The backstory on today’s Sudan ruling

When we published the 10 Stories You Missed in 2008 late last year, we couldn’t have guessed how much this one would keep popping up: conflict in Southern Sudan stands to escalate, we reported. Today, a court ruling on one border town’s boundaries sets the stage for how things could unfold in coming months.    ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
583229_090722_sudan2.jpg
583229_090722_sudan2.jpg
Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, Khartoum's representative, adresses the abritration panel on July 22, 2009 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague during the ruling on the dispute between north and south Sudan over the Abyei region boundaries. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague reduced today the borders of the oil-rich Abyei region at the heart of a fragile peace pact between north and south Sudan. AFP PHOTO / ANP / PHIL NIJHUIS netherlands out - belgium out (Photo credit should read PHIL NIJHUIS/AFP/Getty Images)

When we published the 10 Stories You Missed in 2008 late last year, we couldn’t have guessed how much this one would keep popping up: conflict in Southern Sudan stands to escalate, we reported. Today, a court ruling on one border town’s boundaries sets the stage for how things could unfold in coming months. 

 

Abyei has always been, literally, at the center of the conflict between the North and South. Both sides armed proxies in the area during the civil war. Despite the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), many factions remain armed in anticipation of a referendum in 2011, in which the South can decide between autonomy and independence from the rest of Sudan. The risk of conflict at that time is real. Says Enough Project’s Colin Thomas-Jensen, “There is a genuine reluctance on part of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, [the ruling party in the South], to disarm its proxies when they know they might need them again.”

But today’s ruling was, at least in diplo-speak, a victory for both sides. The commission in the Hague drew Abyei’s borders in a way that oil fields — highly coveted by both North and South — were roughly divided between the two regions. The Heglig and Bamboo fields now fall on the North side; another is retained in the South.

Yet while both regions come away with a macro-level victory of sorts, “conflict at a local level will be much trickier to deal with,” warns Thomas-Jensen. “That’s where the actual implementation, demarcation, and determination of who’s a resident [of the North or South] in household-to-household terms has the potential for local conflict.” Imagine waking up one morning and learning you were on the “wrong” side of the border. In a region of the country saturated in conflict, the results could be explosive. “And we know that in Sudan, local conflict has the potential to spiral into something much bigger.”

So the big picture? There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that the international community is paying attention. The European Union, United States, UN Security Council, and other diplomats have all watched the ruling attentively. For now, both North and South Sudan say they’ll implement the accord.

The bad news is that interest in Sudan is often fleeting. In coming months, Thomas-Jensen warns, “there will be another crisis somewhere in Sudan, and there will be a temptation to leapfrog from one conflict [Abyei] to another. Is there a peace process for Darfur? Not that I can see, whereas two years ago, there was no attention paid to the CPA. This is a test for the parties in Sudan, but it’s also a test of the international community’s committment to seeing this through.” Stay tuned.

PHIL NIJHUIS/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

Read More On Sudan

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.