Abyei: Justice delayed but not denied by the African Union
By Luka Biong Deng
On 14th December in Addis Ababa, the African Union Peace and Security Council decided in its 349th Meeting to refer the endorsement of the AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei area to its meeting at the level of the Heads of State. The next meeting of the Council is scheduled to be held on the margins of the 21st Ordinary Session of the Assembly of AU in January 2013. Besides referring the endorsement of Abyei Proposal, the Council reiterates its acceptance of 21st September AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei area. The Council considers the Proposal as fair, equitable and workable solution for the final status of Abyei as it takes into account the Agreements entered into by the Parties and the needs and interests of the Ngok Dinka and Arab nomads.
As the deadline given to the Parties to build consensus around the Proposal expired on 5th December, the Council was expected to endorse the Proposal and to forward it to the UN Security Council for endorsement and enforcement. In justifying its decision of referral of the Proposal, the Council recognizes that no engagement took place between the Parties over the Proposal. This reasoning was rather surprising as the South exerted considerable efforts to engage Khartoum as articulated by its Minister of Foreign Affairs in his address to the Council. Khartoum instead avoided engaging with Juba and used instead the six weeks to wage a diplomatic campaign to convince the members of the Council to give more time for its engagement with Juba and to resolve the issue within AU without resorting to the UN Security Council.
In his address to the Council, the Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs used rather shallow arguments about the legitimacy of the Council’s decisions in its 24th October Communiqué. In fact the Sudanese Minister echoed and without remorse their normal racist rhetoric towards Africans by almost stating that the members of the Council are not only wrong but they do not know what they are doing. Specially, the Sudanese Foreign Minister argued that the decisions of the Council on 24th October are inconsistent with the principles of dialogue and mediation.
As the Sudanese Minister was lecturing the members of the Council about their role, the Minister was instead exposing his level of ignorance. In fact the Abyei Proposal came through a long process of dialogue and mediation. This process of dialogue started with Abyei Protocol that was signed by the Parties and then the final and binding international arbitration agreed upon by the Parties defined clearly the area of the Ngok Dinka. Also the Parties agreed in the 20th June 2011 Agreement to consider the proposals from the AU Panel about the final status of Abyei. Equally, the Parties accepted the AU Roadmap and the UN Security Council Resolution 2046 that mandated the AU Panel to make final and binding proposals on any issue not agreed upon by the Parties.
Also, the Sudanese Foreign Minister advanced rather absurd and ridiculous legal argument to challenge the decisions of the Council in its 24th October Communiqué. In particular, the Sudanese Minister argued that these decisions taken by the Council in relation to Abyei and border areas are in direct contradiction with the principle of respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Despite my limited legal knowledge, the Government of Sudan has failed to understand these decisions by wrongly considering them as decisions dealing with the border disputes between the two countries.
The decisions of the Council concerning Abyei area are not at all about the border dispute as the issue of Abyei boundaries has been resolved by the final and binding international border arbitration. In fact the decisions of the Council over Abyei are about determining the final status of Abyei through a process agreed upon by the two countries. Also the decisions of the Council over the disputed and claimed border areas are not about imposing solutions but rather to suggest a process for resolving the border disputes. This process of resolving the disputed and claimed border areas is almost agreed upon by the two countries by resorting to the final and binding international border arbitration after getting non-binding opinion from the AU border experts.
It is indeed strange for the Sudanese Foreign Minister to lecture the members of the Council that they did not adhere to the principles of dialogue and mediation as well as not respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sudan. On the contrary Sudan did not respect the provisions of the African Union Constitutive Act by defying the decisions taken by the Council through a process agreed upon by the two countries. While members state of AU respected the decision of the AU not to cooperate with ICC in apprehending and arresting Sudanese President over crimes committed in Darfur, the Sudanese Foreign Ministers has unfoundedly challenged the decisions of the very African institution that protects his President.
The Government of Sudan, after extensive diplomatic campaign by visiting almost all members of the Council, came to the last meeting of the AU Council with the aim of achieving two objectives, namely: to obstruct the issue of Abyei and border not to be taken to the UN Security Council and to water down the Proposal of the AU Panel on the final status of Abyei by asking for unlimited time to engage with the South. Sudan has gone further by suggesting to the Council its readiness to accept the partitioning of Abyei area as one of the preferred options proposed by the AU Panel to the Parties in November 2010.
In fact Sudan has failed to achieve either of these objectives as the Council reiterates its acceptance of the AU Abyei Proposal that will be endorsed in the next meeting of the Council and to be forwarded to the UN Security Council for endorsement. Also the Council did not accept the request by Khartoum for an open period to engage with the South over the pending issues of Abyei and border. The Council has instead given additional period of six weeks for the two Presidents to engage in a summit over these pending issues. The only way Sudan can avoid these AU proposals on Abyei and border to reach the UN Security Council is to accept these proposals during the summit between President Salva and President Bashir before the next meeting of the Council.
The decision by the Council to refer the issue of Abyei and border to its Heads of State was rather shocking and incompressible in light of its clear decision on 24th October. After the Parties failed to reach consensus over the AU Abyei Proposal within six weeks and to agree on mechanism for resolving the border disputes within two weeks, the Council was expected in its last meeting to endorse these proposals by the AU Panel and to seek endorsement of the UN Security Council. This raises a lot of questions about the credibility and consistency of the AU institutions in providing coherent leadership for resolving African problems.
Despite the apparent delay of justice for the people of Abyei area as they attached so much hope to the last meeting of the Council to endorse the Abyei Proposal, the decisions of the Council in its last meeting are rather reassuring by reiterating its acceptance of Abyei Proposal. Also the decision of referring the issues of Abyei and border to the Heads of State of the Council has a lot of wisdom. The endorsement of these proposals by the Council at the level of Heads of State will carry a lot of political and diplomatic weight that is necessary to ensure unified position among the members of the UN Security Council in endorsing these proposals.
In fact the discussion in the last meeting of the Council was less about questioning its decisions taken on 24th October but more about whether to endorse the proposals on Abyei and border at the level of ambassadors or at the level of the Heads of State. The real challenge now for the South is to ensure that the next meeting of the Council at the level of Heads of State to endorse the proposals on Abyei and border. This will require a high level diplomatic campaign at the level of the leadership of the South to engage all Heads of State of all members of the Council.
In order to make the diplomatic campaign of the South more effective and successful, President Salva may need to continue engaging President Bashir through a summit either in Juba or in a third country such as Ethiopia. In fact President Salva is on a higher moral ground not only to convince African leaders to endorse the AU Proposals on Abyei and border but he is the only African Leader who can engage President Bashir to accept these proposals without proceeding to the UN Security Council. Although the decisions of the Council in its last meeting have delayed justice for the people of Abyei, I am confident that the diplomatic efforts by President Salva with President Bashir and Heads of State of the Council will restore justice and hope for the people of Abyei.
Luka Biong Deng is a senior member of South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published first by the New Nation Newspaper – New York, US