Confirmation has been made that President Obama will attend United Nations meeting on Sudan this upcoming week.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Obama had accepted an invitation from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a September 24 meeting on Sudan on the margins of the annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders.
The meeting in New York will bring together leaders from U.N. Security Council and other interested countries as well as United Nations, African Union and World Bank representatives.
It is expected to focus on a January 9 referendum among the people of semi-autonomous southern Sudan on whether to become an independent country, as well as on the seven-year-old conflict in Darfur, western Sudan.
“The president sees this meeting on the 24th as a very important vehicle for focusing international attention on … (the referendum) as Sudan approaches really the last critical 100 days before that vote takes place,” Rice said.
“The meeting in New York will also send important signals to the Sudanese people,” she told reporters on a conference call. “It will underscore that the international community … expects that political leaders will rise to the challenge of addressing the difficult issues that still have to be negotiated if there’s going to be lasting peace.”
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sudan was a “ticking time-bomb” ahead of the vote and that the international community must redouble efforts to head off violence there.
The State Department said Clinton had telephoned Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and southern leader Salva Kiir on Wednesday. It also said that Scott Gration, U.S. special envoy for Sudan, would make a new trip to the region on Thursday to pursue talks on preparing a peaceful referendum.
In Khartoum, state news agency SUNA said Taha told Clinton that Sudan’s government was committed to holding the plebiscite.
Clinton expressed her “satisfaction” with the progress toward holding the referendum, and also thanked the Sudanese government for helping to release a U.S. aid worker in Darfur last week after she had been held by kidnappers for more than 100 days, SUNA said.
The referendum stems from a 2005 peace deal between Sudan’s mainly Arab north and mainly non-Arab south that ended a 20-year war after 2 million lives had been lost, mostly through hunger and disease.
Key problems need to be resolved before the vote, especially on defining the north-south border, along which most of Sudan’s oil wealth is believed to lie.
“The situation north/south is a ticking time-bomb of enormous consequence,” Clinton said in response to a question after a speech on U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington.
“The time frame is very short. Pulling together this referendum is going to be difficult, we’re going to need a lot of help,” Clinton said. “But the real problem is what happens when the inevitable happens and the referendum is passed and the south declares independence.”
She said the United States had put “all hands on deck” to help with referendum preparations, noting that former senior U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman had been sent to help the two sides thrash out key issues on sharing wealth and power.
U.S. officials have openly said they see the referendum as the key issue at present in Sudan. But some activists have criticized Gration for what they say is an overly conciliatory approach to the northern government in Khartoum, and for appearing to minimize the violence in Darfur.
A 2003 uprising in Darfur sparked a harsh government response, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe that the United Nations says has killed as many as 300,000 people.
Other countries have not said who they are sending to the September 24 meeting in New York, but Obama’s attendance is likely to raise its profile.
The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration has held daily interagency meetings on Sudan for the past two weeks. It’s all in preparation for President Obama’s first direct interaction with Sudanese leaders since taking office; this week he will meet for an hour with Sudan’s Vice President Ali Osman Taha and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
In short, with all that remains to be done to prepare for the monumental referenda in January and a smooth transition period following the vote, high-level engagement by the United States couldn’t have come soon enough.
President Obama’s long awaited meeting with Sudanese leaders this week will set the stage for whether this US administration is seen as a credible arbiter in Sudan for the next 100 days and beyond.