Can a split Sudan see an end to years of human rights violations? Or worse to come...?

There’s an arresting image in today’s Guardian Eyewitness – centrefold spread – of a Sudanese woman gathering rubbish on a landfill in Juba. Amidst all the media attention relating to Sunday’s referendum across Sudan, the image reminds us that people in the country – some living in abject poverty – are simply struggling to survive day to day.

By no means do I under-estimate that the referendum will have massive consequences for the lives of people in both North and South Sudan, if the secession does proceed.  There is good reason for correspondents to flock to the region and for newspapers to devote column inches to this all important referendum at the moment.

The situation is already tense and the country remains instable, as the UK is reported to be donating a £40m aid package, as the humanitarian situation worsens.  Amnesty International is concerned that this weekend’s vote could reignite tensions and spark off a fresh conflict in the region.   Not that Sudan’s not had enough warring and disagreement.

It goes without saying that Sudan has had its fair share of crippling conflicts: not only between north and south but the ongoing conflict within Darfur has devastated the region and left millions of people impoverished, and living in a dreadful state of insecurity.

Sky News reports today of George Clooney’s new venture to protect the people of Sudan from any further human rights abuses by suggesting he use commercial satellites to detect whether conflict is looming is an interesting one. Laying the human rights violations solely at President Bashir’s door, Clooney’s questions whether the authorities would use force against civilians if they knew that it was being monitored.  Sky News reports Clooney as saying: "A lot of bad things happen when the lights are turned off, in particular in Sudan, and so we are just trying to turn the floodlight on”.

Already ahead of the referendum the human rights situation is gloomy. Amnesty documented numerous human rights violations by security forces and by members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the April 2010 elections.

As The Financial Times leader piece states, it is encouraging to see that President Bashir will accept the outcome of the vote. But given that there have been reports of voter intimidation and harassment, one must question whether it will be a free and fair vote particularly given that many voters in the south are vulnerable to intimidation and that journalists have been arbitrarily arrested and harassed for reporting electoral violations.

Mo Ibrahim in today’s Financial Times describes Sudan as a ‘warning to all of Africa’.  Acknowledging that Sudan is Africa’s largest country which spans nine states, he argues that if Sudan starts to crumble, the shock waves will spread.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think that his suggestion is too wide off the mark actually. The strength of Africa as a continent is very much dependent on the strength and stability of its individual states. And given the vastness of, and mineral wealth of Sudan, it is arguably a state which has greater impact than many others across the continent.

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