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Time running out on Sudan as Security Council visits

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The UN Security Council's visit to Sudan must focus on helping to resolve key outstanding issues and protect civilians from harm ahead of the referendum on southern independence, international agency Oxfam said today. With so much at stake for the people of Sudan and less than 100 days to go, time is running out to ensure the referendum goes peacefully.

Charlotte Scawen, acting Head of Oxfam in southern Sudan:

"The longer uncertainty drags on, the more likely violence could flare up. People here are waiting eagerly for the chance to decide their future and expectations are extremely high."

Preparations for the vote are well behind schedule, and some unresolved issues could trigger violence. There is still no agreement on who will even be eligible to vote. The Abyei Referendum Commission has not formed yet, and there is little progress on deciding the north-south border. The newly announced timetable gives just a few weeks to register voters across southern Sudan. Oxfam said the logistical challenges for the referendum are enormous.

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The UN Security Council is meeting in East Africa this week. GETTY Images

Scawen: "Southern Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed regions on earth, with few roads and little infrastructure. Conducting a referendum on this scale is a huge challenge and will take a lot of planning and time - which is rapidly running out. The Security Council urgently needs to help the two parties agree key issues and ensure that civilians are protected from any increase in violence,"

Oxfam is extremely concerned about threats to civilians as tensions rise around the referendum period. At least 188,000 southern Sudanese have already fled their homes due to violence this year.

The agency said the Security Council should ensure that the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) implements its mandate to protect civilians ahead of, during and following the referendum. UNMIS has not always prioritised this part of its mandate, or been properly resourced to implement it effectively. Its new protection strategy is yet to be approved and needs to be put into action as soon as possible.

Ultimate responsibility for keeping civilians safe lies with the two main parties and Oxfam urges the Security Council to seek guarantees that human rights will be respected in the coming months.

After decades of war, southern Sudan is being built up almost from scratch and Oxfam said that irrespective of the referendum's outcome the region will need sustained international support. Large-scale displacement of civilians, local conflict and poor rains have exacerbated already chronic poverty this year, leaving many parts of the region in dire need of emergency and long-term aid.