Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sudan/South Sudan: Some Sovereignty Speculations

Things seem to be cooling down between Sudan and South Sudan. After pulling its troops out of the disputed, oil-rich region of Abyei, Sudan left 169 police officers. South Sudan claimed they were soldiers in police uniform. Whether this is true or not, apparently those are now leaving too. The two countries have apparently agreed on a "road map" for talks and they're set to begin Monday. This all seems like fairly straightforward Good News given the scary moments in the spring between the two countries.

But at the same time, the conflict between Khartoum and SPLM-North is heating up. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that there are perhaps 100,000 Sudanese refugees in camps in South Sudan, fleeing the violence. There's a plausible connection between the two. Before South Sudan's independence, it seemed as though there were constant tradeoffs between Sudan's various conflicts. For example, it was after the peace agreements of 2003 that the conflict in Darfur reached its zenith of brutality. Whether because Darfur was left isolated by the logic of minimum winning coalitions (don't give up more than you have to to stay in power) or because peace with the SPLM left Khartoum a free hand to assault its other perceived enemies, it seemed like if it wasn't one war it was another. One wonders whether there's a repeat performance.

If there is, how much "real" difference does South Sudanese independence make?

First, by one way of thinking, inter-state conflicts are a problem for the international community in a way that intra-state conflicts aren't. Since the international community is first a community of sovereign states, the thinking goes, the members of that community have a much clearer interest in ensuring that states don't violate sovereignty by sending troops across borders than they do in ensuring that states don't kill their own citizens. It did take a lot of change for the United Nations Security Council, for example, to start dealing with civil wars. But of course internal wars rarely stay internal for very long: consider the path of death from Uganda through Rwanda to DR Congo, or the West African arc of conflict, or the Afghanistan/Pakistan/Tajikistan cluster. More strongly, many see human security as a vital value alongside or trumping international or national security. So if there is a tradeoff between international war between the Sudans and internal war in Sudan itself, the result is a neat barometer of how relatively important you think international and civil war are.

Second, sovereignty may imply taking on a set of new roles and new interests. Consider Somaliland: there is a case that it's because it has managed not to become independent that it's the most stable part of Somalia. It doesn't have access to rents like aid and international support, so it has to tax its population and thus develop some stability and accountability to its citizens. Now independent, South Sudan needs to get oil flowing again, and has to find a way to cooperate with Khartoum to do so. There are new incentives for it to behave with restraint towards its old enemy, to stay on its side of the border--incentives that were weaker when there was no border to mark the farthest its troops could go. And it is now cut off by this international convention from the SPLM-North. It could certainly outsource its conflict with Khartoum to the latter as it sees fit. But now the interests of the SPLM in Juba now differ from the SPLM-North in important respects. There will sometimes be a strong temptation for South Sudan to sell out its old comrades in arms in order to reach a pricing agreement with Khartoum.

Sovereignty is one of those maddening things: it's arbitrary in some respects, a line on a map. But we act like it is a real thing, and so it is.

(Photo: Associated Press)