The Sudan Referendum: A Moment, Not An End

January 18, 2011

Ambassador Richard Williamson offers remarks on the January 2011 Sudan Referendum in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations.

It is a pleasure to be here to share my views about the situation in Sudan, the recent plebiscite in Southern Sudan and the many challenges ahead. However, first let me congratulate Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on her recent election to chair the House Committee on Foreign Relations. And let me thank Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Howard Berman for inviting me to appear before the Committee and share my perspectives.

Currently I am a principal in the consulting firm of Salisbury Strategies, LLP, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. It’s been my honor and pleasure to serve in a number of government positions, among them was service in three ambassadorships, assistant secretary of state for International Organization Affairs, and most recently serving as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan where I worked to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Darfur and for the full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).


From January 9th through January 16th millions of south Sudanese went to the polls to exercise their right of self determination. This right, recognized in the United Nations Charter and in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, finally came to the long suffering people as a stipulation of the CPA. While during the recent vote there was violence, with a number of tragic deaths, and there were some technical and other difficulties, overall the vote went well.




This is a moment of satisfaction, even celebration, over the south Sudanese people overcoming decades of death, destruction and despair during which vicious violence and horrendous atrocities were too common afflictions on innocent people. It is a moment in which we should recognize the struggle, stamina and strength of these extraordinary people. The progress is ultimately their hard won achievement. It is the people of south Sudan, those living there and those driven from their homes, who seized this opportunity to make their world anew. It is these people who have never given up on their dream to overcome a history of marginalization and violence who we should celebrate: their courage, their commitment, their character. It also is a moment in which we should note the contribution of many remarkable Sudanese leaders such as Dr. John Garang and President Salva Kiir who demonstrated vision, wisdom, political skill and patient guidance. And, notwithstanding their role in the atrocities, their use of proxy militias and their failures to live up to so many of the commitments made in the CPA, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the government of Sudan, however reluctantly, allowed the vote to go forward.




Furthermore, the broader International Community has been deeply engaged in assisting this process. The IGAD member states of east Africa and the Troika of the United States, Norway and Great Britain played very useful roles in nurturing discussions and ultimately helping broker agreements that ended the long Sudan North/South Civil War, the longest in Africa which claimed over 2 million lives and displaced over 4 ½ million south Sudanese.




President George W. Bush and his first Special Envoy to Sudan, Senator Jack Danforth, deserve special recognition for the critical, indeed indispensable role played by the United States in achieving this peace agreement. And the United States has continued to be deeply engaged in nurturing the implementation of the CPA. It is a great example of the power and influence and resources of the United States harnessed to good purpose in realizing a major diplomatic achievement and contributing to a more peaceful world. It has been a cause in which there has been common purpose of President Bush and, now, President Obama, and the United States Congress; of Republicans and Democrats.




In spite of that common cause, I was sorely disappointed in the Obama Administration’s policies and performance on Sudan during its first 20 months; a poor performance that witnessed a rise in violence and an increase in deaths in Darfur and southern Sudan, decreased flow of humanitarian assistance to the displaced people in Darfur struggling to survive in desperate conditions, multiple violations of commitments absent United States government rebuke and an erosion of the principle of accountability. However, and this is significant, President Obama’s personal involvement in Sudan policy and diplomacy since last September and a general United States diplomatic surge, undoubtedly have contributed to the vote going forward.  The administration deserves recognition and praise for its renewed focus.. I would like in particular to single out Ambassador Princeton Lyman, an able and experienced foreign service officer, who agreed to come back into government service when asked to do so and help this process the past four months.




More generally, the United States, the United Nations and many, many other donor countries have continued to assist the south Sudanese with significant humanitarian assistance and development aid, often coordinated through the Sudan donors consortium. And the United Nations peacekeepers (UNMIS) have helped crowd out the space for violence. Also, it is important to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts made by thousands of civilians in a large number of Sudanese and international non-governmental organizations who have labored tirelessly, often in very difficult conditions, to help the south Sudanese during this critical transition period. While serving as the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan, I witnessed the good work of these dedicated people and visited with them in Khartoum,
Juba and in the camps. They are extraordinary individuals dedicated to a cause greater than themselves. They provide medical assistance, help supply basic needs, assist in helping improve governance and so many other activities crucial to the survival of so many Sudanese in need in the south, Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. Their continued efforts are necessary and require support if the Sudan people are to achieve a better future. Many are true heroes whose selfless work will not receive wide recognition but to whom all are indebted who hope for a better, more peaceful, more stable and more prosperous Sudan.




