilians in need have limited or no access to humanitarian aid because of insecurity.

United States diplomacy was a tremendous asset in the negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This administration must play a similar role in promoting peace. The United States has a unique capacity to bring together the significant actors in the African Union and Arab League, or rally the diplomatic support of key powers like the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Egypt, and China. This administration has the responsibility to leverage that capacity for peace.

President Obama should focus the international community to support a credible and inclusive Darfur peace process and the full implementation of the CPA. The administration must also push for free and fair elections in 2010, and fully back the self-determination referendum for South Sudan scheduled for 2011.

These are the political solutions necessary to end current conflict in Sudan and prevent an explosive wave of new violence. If managed poorly, however, they could also trigger a return to war. While focused on long-term solutions, the President should at the same time push for the protection of civilians, internally displaced persons and human rights defenders persecuted for trying to protect victims of rights violations.

This month, President Obama should also build international consensus on the set of policies necessary to encourage Khartoum to change its behavior and commit to the process of peace and state building. To that end, he should call on Darfuri rebels and Khartoum to commit immediately to negotiations and ask international leaders to join him in urging the Sudanese government to implement concrete structural reforms envisaged by the CPA. Such reform would include real implementation of the interim Constitution of Sudan, including the Bill of Rights, and the elimination of all legal provisions - in particular the national security laws - that contradict international human rights standards.

Finally, President Obama should focus the attention of the G-20 members gathered in Pittsburgh on the significant issue of Sudan's foreign debt. The $34 billion Sudan owes to other nations (most of which are members of the G-20) and multilateral institutions present an ideal opportunity to unify the world's strongest economies around a common platform of economic influence. Debt relief for Sudan should be conditioned on concrete and lasting progress on peace in Darfur and implementation of the CPA. By adopting this approach, President Obama would be carrying out his inaugural offer to repressive regimes of extending a hand - but only to those willing to "unclench" their fists.

Re-ignition of conflict would be catastrophic for Sudan's people and the entire region. Full-scale war and descent into chaos would also represent a dramatic and costly failure for the United States and the international community. Refugee flows and violence would upset the tenuous stability in Chad, Uganda, Kenya, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia - and gravely harm Egypt's national security. The potential human costs to such a regional conflagration are incalculable.

Responsible American leaders can focus the international community to prevent failure in Sudan -- the time and place for that leadership is September 23rd in New York. And no one is more suited to do this than President Obama.