Life-saving breakthrough or yet another broken promise made by a government that seems determined to destroy its own people?
That is the life-or-death question that hangs over the news of an agreement made by the Sudanese government to finally allow food and humanitarian aid into the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state of Sudan. The government of Sudan has been bombing the region for over a year and has set up a blockade that is further devastating the population by preventing the international community from accessing the hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation.
The announcement of the agreement on humanitarian access followed word that the governments of Sudan and South Sudan had reached a deal on oil. Following the separation of the two countries in July 2011, South Sudan found itself with the majority of the oil. However, the only pipeline available to export the natural resource runs through Sudan. After Sudan was accused of stealing oil, South Sudan shut down production. The latest deal sets up a tentative agreement under which the flow of oil may resume from South Sudan through Sudan and then on to its principle customer, China -- a big step toward stopping the implosion of both of their economies.
Yesterday, I asked Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations how soon food could begin to make its way to the desperate people who are struggling to survive on a diet of leaves and tree bark. "Very soon," he responded. "How soon?" I asked. "Two, maybe three weeks," was his answer.
The problem, he said, was that they need to assess exactly how many people needed food. "Why?" I asked. "It is indisputable that hundreds of thousands are at risk right now because of your government's blockade. Time is of the essence. Children are dying right now."
"We need to be sure that the food gets to where it should go and not be siphoned off to corruption," he replied. "But food will be allowed in very soon."
"Has your government stopped the indiscriminate aerial bombing of these people?" I asked.
"No innocent people have been hurt by this so-called bombing," he replied. The extensive documentation of these bombings from United Nations (UN) observers, as well as the devastating reports and video out of the Nuba Mountains from Nick Kristof of the New York Times were not true, he protested.
His denials put his promise of food flowing to the desperate people in the Nuba Mountains "very soon" into perspective.
This is the same Sudanese ambassador who in June was warned by outgoing Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, that he may be held responsible for comments denying the genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
The humanitarian access agreement was also signed by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), which controls a significant area in South Kordofan. It is the second time the SPLM-N has signed such a deal. They remain skeptical, but hopeful. SPLM-N Secretary General Yasir Arman said in a statement, "General Bashir's intention is to lift the pressure on him by signing this document and to put up all obstacles. It is not to operationalize it until the end of the rainy season, and as usual, he will go on summer offensive by early November," but added, "We signed the document hoping it is going to work."
None of this surprised Ambassador Susan Rice, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) and I met with her in her New York office after several meetings at the UN on the crises in Sudan. She knew Sudan's ambassador all too well.
Security Council Resolution 2046, put forward by Ambassador Rice on behalf of the United States, was hanging over the heads of both countries. The unanimously adopted resolution demands full compliance with the African Union's road map to peace -- including allowing food and humanitarian aid into South Kordofan and Blue Nile states of Sudan. Failure to comply would mean the imposition of sanctions on the non-compliant parties. According to the Enough Project, the government of Sudan has failed to comply with nine of the resolution's provisions while South Sudan has failed to comply with two.
"Will China and Russia go along with the imposition of sanctions?" I asked Ambassador Rice. "They agreed to the resolution," she replied. "The vote was unanimous."
While it is hard to imagine China actually moving forward with sanctions, it's important to remember what China has on the line. And, it all comes down to one word: oil.
China was Sudan's top importer of oil, buying 66 percent of the output before the dispute between South Sudan and Sudan shut off the tap in January. Prior to the shut down, the oil fields of South Sudan met 6 percent of China's voracious appetite for the natural resource.
Just after the agreement was announced, China focused on its bottom line, releasing a public statement praising the deal and "urged South Sudan to protect the interests of its cooperation partners."
"China appreciates the practical, flexible and responsible manner the two sides showed during the negotiations as well as the efforts made by the African Union," the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.
So, now that an agreement has been reached, is there hope for the hundreds of thousands of suffering people who are caught in Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's vise -- a people he has referred to as "insects"? Could Sudan's ambassador be on the level that food will begin moving in "very soon" and save untold numbers of people?
"Now begins the long, excruciating process of negotiating the implementation phase of the agreement," said Philippe Lazzarini, Deputy Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This is where Sudan is famous for bobbing, weaving and undermining agreements.
Let us hope that this is not "déjà-vu all over again" as Yogi Berra would put it. You have to have a strong well-spring of hope to think that after breaking dozens of commitments, the government of Sudan will actually keep its word.
The people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile certainly need more than hope if they are to survive. They need the United Nations Security Council -- including Russia and China -- to be willing to impose the tough sanctions that it has promised for non-compliance. And they need Ambassador Rice and the United States to provide the necessary leadership to make this deal stick.
The lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people hang in the balance.