Finally I want to acknowledge the contribution of the dedicated advocacy community in the United States and abroad who have kept a lasar focus on developments in Sudan and sought to ring the bell and alert those in public office to developments and hold them accountable when they felt their leaders were falling short in their responsibilities. Yes, while I served as the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan I felt their heat from time to time, I felt its discomfort and often disagreed with their critiques; just as from time to time I heard constructive criticisms from some members of Congress; but I never questioned their motives, their commitment and, truth be told, they helped me do a better job. Similarly, I believe that community of dedicated humanitarians in their advocacy will continue to play a vital role going forward.




So I repeat, the voting that just ended is an extraordinary moment toward which many contributed; and for which the south Sudanese themselves deserve the lion’s share of the recognition and credit. It is appropriate to celebrate this moment just as it is appropriate also to recognize the contributions of so many others. But this is not the end of the story. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end, however, it may be the beginning of the end. And the most perilous period lies yet ahead. To have travelled so far and through such costly and treacherous waters at such sacrifice of human life, it would be unconscionable now to not see this process to its successful conclusion. A sustainable peace is achievable, we can see that now; but it definitely is not inevitable. And the history, habits and heritage of Sudan has been vicious violence; not conciliation, cooperation and compromise. The pattern and practice has been retribution, not renewal and rebirth.




Yes, note and applaud the achievement; but we cannot lose sight that the goal was not the vote but a sustainable peace where long marginalized people can live in dignity and seek their dreams in freedom. It is not a time for “gold stars and cookies;” it is time for robust diplomacy. There must be a combination of incentives and credible threats of coercive steps if negotiations are not in good faith, deals are broken or there is a resort to violence. As Bismarck once said, diplomacy without the credible threat of force is like written music without instruments. To finish the job that has begun, we need incentives and we need steel.





Extremely difficult problems, especially those that have been surrounded by a long history of marginalization, discrimination and injustice; violence and atrocities; mayhem and murder; and a path of broken promises and breached commitments are not resolved by agreements in principle, frameworks or promises to negotiate in good faith.  Detailed, specific and verifiable commitments must be reached.  As President Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust but verify.”  And the outstanding issues between south and north Sudan are very difficult indeed. 

The five contested border areas, oil revenue sharing, the future of Abyei, popular consultations, citizenship, security, liabilities and currency are just some of the most urgent matters that must be resolved before a separation can occur with any chance of success.  None of these fundamental issues is new.  They have been long acknowledged.  The processes for resolution of many were stipulated in the CPA.  But as we meet today they are not resolved.  The uncertainty around their resolution adds to the tension and instability that lingers.  They create a haunting specter that darkens the path forward and puts at grave risk any chance of real, sustainable progress.  Left unresolved, it is hard to imagine the results of the Referendum being honored and a future without a return to the terrible times of terror and tragedy in the south.


To set a successful strategy, one must examine the history, heritage and habits in Sudan. And one must be mindful of past performance; promises kept and promises broken. And especially in Sudan, it is prudent to be mindful of practices used to achieve goals; including how frequently there has been a resort to violence and the particularly brutal ways in which campaigns of violence have been prosecuted. In the case of north and south Sudan, it is not a pretty story.

Going back at least to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, Sudan has had a history of favoritism for a minority of Sudanese in the north who are Arab and Muslim, and severe marginalization of those in the periphery who are not. This discrimination permeated all areas of life. Power and privilege were reserved for the Arab Muslims of the north. Among the denial and discrimination of those on the periphery, such as the southerners, were in areas of education, health care, economic opportunities, political participation and justice. Tragically, this gross discrimination continued into the 20th century under the British. When Sudan achieved independence in 1956, the reins of power were handed over to the same minority that had held privileged positions in the colonial period. Unsurprisingly, the new government continued the discrimination. Of course, this fragmentation and marginalization have prevented the people from gaining any sense of shared community, common cause or nationhood. This has been accentuated by periodic efforts of the government to impose Islamist Sharia law upon the south.

I once asked an old Sudan hand how the government could do such awful things to their own people. His reply was instructive. He said, “They don’t believe those people are their own.”

