As early as Wednesday this week, the Permanant Court of Arbitration in the Hague will issue a ruling on the boundary and status of Abyei, a resource rich terrotory that lies at the juncture of South Sudan, North Sudan and Darfur.
Control of Abyei (or more to the point, the plentiful oil under its soil) has been a major bone of contention between South Sudan rebels and the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum. In 2005, both parties signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord, which ended a 20 year civil war. However, a final decision on the status of Abyei could not be reached at the time and the Abyei question was kicked down the road. In the meantime, there has been sporadic violence in the region as militias affiliated with both parties have periodically clashed.
In a valuable report, Maggie Fick and Colin Thomas-Jensen of The Enough Project call the forthcoming ruling a major test of the viability of the CPA. This is certainly true. However, I am not so sanguine of the prospects that both sides can muster the will to pass the test.
The most immediate parallel that comes to my mind is the situation along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. Like Abyei, the two sides fought each other to a stalemate in a bloody civil war and agreed to kick their remaining border dispute to the Court of Arbitration. When the Court ruled in a way unfavorable to Ethiopia, Ethiopia simply refused to recognize the ruling. Eritrea, in turn, grew increasingly frustrated that Ethiopia could get away with flaunting this international process. Overtime, Eritrea grew increasingly hostile to the international community, which it saw as the guarantor of the arbitration process. Eventually, Eritrea harassed the United Nations border mission out of existance and the situation remains on the brink.
A similar process could very well play out in Abyei. In all likelihood, the Court of Arbitration will rule against the central government. Khartoum could then respond by doubling down on Abyei. The South, in turn, will look to the international community for succor. The big question here is whether or not the international community can summon the will to enforce the Court’s ruling, or at least place sanctions on parties that seek to undermine the ruling.
The key variable here is the United States, which is the driving force behind Abyei status negotiations. U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration is supposed to be in Abyei for the ruling as a show of support. Also, Maggie Fick and Colin Thomas-Jensen recommend the deployment of addition batallions of UN Peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Sudan to Abyei to try and keep a lid on the violence. This makes sense. I just hope it’s not too late.