The Limits of Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity

Salva Kiir, the president of autonomous government of Southern Sudan, on Sunday moved toward full independence for the region. Southern Sudan has been an autonomous region within Sudan since 2005, when a peace treaty was signed between the government in Khartoum and rebels led by Kiir and others. Prior to the singing of the treaty, the oil-rich region had seen decades of civil war.

At a special church service to pray for peace, Kiir said that anything less than full independence for Southern Sudan would leave southerners “second class citizens” in their own land. In the speech, Kiir said,

When you reach your ballot boxes the choice is yours. You want to vote for unity, so that you become a second-class (citizen) in your own country, that is your choice…You would want to vote for independence, so that you are a free person, in your independent state, that will be your own choice. And we will respect the choice of the people.

Kiir’s comments follow a story released on the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the United States’ website which described the current situation as “too deformed to be reformed.” Kiir’s comments (and broader statements issued by the government) are likely to increase tensions between the central government in Khartoum, which would like to see Southern Sudan remain part of the country, and those pushing for full independence.

The question of regional autonomy is always a difficult one in international politics. National governments have long hesitated to undermine their territorial integrity [glossary]—witness statements issued regarding Basque separatists in Spain, Flemish in Belgium, Tibet in China, the Hmong in Laos, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, and the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. More than one-third of the states in Africa face at least one group pushing for autonomy or independence, reflecting the artificiality of the historical borders on the continent. In each of these cases, the national government resists—often with force—efforts to establish autonomous regions or independent states by the separatist movement. In some cases, the push for autonomy or independence results from differences in cultural, ethnic, or national identity. In others, such as the current situation in Southern Sudan, identity politics becomes tied up in resource conflicts, making resolution of the crisis more difficult. And where the strength of the government is already challenged, the stakes in the standoff between the national government and the independence movement are even greater.

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