- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2010

A human rights group and Darfuris who fled ethnic violence in their homeland are urging delegates from more than 30 countries, including President Obama, who are meeting Friday in New York to press the Sudanese government to ensure a free and fair referendum on the independence of southern Sudan on Jan. 9.

In a second referendum, residents of the oil-rich region of Abyei along the north-south border will decide whether they want to be a part of the south if it secedes, as is widely expected. It is the vote in Abyei that is seen as a potential flash point as the north and south tussle over oil resources.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening the meeting to ensure the referendums are held in a timely manner and reflect the will of the Sudanese people.

Human Rights Watch said the referendums must be free of the human rights violations that marred April’s elections in which Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir handily won another term in office.

“The delegates at the Sudan meeting should do more than confirm that the referendum will happen on time,” said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is also a prime opportunity for them to insist on better human rights conditions in Sudan.”

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court issued a second warrant for Mr. Bashir’s arrest, this time charging him with three counts of genocide in the province of Darfur.

On Thursday, the African Union urged the U.N. to put war-crimes charges against Mr. Bashir on hold, saying they could endanger the referendum on southern independence.

The referendums are part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of north-south conflict in which an estimated 2 million people lost their lives.

The Obama administration has offered Sudan, which is under U.S. sanctions, the prospect of improved relations if the referendums take place smoothly.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss developments before the meeting, said Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Scott Gration, U.S. special envoy to Sudan, would “reaffirm U.S. commitment to building an enduring peace in Sudan” in meetings with Sudanese officials.

The Sudanese delegation will include Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha and First Vice President Salva Kiir, president of Southern Sudan.

“The U.S. government will continue the dialogue on full implementation of the CPA and improving the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur with both Northern and Southern leaders in New York at the U.N. General Assembly meetings,” the senior U.S. official said.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about violations by security forces across Sudan and the treatment of minority groups in the country.

The two parties to the peace agreement - the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) - should state publicly that they will not expel each other’s minorities in the event of secession, Human Rights Watch said.

A group of Darfuris who were forced to flee the ethnic violence in their homeland for refuge in the West say they want the situation in Darfur to be added to the agenda of the New York meeting.

In a letter, a copy of which was sent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Ban, they said effective measures must be sought to end the suffering of Darfuris and asked for Darfur to be placed under the protection of the U.N.

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