After months of increasing tension and two weeks of outright fighting between Sudan and South Sudan, the international community has ramped up diplomatic efforts to avert a return to full-scale war between the two recently separated countries.
African Union & United Nations Respond
On April 24, the African Union (AU) passed a resolution calling for both parties to cease hostilities within 48 hours, withdraw their forces, enact a previously agreed upon border security mechanism, cease supporting rebel groups, end inflammatory speech, and redeploy forces from Abyei within two weeks.
The UN Security Council passed a similar resolution backing the AU communiqué, and threatening sanctions on both countries if they do not cease fighting and return to the negotiating table. This is a welcome step and particularly noteworthy given prior Chinese and Russian reluctance. Sudan and South Sudan have both agreed to the AU plan and have until May 16 to resume negotiations and 90 days to reach an agreement or face international arbitration.
Also in April, President Obama issued a video message to the people of Sudan and South Sudan. In the message, he called for a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and an end of support for armed groups.
Lack of Agreement on Oil Revenue Sharing Prove to be Significant Cause of Conflict
Tensions between Sudan and South Sudan reached a boiling point in April. Ground attacks from both sides and aerial bombardments from Sudan spilled across the shared border. While a return to war is in the interest of neither country, the failure to resolve several divisive post-independence issues such oil sharing, border demarcation and the disputed Abyei region make it unlikely that relations between Sudan and South Sudan will mend any time in the near future.
The increased efforts by the international community came after South Sudan took control of the oil producing region of Heglig. South Sudan’s ground attack came in response to an escalating aerial bombardment campaign by the Sudanese military. Since November, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s forces have bombed refugee areas, a United Nations compound, oil installations, and towns across the border in South Sudan. According to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), bombing by Sudan has killed at least 16 civilians and injured an additional 34 in South Sudan’s Unity state during the month of April. While South Sudan has been incredibly patient given Sudan’s provocation, the invasion of Heglig on April 10 further escalated the situation and ultimately played into Bashir’s hands as the government has used the occupation to rally internal public support and international condemnation.
In response to the occupation of Heglig, President Bashir threatened to liberate the southern citizens from South Sudan’s ruling party stating that he will “eliminate this insect completely.” Sudan’s bombing campaign against South Sudan is just the latest act of violence against civilians and over the past year the Sudanese military have continued attacks in Darfur, invaded the disputed Abyei region, and instigated a brutal campaign against civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Role of the International Community as Atrocities Continue and the Humanitarian Situation Worsens
The international community cannot let the resumption of fighting along the border distract from ongoing attacks in Darfur, the government of Sudan’s continued atrocities in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, or the worsening humanitarian situation. The international community, including the United States, should also refrain from portraying Sudan and South Sudan as morally equivalent. While both have broken international law, Sudan’s provocations and targeting of civilian areas cannot be justified and should be regarded as serious violations. Attacks by the Sudanese government on civilian areas along the border have created a refugee and humanitarian crisis which cannot be overlooked.
The United States must take action to de-escalate the conflict and address the humanitarian crisis. The U.S. government should lead the UN Security Council in holding perpetrators of violence against civilians in Sudan and South Sudan accountable and by working with members of the international community — such as China, the Arab League, and African Union — to exert a concerted and coordinated effort to pressure both sides to immediately cease hostilities and launch a robust effort to encourage a solution through political negotiation.