22 November - Voter registration for the upcoming referendum on the status of Southern Sudan was encouraging, but low turnout in the north must be addressed, the UN Secretary-General's monitoring panel said today as it wrapped up a visit to Sudan.
Speaking at a Khartoum press conference, Panel Chair Benjamin Mkapa said there had been many promising signs during the visit, which coincided with the start of voter registration.
"We have seen lines of people standing patiently in the heat, waiting to register so they can cast their votes on 9 January," the panel chairperson said. "We have spoken with observers, both Sudanese and international, as they have solemnly carried out their duties, and we have met countless people, in the north and the south, who have told us that whatever the outcome of the vote, they are confident that everyone can live together peacefully."
During its 10-day trip, the three-member panel, which operates completely independent of the UN Mission in Sudan, visited voter registration centres in four states and travelled to the disputed area of Abyei. It held talks with senior government officials, referendum authorities, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political parties, the diplomatic community and citizens across the country.
Mr. Mkapa commended the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission for its efforts to ensure that voter registration was able to begin on time on 15 November at almost all of the nearly 3,000 registration centres in Sudan, as well as at many in countries outside Sudan where diaspora voting will take place. Registration is due to conclude on 1 December.
But he voiced concern about other issues, including the low turnout at registration centres in the north, with many Southern Sudanese apparently unwilling to register.
Mr. Mkapa called on the governments in Khartoum and Juba, the media, civil society and referendum authorities to step up their efforts to promote and explain the referenda so that the public was better informed about their rights and options in the vote.
He also urged all sides to tone down their rhetoric so that southerners living in the north and northerners living in the south feel assured that their safety and property would be protected.
"Only then will the public feel secure enough to turn out to register and to vote, without repercussions, wherever they live," the panel chairperson said.
Operating on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the panel's role is to strengthen confidence in the Sudanese-led referenda process and encourage the parties and relevant authorities to resolve any significant problems or disputes as they emerge. Its first visit to Sudan took place last month.
Two referenda are slated for 9 January 2011 -- one in which the people of Southern Sudan will vote for unity or secession, and another for the people of the Abyei Area, who will vote to remain in the north or become part of the south.
Mr. Ban formed the panel after a request from the two parties to Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement, who sought a UN monitoring body to help enhance credibility of the referenda and ensure acceptance of their results by their constituencies and international community.
The other two members of the panel are former Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs António Monteiro and Bhojraj Pokharel, former Chairman of the Election Commission of Nepal.