(New York) - Sudan's ruling political parties should guarantee protection of national minorities and allay public fears of discrimination following the January 9, 2011 referendum on southern seccession, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch research in Sudan over the past month indicated that the absence of a clear agreement on citizenship has contributed to heightened anxiety that minority communities in both the North and the South will suffer from mistreatment and targeted reprisals in the event of the South's secession. That fear is especially pronounced among the estimated 1.5 million southerners living in northern states. The often hostile rhetoric and cross-allegations by political parties has made an already tense situation worse, Human Rights Watch found.
"With less than a month to the referendum vote, political parties and governing authorities need to reassure the public that they will not expel anyone and will fulfill their duty to protect all minorities within their jurisdiction during and after the referendum," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This acknowledgment will help promote a peaceful, free, and fair voting environment."
Human Rights Watch urged both the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), as they negotiate the terms of future citizenship and residency, to adopt a progressive and inclusive framework for addressing citizenship in the event of secession. Although the parties have reportedly rejected dual citizenship, they should agree to an arrangement whereby minority nationals living in both northern and southern jurisdictions may choose to continue to live there with basic civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights on an equal footing as citizens, Human Rights Watch said. A similar arrangement already exists between Sudan and Egypt.
"Many people displaced from Southern Sudan have lived in northern states for decades and many northerners have lived in the South for just as long, and they need to know they won't be forced out," Peligal said. "The referendum may change the existing boundaries of Sudan, but it does not change the human rights standards in force."
International law prohibits mass expulsions, forced evictions, statelessness, and discriminatory rules of citizenship. Sudan should consider becoming a party to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, or at a minimum make a commitment to respect the standards contained therein. Sudan is already a party to the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which guarantees equality between citizens and non-citizens in all core human rights recognized under international law. These guarantees will continue to exist regardless of the referendum outcome.
Hostile Statements and Political Manipulation
In the absence of a formal agreement, the political parties have played on public fears to further their own political agendas, Human Rights Watch found. Officials in the ruling NCP, which is openly in favor of Sudan's continued unity, have made hostile statements threatening to strip southerners of their rights should the South vote to secede.
The information minister said in September, for example, that southerners would not receive treatment in hospitals - "not even ... a needle" - in the event of southern secession. Other party officials subsequently repeated the threats that southerners will lose their property, residence rights, civil service jobs, benefits, and access to social services. On December 7, the deputy head of the party for Khartoum state, Mandour al-Mahdi, said that only southerners who are members of the ruling party will be able to retain their citizenship rights if the South votes to secede.
The December 15 statement of Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, delivered at a sports tournament in Omdurman, that southern Sudanese living in northern Sudan would be protected, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, is a positive example of the message the parties should be giving. Human Rights Watch called on the ruling party to go further and issue a more definitive statement, and to continue to allay public concerns of targeted violence and mistreatment.
"The NCP should firmly and immediately denounce all threats made by its officials, and should adopt definitive and consistent messages that reflect Sudan's human rights commitments," Peligal said. "Both ruling political parties need to refrain from any form of coercion of voters and respect their right to participate in this historic process."
The parties accused each other of manipulation during voter registration, from November 15 to December 8, exacerbating the climate of suspicion and fear. Human Rights Watch received credible reports of what appeared to be politically-motivated arrests of several party agents in both the NCP and the SPLM. In addition, officials from both parties pressured registrants. SPLM officials urged southerners living in the North not to register, while officials linked to the NCP reportedly forced thousands of southern prisoners and southern employees in the police security forces to register to vote and retained their registration cards. Such steps suggest efforts to control their votes.
Fears Prompting Southerners to Return
Southerners' fears about post-referendum conditions in the North appear to have influenced the decision of many southerners to move south in recent weeks, particularly during the voter registration period.
"The situation is no good in Khartoum," said one woman, who left after seven years and decided to return to her village in Unity state. "We are beaten in the night and we are taken to prison if we make beer," she said, referring to searches and arrests by public order courts, which apply discriminatory and vaguely worded morality laws that have a disproportionate impact on women and southerners. "We are better off here."
A chief in a way-station for returnees in Malakal, Upper Nile said, "I lived for 35 years in Khartoum and always faced problems there. The situation is not going to get any better for us."
In October the Southern Sudan government began a program to transport southerners from northern towns to various locations in Southern Sudan. According to UN sources, more than 55,000 southerners returned to the South in October and November.
Many who returned also cited fears of ethnic violence in the North if the South votes to secede. One woman who arrived to Aweil, Southern Sudan, in early November told Human Rights Watch that she feared a repeat of the ethnic violence that erupted in Khartoum after the SPLM leader John Garang died in 2005. "My relatives were killed and injured after Garang died," she said. "We are safer here."
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement calls for a referendum on southern self-determination on January 9, 2011, and provides for a six-month interim period following the vote. In November the parties agreed in principle to resolve all outstanding issues, including post-referendum arrangements according to a framework proposed by the African Union, but they have yet to formally agree on the details. Voter registration for the referendum began November 15 and, following a one-week extension, ended on December 8.