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Autonomy and Independence: The International Community's Role
December 2010

In January, Southern Sudan and Abyei are expected to fulfill a nervously anticipated element of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a protracted civil war between Khartoum and Southern Sudanese rebel forces in 2005. The CPA-mandated popular referendums will determine if the South will declare independence from Sudan, and which part of Sudan oil-rich Abyei will join.

Observers insist there is little doubt independence will be chosen by voters, assuming the vote takes place and it is free, fair, and inclusive. Certainty of popular will, however, is shrouded in an equal degree of skepticism regarding the credibility of the process and willingness of the parties, particularly Omar el-Bashir’s regime, to follow through on commitments and abide by the results.

The pending referendums have thus attracted a largely unprecedented degree of speculation and attention on behalf of the international community, which has invested directly in the process in hopes of a peaceful outcome.

This level of attention is in many ways unsurprising—the CPA that mandates the referendums was the result of active engagement on behalf of key international players. Forty years of civil war revealed a penchant for civilian targeting on all sides, leading many to fear that the process and its innumerable contingencies could lead not only to a resurgence of general conflict but also to mass atrocities and genocidal campaigns.

Given the investment and the risks, many world leaders are paying a unique level of attention to the process, and attempting a form of engagement that is often elusive in global politics—a concerted effort at crisis prevention rather than a simple “wait and see” in anticipation of the need for crisis response.

The global attention evokes memories of other recent cases of secession, as well as the lingering status of numerous autonomous regions striving for official statehood, each of which have attracted highly varying levels of international support and engagement.

Like Southern Sudan, the status of Kosovo, its own autonomy stemming from an experience of civil war and mass atrocities, elicited a high degree of international involvement. In fact, direct administration by UN authorities defined much of its post-atrocity history. Yet opinions of UN member states, including major powers, have differed widely on the validity of its declaration of independence.

Other cases have attracted significantly less attention and investment. Somaliand, an island of relative stability unwillingly encompassed within the world’s most notoriously failed state, Somalia, declared independence in 1991 to an absence of international recognition—recognition it continues to strive for with little direct support. Moldova’s breakaway region of Trans-Dniester has been considered by few aside from key neighbors and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has thus far been unable to force a breakthrough in the stalemate on its status. Georgia’s autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have received flares of attention in moments of heightened conflict, and a UN mission (UNOMIG) was established in 1993 to verify cease-fire compliance between Georgian and Abkhaz authorities. Continuing engagement, however, has been largely stifled by lack of consensus among the members of the UN Security Council, which failed to renew UNOMIG’s mandate in June of 2009.

In the Sudanese case, many question whether the actions taken by international actors, particularly the United States, have been sufficient to ensure a peaceful result or prepare for the prospect of violence. While the course of the referendum remains largely unclear, the engagement of the international community will certainly play into its outcome—one way or another.

Rachel Gerber

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