During the decades of war, the north armed Arab militias. They engaged in coordinated attacks of the Sudan Armed Forces and their Arab militia proxies in the south. They targeted innocent civilians. Fire fell from the sky and atrocities were committed. Over 2 million died. 4 ½ million were displaced. And we should remember that rebel movements also on occasion committed terrible deeds. In Sudan there are no white hats but among the innocent civilians who have been and continue to be preyed upon. Nonetheless, there is a stark difference between those with the dusty brown hats and those with the darkest black hats on whose hands is the stain of so much innocent blood.

As I have already noted, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was a great diplomatic achievement that ended the worst violence. It charted a six year transition period in which a number of critical issues were to be resolved leading up to the plebiscite on separation just completed. It invited an effort by the north to make unity attractive. This was not an invitation acted upon, and the probable vote for separation is the consequence of the north’s inability or unwillingness to take steps to unify the country and forge a common identity of equality and respect and shared identity.

Let’s look at some of the agreements made in the CPA. The north agreed to disarm the Arab militias. It has not done so. Indeed, there are ample reports that during the past two years the north has supplied more arms to their Arab militia proxies in the south and other areas in anticipation of renewed large scale fighting. The north agreed to disband their proxy militias. They have not done so. The north and the south agreed to the creation of the Abyei Border Commission, a new independent international panel of experts, to study the history of the area and determine the border between the north and the south; and the north and the south both committed to accept the border determination of the Commission.

That body was created, did substantial research and issued its determination of the appropriate border demarcation. Their decision was not precisely what either the south or the north had hoped for. As it had committed, the south accepted the Abyei Border Commission border decision. The north did not. The north and south agreed to an oil revenue sharing arrangement during the transition up to the Referendum. Integral to that agreement was the stipulation that the north ensure a transparent process and accounting for the ongoing implementation of the oil revenue sharing. The north has failed to be transparent. After the May, 2008, Abyei flair up during which Sudan Armed Forces stayed in their barracks while Misseriya Arabs burned the city to the ground displacing over 50,000 south Sudanese, the south and north agreed to the Abyei Road Map. Among the matters addressed was once again dealing with the contested border areas. Both parties agreed to submit the issue to the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague. The south and the north agreed to be bound by the Court’s decision. That determination was less favorable to the south than the Abyei Border Commission’s demarcation line. Nonetheless, the south lived up to its commitment and accepted the Court’s decision. The north did not.

Suffice it to say that there is a clear pattern. And that pattern does not suggest that it would be prudent to accept on faith any conceptual agreements, any deals in principle, nor even any specific detailed agreements unless and until they are monitored and verified. To do otherwise would be worse than being naive, it would be irresponsible. It would invite violations, disappointment, and, in all likelihood, it would invite a return to large scale violence in which more innocents will die.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that violence in the south increased in 2009 and increased further in 2010. Casualties rose in 2009 and rose further in 2010. Deaths increased. And there are reputable reports that the north had further armed some of their agents of destruction during this period. Indeed, just one week before the Referendum, the United Nations verified that Sudan Armed Force aircraft had dropped 18 bombs in the south. Compared to the scales of violence and the casualty rate during the war, this was low intensity violence. But that is little comfort to those who are dead or their loved ones left behind. And it suggests a willingness to return to violence as a legitimate instrument to pursue political objectives. This too should argue against any leap of faith for good intentions or rush to overstate progress in the slender hope of substantial progress. It suggests the requirement of specific, detailed commitments on all the critical matters and verification of each and every step with appropriate incentives and adequate sanction for nonperformance.

The challenges in the coming months also include severe stress on both the Government of Sudan in Khartoum and the Government of Southern Sudan in Juba which must be taken into account.

In the south, competing ambitions among various prominent political personalities, militia factions and tribes have been submerged to make a united cause against the north and move toward separation. As the votes are counted and the path traveled toward independence, we can expect that many of those ambitions will be unleashed. The jockeying for power will be robust. The stress on President Salva Kiir will be considerable. While the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan I came to appreciate Salva as the indispensible man to keep the competing interests within the south harnessed to the common cause of full CPA implementation and to restrain the considerable political pressure to lash out against the north for their misdeeds and agreement violations. But he will be seen by some natural competitors in the south as less indispensible as separation approaches. His room to maneuver and compromise on outstanding issues with the north will become increasingly circumscribed. The stress will grow and it will be inhospitable to being overly accommodating to the north’s demands.

