Last Saturday, July 9, the Republic of South Sudan joined the community of nations. Foreign dignitaries converged on its capital, Juba, to watch the new country raise its flag and inaugurate a first president, Salva Kiir Mayardit.
For the more than eight million citizens of South Sudan, it will be a momentous and emotional day. In January, they voted in an historic referendum to separate from the rest of Sudan. That they did so peacefully is a credit to both the North and South Sudanese leadership. Yet nationhood has come at steep cost: a staggering number of lives lost and people displaced in a 21-year civil war that ended only in 2005. When the assembled presidents and prime ministers board their official planes to return home, the challenges that remain will be daunting indeed.
On the day of its birth, South Sudan will rank near the bottom of all recognized human development indices. The statistics are truly humbling. It has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. Estimates of illiteracy among the female population exceed 80 percent. More than half of its people must feed, clothe and shelter themselves on less than a dollar a day. Critical issues of poverty, insecurity and lack of infrastructure must all be addressed by a relatively new government with little experience and only embryonic institutions.
I came to appreciate the sheer scale of these challenges, for myself, when I first visited South Sudan in 2007 – an area of 620,000 square kilometers with less than 100 kilometers of paved road. Within this larger context, the risk of increased violence, harm to civilian populations and further humanitarian suffering is very real.
At the same time, South Sudan has remarkable potential. With substantial oil reserves, huge amounts of arable land and the Nile flowing through its centre, South Sudan could grow into a prosperous, self-sustaining nation capable of providing security, services and employment for its population.
Alone, South Sudan cannot meet these challenges nor realize its potential. Doing so will require partnership — a full (and on-going) engagement with the international community and, most especially, South Sudan’s neighbours.
First and foremost, the new leaders of South Sudan should reach out to their counter-parts in Khartoum. Strong, peaceful relations with the North are essential. A priority for both countries is agreement on their common border, sustainable relations to ensure both states can benefit from the oil revenues in the region, and cross-border arrangements to continue their strong historical, economic and cultural ties. Recent instability in Southern Kordofan and Abyei have strained North-South relations and heightened political rhetoric. Now is the time for both the North and the South to think of the long-term benefits of working together, not short-term political gains at the other’s expense.
South Sudan must also reach out to its other neighbours. Across the globe — and in Africa, especially — the trend is towards regional partnerships. South Sudan will be strengthened by becoming an active participant in the regional organizations of East Africa and developing durable trade and political ties throughout the continent.
Finally, South Sudan must reach out to its own people. It must find strength in diversity and build institutions that represent the full constellation of its broad geographic and ethnic communities. The basics of any modern, democratic state must be guaranteed: free expression, full political rights, inclusive institutions that extend benefits to citizens of rural areas as well as regions affected by conflict.
In the 21st-century, the international community has increasingly come to recognize the responsibilities of governments to their citizens, including the protection of political space and democratic rights. The popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have shown what can happen when governments are inattentive to the needs of their people.
The United Nations is committed to assisting the government of South Sudan meet its many responsibilities. That is why I have proposed a new United Nations mission in South Sudan: to help build the institutions that the country needs to stand on its own. In doing so, let us remember that the United Nations is only one part of a broader set of partnerships that the government should develop — with the North, with its neighbours in the region and beyond and, most importantly, with its own people.
On July 9, I will join other leaders in Juba to mark the birth of South Sudan. The last thing a new nation needs is a celebration as it springs into existence, only to then be forgotten until the next crisis. Our purpose is to do more than celebrate this milestone. It is to highlight the international obligation to stand by the people of South Sudan as they seek to build a stable, strong and ultimately prosperous nation.
The writer is Secretary-General of the United Nations