Failed Elections in Sudan: Now What?

06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the midst of Genocide Prevention Month, I cannot help but be inspired by a passage from the excellent memoir of Stephen D. Smith, who along with his brother, James, spearheaded the establishment of the The Holocaust Centre in Laxton, England. Smith wrote: "If one thing we learn from the Holocaust is that we are required to act, another is that we might not be successful in our efforts. That does not mean we should not take action... But be prepared for a thankless task, because if we succeed and genocide becomes a thing of the past no one will ever know it did not happen. And if it continues our detractors will only point out our failure to be effective."

Indeed, when it comes to the crisis in Sudan, there are times when I feel like we are not succeeding. And when this happens, I try not to lose sight of Smith's words. They keep me going. Recent days have been especially distressing. The international community and activists at one time had high hopes for the national elections that eventually took place last week. Free, open and transparent elections would have set a new democratic course for the country. It would have paved the way for a peaceful referendum next winter on the independence of South Sudan as well as a true peace process in Darfur inclusive of all factions. This was the hope.

But Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir had no intention of presiding over real elections or providing an environment for real campaigning and voter education. Reports of fraud, intimidation, violence and irregularities became widespread, and then key opposition parties bailed out. These groups made the calculation that boycotting the elections was preferable to lending an air of legitimacy to what was sure to be a farce. So where does that leave us now? Basically, where we've been all along. The Obama administration has expressed disappointment in the way these elections were conducted. But press releases are not enough. President Obama's "carrots and sticks" policy of rewarding the Sudanese government for progress towards peace and holding it accountable for undermining peace now requires some sticks. And we are eager to see, in light of Sudan's recent elections, how the White House intends to implement its own stated policy.

The referendum is the next key political milestone. It is a critical component of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Sudanese government and South Sudan. Since the CPA was signed in 2005 there has been relative peace between the two parties, but the referendum will be its ultimate test. Sadly, there is little confidence that the two sides will make the necessary arrangements to ensure both a free and fair referendum, even though the stability of the entire nation hangs in the balance. If South Sudan is not able to voice its will or reach the necessary accommodation with the Bashir government, the outcome will likely be a renewal of the decade-long civil war and a total collapse of the CPA. A second civil war would also impact the environment in other regions of the country, making it virtually impossible for a peace process to progress in Darfur. In fact, it is not hard to envision Bashir authorizing a new surge of violence - or the cutting off of aid for the millions of Darfuris languishing in filthy camps - if the international community makes too much noise in support of South Sudan's rights under the CPA.

Fair elections, regardless of outcome, could have at least sent the message that those in power were willing to create a more representative government. For civil society to flourish, people need to have faith in institutions designed to protect their interests. Trust is crucial if a sustainable peace is to be negotiated between the Sudanese government, the militias it backs and the various Darfuri rebel groups, civil society groups and the general population. Good faith is also critical because there are many highly charged issues to be negotiated before the referendum on Southern independence takes place. These issues include control of and revenue from the oil fields in the South, use of the pipelines that run through the North to the Red Sea, demarcation of the border, and questions of currency and debt should the South declare its independence.

In the activist community our goals remain the same: 1) That a peace process proceeds in Darfur, 2) That the Sudanese government lives up to previous promises to participate in the peace process in good faith, allow humanitarian work to continue and not undermine international peacekeeping efforts, 3) That the Sudanese government honors the CPA, 4) That the Sudanese government is held accountable through tough international sanctions if it fails to live up to its promises, and 5) That the government ultimately complies with the International Criminal Court's call for the arrest of those responsible for the genocide, including Bashir who has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The failed elections were not a sign that we have failed, but they were a wake-up call that we have a long way to go. Our task may be thankless and we have our detractors, but our solidarity with the millions of people throughout Sudan, who want to live without fear and with control over their national and personal destinies, must remain strong enough to overcome whatever doubts we have. Because as long as international leaders know that we will not let them forsake Sudan, success is within our grasp -- despite the challenges we face.