The UN Security Council has taken it's time, but at last demonstrated that it does not have to be permanently paralysed by divergent national interests on Sudan and South Sudan. Bickering while these two countries teeter on the brink of war has ceased, at least for now.
But although the resolution passed by the council yesterday will be welcomed by many, it is fundamentally unfair to threaten both countries with the same sanctions. For forty years Sudan has been the aggressor against the South. Their list of crimes is long compared to the South's ill-thought, rash but ultimately short-lived invasion of the Heglig oil field last month. But among the Sudanese regime's talents is the ability to 'spin' events like these. The world rushed to condemn the South Sudanese leadership for its aggression, disregarding the grievances that had provoked their attack: months of violent and bloody incursions onto South Sudanese territory by Khartoum's forces.
The UN, the Africa Union, the EU, and the Arab League were right to condemn South Sudan for violating the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that finally brought peace to the region after decades of war. Yet, the first CPA violation occurred a year ago, when Khartoum occupied the contested border area of Abyei, destroying homes and ethnically cleansing local people, most of whom remain in South Sudan. At the time, the international community expressed its disapproval. However, crucially there was no move by the UN to sanction Khartoum for breaking the terms of the CPA. No one wanted to rock the secession boat, and international actors feared that holding Sudan to its word might cause it to disrupt or stop the referendum.
Khartoum was emboldened by the lack of action following the atrocities it committed in Abyei. It began a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in the border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, Once again, although complaints were made about the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the targeting of an ethnic group considered racially inferior by Khartoum, even satellite images of freshly dug mass graves failed to generate any meaningful actions against President Bashir's government. So desperate was Washington not to offend Khartoum that it cast doubt on the pictures of mass graves and numerous independent accounts of the Sudanese Armed Forces hunting the Nuba people as if they were animals.
Incursions by Khartoum's forces into South Sudan became bolder, with aerial bombardments well within the new nation's borders. For instance, in November 2011 Sudan bombed the refugee camp at Yida. Yet again, this violation of the international sovereignty established since the seventeenth century Treaty of Westphalia merited words of condemnation. However, there was no suggestion Khartoum should face penalties for breaking its own promises.
Tellingly, the international order reacted with barely disguised panic when South Sudan, at its wit's end, stopped pumping oil in protest in January this year. Then South Sudan's armed forces crossed the border for the first time, occupying Heglig, where Sudan refines its oil. Thankfully, Sudan's retaliatory bombing of Bentiu and Rubkona, well inside South Sudanese territory, has provoked a sharper reaction from the international community, with the African Union demanding both sides reach an agreement within 90 days.
But what form should negotiations take, in the light of the failure of past peace deals? It is clear that verbal chastisement has little impact on Khartoum; not while UN Security Council resolutions on Sudan remain unenforced after years on the UN's books. Nor will the architects of the genocide in Darfur, indicted by the International Criminal Court, have cause for concern while they can travel freely, without fear that they will be handed over to the ICC. Nor will senior Sudanese officials be impressed by sentiments expressed by the international order while they can still travel the world on shopping trips, for medical treatment and to attend conferences.
The current violence was the inevitable consequence of failing to tie up the CPA's loose ends in 2010, before the secession referendum. Events since then have underlined the need for a negotiated settlement on the outstanding issues: the location of the border, how to allocate oil revenues, and who qualifies as a citizen of each country.
It is vital that the UK supports and strengthens the African Union's capacity to bring about a final resolution of contested issues. The UK can offer constructive help by contributing the skills of our arbitration and mediation specialists, including veterans of the Northern Ireland peace process. We can also offer financial support. For this reason, Waging Peace has sponsored an open letter to the UK government, urging David Cameron and William Hague to do all in their power to support the African Union's efforts in these practical ways.
But whatever deal results, it must be accompanied by a mechanism that attaches specific sanctions to whichever party fails to fulfil its promises. Otherwise, negotiations are meaningless. There must also be recognition by the international community that the current violence is a direct result of the failure to attach penalties to violating the CPA. Khartoum began bombing the contested border area a year ago confident that it would face no serious challenge, beyond words of condemnation.
Postponing the really hard part of the divorce of the north from the south can no longer be acceptable. In the absence of a genuine settlement, the violence will continue and escalate, and civilians will pay the price.