In the north, the government’s legitimacy will be challenged by some for having agreed to dismember Sudan. Already there are reports of various opposition leaders conspiring to unify to bring down the government. But then in Sudan “conspiracies” always seem to be a robust growth industry. Such rumors are not new. And it must be considered that some might overstate the vulnerability of the government to exact support for the north’s positions in negotiations or to exact benefits from the credulous outsiders. There might be further stress on the government from rebel movements in Darfur or other disaffected areas that sense vulnerability in Khartoum and want to seize the moment to advance their cause and address their grievances.

A final note regarding the context is to review the past patterns and practices of all the parties in dealing with disputes. My experience is that the north is well practiced in the art of addressing critical issues that have achieved international attention and concern. They like to set up elaborate processes to address the outstanding issues. They like to deliberate, and discuss, and debate and delay; and then discuss and deliberate and delay some more. Meanwhile the process itself is a form of denial. The international community’s attention wonders to other pressing issues. The urgency seems to have passed. The circumstances have not changes, but the crisis atmosphere passes. Meanwhile, the south is too trusting and willing to hope for the good faith of their interlocutors. Surely this time Khartoum means what it says. But Khartoum does not. Should the United States encourage such a leap of faith? And as we approach the July date for separation, as the political pressure grows, the anticipation and risks, will Washington succumb to the temptation to pressure those we believe most responsive to our sway and coercion, the south, to accept more concessions to satisfy the north?


It is appropriate to celebrate this moment of a credible Referendum in Sudan as stipulated in the CPA. It is a considerable achievement in which the United States played a significant role, including the efforts of the Obama administration during the past 4 months. But it is only a moment. The heavy lifting remains to be done. The critical issues remain unresolved. The stakes are high. The time is short. And the cost of failure will be paid in innocent Sudanese blood.

Like Charlie Brown and Lucy every autumn, shouldn’t we expect that despite promises and commitments and pledges of good faith that once again as Charlie Brown runs up to the football and swings to kick it that Lucy, at the last moment, will pull the football away and Charlie Brown will swing his foot and land on his backside?

We should not put much stock in any agreements in principle or frameworks or agreements to negotiate to agree on any of these critical issues. We should not give “cookies and gold stars” in anticipation or hopes of progress. It is time to be realistic, keep our eyes wide open, be tough minded and demand specific verifiable agreements and the means to monitor performance.

There should be some transparency on the pace and good faith efforts of all parties during the upcoming negotiations. The heat must be on both parties. Neither can be allowed to stall to gain last minute advantage.

Throughout the Bush administration, the United States Government engaged with all the parties in Sudan. During negotiations incentives were discussed and penalties stipulated. When commitments were breached and actions taken that violated innocent Sudanese, at the very least, vigorous public condemnations were expressed. And, under President Bush, the United States Government clearly supported the principle of accountability in Sudan and took steps to oppose impunity. In Sudan to offer incentives with no credible threat is neither smart nor effective. To provide rewards for past commitments haltingly and imperfectly lived up to is overpaying for obligations to which the parties have already subscribed and weakening your hand when the heavy lifting that lies yet ahead.

Finally, the north/south issues, including full implementation of the CPA, cannot and should not be dealt with in isolation to the continuing marginalization of the peripheries, and the genocide in slow motion in Darfur. Before the United States becomes too generous with various incentives, we must alleviate the humanitarian suffering and bring an end to the death, destruction and despair in Darfur.

Finally, regarding Sudan’s designation on the Terror List initiated by the Clinton administration. I am not current on the Government of Sudan’s activities with Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization, but we know there has been some past activities. Nor am I briefed on Khartoum’s current areas of cooperation with United States intelligence services. But we can agree that before the administration formally informs Congress of any intention to lift Sudan, or any other country, from the State Sponsor list that the case must be made on the merits and not tilted due to some other political considerations.


The Sudanese people have suffered greatly. They have endured more than any people should ever endure. The Government of Sudan has a responsibility to protect the people living within their borders. Instead of meeting this responsibility they have perpetuated atrocities and suffering on their own people. Innocent people have been targeted due to ethnicity, race and region. The United States and others also have a responsibility, a responsibility which we have not met, to help the afflicted, the marginalized, the innocent victims. At this moment when some progress has been made we must press on for a just resolution consistent with the CPA that will provide an opportunity for sustainable stability and renewal.

Thank you.