This is a time of great uncertainty, high expectations and high stakes in Sudan.
In less than four months, southern Sudanese living throughout the country - including 1.5 million southerners in Khartoum, the capital, and other northern states - are to vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede and become a separate country.
If Sudan's two ruling parties genuinely want to make sure of a "soft landing," they need to do more to protect basic rights.
The referendum is set for January 9, at the end of the six-year interim period under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 by the northern National Congress Party (NCP) and southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) to end Sudan's long-running civil war.
The referendum is likely to result in partition of Sudan, Africa's largest country, after many decades of turmoil and conflict between the Khartoum government and people in the country's south. For the last six months, analysts and activists have repeatedly warned that the process could provoke renewed conflict and human rights abuses.
The two parties, far behind schedule on just about every aspect of the peace agreement, are now playing catch-up, negotiating a long list of post-referendum arrangements such as how they will share oil and divide up debt. But their high-level talks do not focus enough attention on steps that can be taken before the election to improve the chances for a free and fair referendum.
For the referendum to be credible, it is important that campaigning can be done openly without restrictions and that it does not repeat the experience of the country's April elections. As Human Rights Watch documented, the period leading up to those elections was marred by restrictions on speech and assembly, especially in northern Sudan, and by widespread intimidation, arrests and physical violence against voters, elections monitors and opposition parties across the country.
When in Sudan in August I observed all-too familiar patterns of abuses. The repressive environment in Khartoum and northern states persists. The northern ruling party, emboldened by its April victory, still uses its much-feared national security forces to harass, arbitrarily arrest and detain political opponents, journalists and activists on a regular basis. Despite reform efforts, the law still allows authorities to hold people for more than four months without judicial review, in violation of international standards.
Restrictions on expression are also still in place, even to a certain extent in the south, despite the absence of a legal framework governing media there. Journalists both in the north where authorities support unity, and in the south, where authorities support secession, told me they could not report stories that opposed the prevailing sentiment. At such a critical moment in Sudan's history, people need information and debate about what this referendum means for them.
Anxiety over what will happen to citizenship rights after the referendum, especially for the southerners living in Khartoum and other northern states, is more palpable by the day. The northern ruling party has been campaigning for unity in those communities, and some officials have publicly threatened that southerners could be stripped of their nationality and property rights if the south secedes. Such a move would be a blatant violation of international legal protections.
Northerners in Southern Sudan also told me they worry about retaliation against them if, for example, southern minorities are mistreated in the north. To his credit, Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, has repeatedly pledged that his government would protect northern minorities in the south.
"They believe Southern Sudan is their home and they're welcome," he told a group of international diplomats in New York at the end of September. The northern ruling party should likewise immediately reassure all southerners living in their jurisdiction - loudly and clearly.
Meanwhile, the parties have failed utterly to resolve key disputes over the oil-rich area of Abyei, straddling the north-south boundary, and tensions are running high between the Dinka communities and the Misseriya quasi-nomads, who both claim rights to the land. The area is heavily militarized, and if the political parties do not work toward a solution here, armed groups could again resort to force, killing and maiming local civilians and destroying their properties.
In Darfur, the Khartoum government continues its violent anti-insurgency war, attacking civilians in violation of international law while keeping the territory under a state of emergency and suspending basic rights. In September, government backed militias attacked a market in North Darfur, killing some 40 civilians. Human Rights Watch received reports this week that government forces continue to bomb villages in the remote Jebel Mara area of Darfur.
Regardless of the outcome of the southern referendum, the Khartoum government must to stop attacking civilians in Darfur and start making good on its promises to protect civilians and end impunity for its own soldiers and allied militias.
In Southern Sudan, disputes arising out of the April elections have set off clashes between the southern army and opponents of the southern ruling party. In Jonglei state, for example, in August, southern soldiers were still pursuing a renegade commander who took up arms after he lost the governorship. In Upper Nile, thousands of soldiers spent weeks this summer carrying out violent campaigns against militia groups opposed to the southern governing party. In both places, Human Rights Watch found evidence of killings, beatings, rapes, and other abuses by soldiers.
For the January referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan to be peaceful, free, and fair, the parties need to do more now to open up space for political expression, resolve key issues on Abyei, and clean up their respective security forces and hold them accountable for abuses throughout Sudan, including Southern Sudan and Darfur.