The UN Security Council will go to Sudan next week to press officials in the north and south to speed up preparations for a referendum on southern independence, said diplomats.
“We want to encourage the north and south to do everything in their power to hold the January 9 referendums on time and to ensure that there is a peaceful transition afterwards if the south chooses secession,” a council diplomat told Reuters.
“We also want to see the situation on the ground in Darfur, which has been worrying” the diplomat added. The council has 15 members, five of whom — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — are permanent members.
Sudanese authorities on Tuesday announced a three-week delay in registering voters for a referendum on southern independence, raising tensions just over 100 days before the vote is scheduled.
People from the oil-producing south were promised a plebiscite on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Leaders of north and south Sudan vowed last week at the United Nations to work for peace as U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders pressured them to hold the planned referendums peacefully and on time.
The council has been planning the trip for months but almost called it off over concerns in the United States and elsewhere that ambassadors would have to meet and shake hands with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide and other war crimes in Darfur, U.N. envoys said.
NO MEETING WITH BASHIR
In order to make the trip possible, Security Council diplomats said on condition of anonymity, the 15 council members agreed not to ask for any time with Bashir.
“The Security Council has not requested a meeting with Bashir nor has the government of Sudan proposed one,” a council diplomat told Reuters.
Another envoy said that Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, may be out of the country when the council arrives in Khartoum next week.
Among those expected to travel to Sudan are U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, French Ambassador Gerard Araud and British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, envoys said.
The council trip will begin in Kampala, Uganda and move to Juba, the capital of semi-autonomous south Sudan. The diplomats then plan to visit Sudan’s conflict-ravaged western Darfur region and end up in the capital Khartoum.
Preparations for the southern independence referendum have fallen far behind — the commission to organize the vote was only appointed in late June and registration forms are not due back from South African printers until late October.
Analysts have warned there is a risk of a return to conflict if southerners, who are widely expected to vote for independence, feel Khartoum is trying to delay or disrupt the vote to keep control of the region’s oil.
The disputed oil-rich region of Abyei is also supposed to hold a referendum on the same day — January 9, 2011 — to decide whether to remain with the north or join the south.
Preparations for that plebiscite are also delayed, though the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that negotiators have accepted a framework for the vote and should reach a final agreement next month.