Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Now for U.S. Policy on Sudan?

Now that Omar al-Bashir has been certified as the elected President of Sudan, despite having won in an election boycotted by his main rivals and tainted by alleged fraud, how will the United States government deal with a national leader under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity? By early indications, the conciliatory strategy of Special Envoy Scott Gration will continue.

In a post-election interview with National Public Radio, Gration proved to be the master of naïve understatement: “We learned a lot. There were things that weren’t good,” he said. “There were restrictions to freedoms of assembly and freedoms of speech, and individual freedoms. And there was a bit of incompetence. All these things have to be fixed, and I believe they can.”

This is the same blue sky attitude he expressed prior to the election when he proclaimed himself sure that the government could and would run an acceptable election. We now know that the Sudan election suffered from serious problems. In the assessment by the Carter Center election team, the election “falls short of international standards.” Carter Center observers found “important flaws” that included inadequate protection of political freedoms, problems in the voter list, a range of logistical troubles on the election days, insufficient transparency in the electoral process, voter intimidation in the south and the ongoing conflict in Darfur.

A group of northern domestic election observers were even harsher in their assessment of the election. They said the entire election – from the electoral census through voter registration through the campaign and voting was deficient. This was the view of the major presidential candidates who withdrew from the election before it took place.

America’s Ambassador to the African Union, Michael Battle, said the Administration would reserve judgment on the election until discussions are held with the AU. “If you read the report from the European Union observers of the elections in Sudan, they acknowledged that the elections were not perfect, but nobody expected them to be perfect” Battle said.

This unrealistic measuring rod essentially makes light of serious problems in the Sudan elections. No election anywhere in the world is perfect, and of course no one in his right mind would expect any election to be perfect. Battle’s statement shrugs off election problems that could be a dangerous foreshadowing for the prospects of the 2011 referendum on southern Sudanese independence.

Make no mistake about it, the southerners weren’t invested heavily in voting outside their region, which is why they trumpet their heavy support in the south and played down results in the north. However, Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement leadership has been looking forward to the 2011 referendum since it was set by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. Irregularities of the kind witnessed in the national elections will not go down so easily in February. An already shaky CPA could blow apart completely if the referendum process doesn’t go more smoothly. Not perfectly, mind you, but not as ragged as the election just passed.

Meanwhile, President Bashir is looking to use his election (however questionable the circumstances) to legitimize himself and perhaps get out from under the ICC indictment. Sudan activists are pushing President Obama to take a hard line on Sudan. U.S. officials may believe the ICC indictment is leverage to be used in pressuring Bashir to cooperate with making the referendum more successful. However, the reverse may be more likely, as Bashir uses the referendum and his government’s cooperation in making it work to hold off or remove the indictment. The ICC surely will not withdraw the indictment, and the U.S. government certainly could not ask them to do so without losing credibility with other national leaders accused of crimes against humanity or some variation of that charge.

It always was likely that Bashir would win the national election because his strongest rival, the SPLM candidate, fronted a party that had its eye on a future election. His government still tried to boost his win margin and manipulated the process from start to finish. How much more will Bashir’s government try to fix an election that will deny his government billions in oil revenue and other income and divide his country’s territory? It would be dangerously naïve to believe that this next election will be a step toward better elections with so much at stake and such a poor foundation on which to build.

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