Abyei referendum to be delayed, say northern officials

Vote in Abyei to be delayed, say northern officials, stoking fears of a return to conflict in Sudan. Greek police gas protesting public sector workers in Acropolis. Junta number two arrested in Niger amid rumours of a coup. Human rights groups refuse to appear before Sri Lanka war crimes commission. 23 Bahraini Shias charged with anti-state activities in run up to parliamentary elections. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
14 October 2010

North Sudanese officials today declared that a forthcoming referendum on the future of Abyei, an oil-rich district claimed by both North and South Sudan, can no longer take place on schedule in January 2011. This statement comes as the United Nations announces it will move peacekeeping troops to police the border between North and South Sudan, in response to growing fears that a forthcoming referendum likely to divide the country may lead to a return to conflict.

Government officials announced early on Thursday that the vote would have to be delayed. According to Didiri Mohammad Ahmad, a representative of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), “it is very clear that right now it is not possible to have the Abyei referendum on 9 Jan 2011.” Local politicians have responded with anger to suggestions of delays, describing the move as “unacceptable.” According to Deng Arop Kuol, a senior member of the dominant southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, “the people of Abyei are still holding out for the referendum... if the government does not give them that option we can have a self-run referendum.”

Concerns over the forthcoming referenda, which are due to take place in Abyei and in southern Sudan on 7 January, have prompted the UN to respond to a request from southern Sudanese president Salva Kiir for UN troops to protect the south from northern aggression. Alain LeRoy, head of UN peacekeeping, said today that peacekeepers will move within weeks to “hot spots” along the border.

The openSecurity verdict: Efforts by the northern government to delay the Abyei vote come after a dispute over who will participate in the forthcoming referendum.  A 2009 protocol establishing the conduct of next year’s referenda defines eligible voters as all residents of Abyei, including nomadic herders. However, the SPLM claims that all residents spending over seven months in the province should be eligible to vote – a claim hotly contested by Khartoum.

Voter registration, a highly sensitive topic both in Abyei and the south, is just one of many issues crucial to next year’s vote that remains to be resolved. These referenda are a vital term of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord that brought over twenty years of civil war to an end in Sudan. As the deadline draws closer, fears are mounting that failures to adhere to the framework established in the CPA will reignite conflict in Sudan.

Talks between northern and southern representatives aimed at settling the issue of who should be eligible to vote collapsed on Tuesday in Addis Ababa. This has stoked fears in south Sudan and Abyei that the north may seek to reignite conflicts there in an attempt to defer what will almost certainly be the breakup of Sudan. The announcement today that UN peacekeepers will shortly be deployed along the border between north and south Sudan is an indication of how seriously the international community is taking this threat. The United States, however, remains optimistic that both referenda can go ahead if all parties can reach agreement when talks reconvene on 27 October.

Greek police gas protestors

Greek police today stormed the Acropolis in Athens in a bid to dislodge public sector workers who seized the area yesterday in protest at government cuts. Workers from the ministry of culture who seized one of Greece’s most famous tourist sites demand almost two years of back pay, and want the government to reverse a decision to dismiss 320 temporary workers. The group of around 100 workers seized the Acropolis on Wednesday, and were today barring entry to tourists visiting the site.

After a court ruling declared the action illegal because it blocked access to a cultural site, police early this morning gained access through a side entrance. Using tear gas to disperse protestors, the police retook control of the Acropolis hill. Protestors, who initially vowed to hold the site until the end of the month, are determined to return tomorrow.

Greek Culture Minister Telemacho Hytiris said he was willing to talk to protestors, but could not promise them what they wanted. Analysts believe firm action demonstrates the government’s determination to maintain the pace of public sector reforms, amidst the first signs of improving confidence in the Greek economy.

After the Greek economy neared collapse earlier this year, the country was bailed out by a hefty International Monetary Fund loan, granted on the condition of sweeping public sector cuts. Resultant cost-cutting measures, including pay freezes and tax hikes, have led to an unemployment rate of 12% and have brought Greek workers onto the streets in a series of strikes and protests. Thursday also saw a 24-hour strike by workers of the state railway organisation, protesting against a cut of forty percent of its workforce.

Deputy junta leader arrested in Niger amid rumours of a coup

The deputy leader of Niger’s ruling military junta, Colonel Abdoulaye Badie, has been arrested in Niamey, according to official sources. AFP quoted an unnamed military source stating that “Colonel Badie was arrested yesterday afternoon and is under detention in military headquarters in Niamey.”

Although there has been no expansion on the reasons for the arrest, local media is rife with speculation about another attempted coup. Badie was removed from his post three days ago by junta leader General Salou Djibo without explanation.

Reports from local witnesses indicate an increase in military activity in the capital since last Sunday. Several local newspapers, including L’Actualité and L’Evenement, ran stories discussing the possibility of a coup attempt.

Rumours of political unrest are particularly worrying, as Niger is undergoing an attempted transition to democracy. A constitutional referendum due to be held on 31 October is intended to begin this process. The ruling junta, which seized control of this famine-stricken west African nation in a military coup in February, has pledged to hand over power to a new civilian government in April 2011. Djibo overthrew former president Mamadou Tandja, and established the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD). But came under increasing attack after he attempted to extend his term in office.

Human rights groups refuse to appear before Sri Lanka war crimes commission

A number of influential human rights groups have refused to appear before a government-convened commission into war crimes committed at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Prominent international human rights groups including International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International used a joint letter to turn down an invitation to appear before the commission, on the grounds that participation would lend credibility to a flawed process and put witnesses at risk.  

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was appointed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa in May this year. While the government maintains that it is a credible reconciliation tool, many human rights defenders maintain that it lacks credibility and a mandate to investigate the truth. Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, has described the commission as “fundamentally flawed.”

Rights groups point out that the commission’s mandate does not require it to investigate allegations war crimes committed by both sides at the end of the civil war. They also note that members of the commission have made no attempt to question the government’s version of events.

Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old civil war ended in May 2009 after a sustained military offensive led the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) to admit defeat. The dying days of the war saw human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides. However, the government has since denied any wrong-doing and has stridently resisted attempts by the United Nations to investigate the abuses.

Bahraini Shias charged with anti-state activities in run up to parliamentary elections

A group of 23 Shia politicians have been charged with involvement in anti-statist activities just eleven days before parliamentary elections. The suspects have been charged with forming and financing groups committed to undermining the Bahraini state, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims. More seriously, they have also been accused of using terrorism to achieve their aims, says public prosecutor Abdurrahman al-Sayyed.

Those charged are part of a wider group of 250 clerics, students, human rights activists and opposition activists belonging to the Shia majority who were arrested in August. The arrests brought a storm of protest from human rights organisations, who fear that the crackdown so close to this month’s elections would “pave the way to electoral fraud.” International rights groups have also alleged that those detained have been denied their legal rights and even tortured whilst held by state security forces.

Seventy percent of the Bahraini population are Shias, but discrimination in the government and security forces has produced a Sunni-dominated state. The tiny Gulf state experienced some sectarian violence in the 1990s, but this diminished markedly as Bahrain shifted towards constitutional monarchy.

However, the dominant Shia Al-Wefaq party currently hold seventeen of the forty seats in Bahrain’s Chamber of Deputies, and many believe they may achieve a majority in the forthcoming election. Analysts believe that it is this prospect that has provoked the state crackdown.  

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