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American involvement needed to gain
peace in Sudan, panel, representatives say

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States must continue to exert its influence in Sudan if a just peace is to be achieved in the strife-torn African country, a bipartisan government panel and members of both political parties have stated.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) offered its assessment in a new report on the progress achieved a year after a peace agreement was signed at the close of a two-decade-old civil war based largely on religion. Peace has not been implemented in some areas of Sudan, and religious liberty and other human rights have not been protected consistently, the commission reported.

The January 2005 signing of a peace treaty brought an end to a war marked by what has been described as a genocidal campaign by the militant Islamic, Arab regime in Khartoum against Christians and animists in southern Sudan and moderate African Muslims. More than 2 million people died and about 4 million were displaced during the conflict.

The peace in Sudan is “very fragile,” USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie said March 29 in releasing the report at a news conference in the U.S. Capitol. “Sustained, close engagement by the United States is necessary” if peace is to be established, he said.

Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia offered an even stronger call for U.S. action.

“[W]e have to go back and do something bolder,” Wolf said. He commended the Bush administration for its work but said the situation needs to be “treated with more passion.” The U.S. should be “very aggressive” in working for peace in Sudan, Wolf said.

To that end, Wolf called for President Bush to appoint a special envoy to Sudan. He had a recommendation for the slot, one affirmed at the news conference by House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: Former Democratic Congressman Tony Hall, who was appointed in 2002 by Bush as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

The USCIRF called for the Bush administration to make appointments to two positions among a series of recommendations in its report. The panel urged the assignment of an official to the U.S. embassy in Khartoum to promote human rights during implementation of the peace agreement and the selection of a “special representative” to aid refugees and internally displaced people in returning to their homes.

The commission’s other recommendations to the U.S. government included:

— The continued designation of Sudan as a “country of particular concern” for especially severe violations of religious liberty.

— A public report every six months on the status of progress in enforcing the peace agreement.

— The maintenance of existing sanctions against Sudan, with exceptions for such matters as development efforts in the south and educational exchanges with the U.S.

— An assurance foreign aid is promoting the provisions on religious freedom and other human rights in the peace agreement.

— The use of diplomacy with Sudan to urge the protection of religious liberty and the prosecution of slavery and human trafficking.

Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said at the news conference, “The United States must make religious freedom an important part of foreign policy. [We] must shine the bright light of freedom on all” cases of religious persecution, she said.

Rep. Donald Payne, D.-N.J., said at the news conference the stakes stretch beyond Sudan. “The whole region is going to be at risk if this continues,” he said.

The USCIRF found the conditions for religious freedom have improved in the south but reported there were no such significant improvements in the north, where strict Islamic law remains in force and there still are no permits for construction of new church buildings.

While the peace agreement resolved a north-south conflict predicated largely on religious differences, a human rights crisis based on ethnicity has occurred in recent years in the Darfur region, which is in western Sudan. Since 2003, Khartoum military forces and Arab militias backed by the government have instituted ethnic cleansing against African Muslims, resulting in the killing of about 400,000 people, as well as rampant torture, rape and kidnapping, the USCIRF reported.

The U.S. needs to be engaged to help resolve the crisis in Darfur, as well as to aid in implementation of the peace treaty, the panel said.

While the Khartoum government has failed to follow through on at least some of its responsibilities in the peace agreement, the commission also said in its 12-page report there are “questions about the depth of the commitment” by the southern party, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), to the vision of a unified country by its late leader, John Garang. A few weeks after being installed as Sudan’s first vice president under the peace agreement, Garang died in a helicopter crash in July 2005.

The commission also reported the SPLM/A has little institutional ability to hold the Islamic regime, the National Congress Party, accountable to the peace agreement.

Under the peace treaty, the NCP is the majority party, holding the presidency, a legislative majority and most of the key posts in the government, the USCIRF reported. Omar al-Bashir, the NCP’s leader, is president, and Salva Kiir, who replaced Garang as head of the SPLM/A, is first vice president.

The peace agreement called for a six-year transitional period. At the end of this time, the south will hold a referendum to decide if it will continue as part of a unified Sudan or whether it will become a separate country.

Cromartie and fellow commissioner Ricardo Ramirez were joined by USCIRF staff members in making an investigative trip to Sudan in January. Cromartie is vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. Ramirez is the bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.

The USCIRF is a nine-member panel selected by the president and congressional leaders. It reports to the White House and Congress on religious freedom overseas.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF commissioner.

The USCIRF report on Sudan may be found on its website at www.uscirf.gov/countries/publications/policyfocus/SudanPolicyBrief.pdf.