(New York) - Militia attacks on travelers in disputed areas dividing northern and southern Sudan may reflect a Sudanese government attempt to skew a crucial census registration, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks are deterring displaced people from returning to the disputed areas to register for the national census, which is important for future elections, a referendum on independence for the south, and resource distribution between Khartoum and southern Sudan.
The census is a critical element in implementing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the 21-year war between the northern-based Sudanese government in Khartoum and the southern Sudanese rebels. The nationwide census is scheduled for April 14-30, 2008.
"Militia attacks are deterring people from returning home to be counted for a census that will affect their futures," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The militia attacks may be a deliberate attempt by the Sudanese government to skew the census and future of the oil-rich areas. The quickest way for the government to address these allegations is to bring the attacks to a halt."
Human Rights Watch investigations in oil-rich Unity state, which sits in the disputed area, have found that since December 2007, armed nomadic Arab militias from the Misseriya ethnic group have carried out dozens of attacks against people trying to return, resulting in deaths and injuries, and also detained travelers at roadblocks. In the past the Sudanese government in Khartoum has provided weapons and other support to the Misseriya. The increasing insecurity is preventing Southerners, originating from these areas but displaced by war to Khartoum, from returning to their homes to be counted in the April census.
In March, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch they believed the attacks were related to the census. Victims of recent road ambushes near Bentiu town in Unity state said that robbery was not the motive of the attackers because the heavily armed Misseriya militia opened fire on travelers without any apparent interest in theft. The location of the attacks - on the roads, rather than in villages - has had an immediate impact on movement in and through the area.
Misseriya militia also attacked 600 people travelling from Khartoum in late March 2008 on their way to Western Bahr el-Ghazal state in southern Sudan. Roadblocks in the oil-producing area of Heglig in Upper Nile State in southern Sudan in late March have discouraged people from returning. Khartoum operates these oil fields despite their southern location.
Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to investigate the attacks and prosecute those responsible.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the ongoing militia attacks may be part of efforts by the Khartoum government to ensure that Abyei and neighboring parts of Unity state remain with northern Sudan. The dispute over control of the area and the unresolved question of whether Abyei belongs to the north or the south are the main threats to full implementation of the peace agreement.
The census is essential to determine population numbers in all of Sudan and could affect voter registration for elections scheduled for 2009. It will also play a role in determining the fate of the border areas and whether lucrative oil fields are in northern or southern Sudan.
Many citizens in the embattled region of Darfur, in western Sudan, have expressed concerns about the purpose and impact of the census, particularly on their right to land. Some have reported to Human Rights Watch the presence of "new" occupants on their land, and are concerned these new occupants will gain rights to the land if they are counted in the census. Nomadic groups are also concerned they will not be counted. Human Rights Watch called on the Sudanese government to issue a presidential decree stating that participation in the census will not affect land rights, and that any displaced persons who are registered with United Nations agencies can be counted even if they are not in their original locations.
"The Sudanese government must make sure that the census is carried out properly and fairly," said Gagnon. "Khartoum can't use this census as yet another tool to strip Darfurians and other marginalized Sudanese of their rights."
The recent attacks in Unity state were reminders to the local population of the outbreak of war in the early 1980s. During the long north-south war (1986-2005), the Sudanese government in Khartoum recruited and armed Misseriya militia against the southern rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), which now governs the southern region pursuant to the peace agreement.
In the late 1980s and late 1990s, the Sudanese government forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of the southern Nuer population who originally lived in the oil-rich areas of Unity state to make way for oil development. One local official recently told Human Rights Watch: "It was pastoralists (Misseriya) who first started shooting and then chased everyone from their land. This happened in 1983, in 1997 and in 2000. And then, in 2005, we had the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] .... [The recent fighting is] just a reverse cycling of the same incidents. It is exactly the same."
Many of the residents of the oil areas who were forcibly displaced ended up in the capital Khartoum and other locations during the two decades of conflict. Only a fraction of these people have returned to their areas of origin in Unity state and elsewhere in the south.
Although much of southern Sudan has been relatively quiet and experienced only small-scale insecurity since the 2005 peace agreement, Misseriya militias have also clashed with the southern-based SPLA forces in the Abyei area in recent months.
Attempts to resolve the border conflict in Abyei have so far have been unsuccessful. The Sudanese government has refused to implement the recommendations made by the Abyei Border Commission in July 2005, which awarded most of the area to southern Sudanese Ngok and Dinka, against the claims of the northern Misseriya nomads. Khartoum recently offered to give the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) administrative responsibility for Abyei so long as the town of Meiram would remain in northern Sudan. The SPLM leadership rejected the proposal, stating that it would be a violation of the CPA.