For 20 years, the government of Sudan, headquartered in the north, fought a brutal civil war against the people in the southern part of the country. At stake was control of the south's oil resources. More than 2 million people perished and millions were displaced from their homes and their villages.
We have heard stories of the "lost boys and girls" from that war, horrific stories of barefoot, naked, starving children who walked hundreds and hundreds of miles to escape violence and destruction.
Former President George W. Bush, in office during this tragic conflict, helped to broker a peace accord in 2005. That agreement calls for a national referendum that will be held in one month. This vote allows the south to become independent from the north, a move long awaited by many southerners. The people in the south see this as their opportunity for self-governance, economic development, and autonomy from the northern dictatorial government that has kept the south desperately poor while the north has become rich from selling oil to China.
The process of conducting the referendum itself has been challenging. People must first register to be allowed to vote on Jan. 9. This registration process, originally scheduled to end Dec. 1, was extended because of logistical and other challenges. Southern Sudanese living in the north are claiming that they have had difficulties registering and will be unable to cast their votes.
During this registration process the major southern political party, the SPLM, has accused the north of carrying out air strikes in the south in an attempt to derail the registration and voting process.
There is great fear that this referendum will cause widespread violence throughout Sudan. Leaders from the European Union, African Union, human rights organizations and faith communities, including the archbishop of Canterbury, have urged world attention to violence happening in the south and to renewed attacks in Sudan's Darfur region.
Troops are massing on the northern side of the border, an area that the United Nations is unable to patrol regularly, and there is great fear that conflict will break out in north-south border areas and spread rapidly.
Sudan's president, Omar Al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These charges are related to the situation in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions more displaced both internally and beyond Sudan's borders.
Sudan's future is at stake in this referendum: its borders, its resources and its economy. It is unlikely that President Bashir, who is undeterred by the ICC's arrest warrant for genocide, will let this referendum occur freely and fairly.
The United States should join the other nations of the world to ensure that the referendum will be legitimate - and safe. People must be protected at the polls. Minnesotans should contact their elected representatives in Washington and urge that the United States lend its weight to the effort.
President Obama campaigned on promises to end the current tragedy in Sudan. Although his administration has done very little, there is much that can be done now. It is up to each of us to take a stand and to prevent further mass violence against innocent men, women, and children.
Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, based at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.