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Permanent Court of Arbitration; Sudan: Ruling on Long Disputed Abyei Region

(July 31, 2009) On July 22, 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague rendered its final award in the arbitration between the Government of Sudan (in the north, whose capital is Khartoum) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (of southern Sudan, whose headquarters is Juba) on the delimitation of the Abyei region in central Sudan. The ruling is pursuant to an arbitration agreement that was deposited with the PCA on July 11, 2008. The Abyei region has been the source of a longstanding territorial dispute between Muslim north Sudan and the mostly Christian south. Leaders of both sides have accepted the ruling, deeming it a compromise. (Hague Border Ruling Raises Peace Hopes in Sudan, REUTERS, July 22, 2009, available at; The Government of Sudan/ The Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (Abyei Arbitration), PCA website, (last visited July 29, 2009); Alison Frankel, Wilmer Represents Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Landmark War-Ending Arbitration, THE AMERICAN LAWYER, July 22, 2009, available at

The boundaries of the oil-producing Abyei area have been in dispute for decades, and their definition was left unresolved in the 2005 peace accord ending the civil war between northern and southern Sudan. In May 2008, tension over the issue resulted in a clash between troops of the two sides in which up to 100 people were killed and tens of thousands of residents reportedly fled. (REUTERS, supra.)

The PCA—an intergovernmental organization established in 1899 and comprising over 100 member states—adjusted boundaries of the Abyei region that had been drafted by a panel of experts in 2005 subsequent to the peace accord, but rejected. The ruling pulls in the borders to the north, east, and west, giving most of the region that had been drawn up in 2005 to Abyei, including the town itself, a key oilfield, and a vast expanse of fertile land. According to National Congress Party (NCP) (the dominant northern political party) representative to the Hague, Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, a minimum of 10,000 square kilometers were given to the north as a result of the redefinition, territory that includes the disputed oilfields. Thus, the boundary map issued by the PCA shows “the area's key Heglig and Bamboo oilfields outside Abyei, placing them in the north Sudan district of Southern Kordofan.” (Id.; Abyei Arbitration: Final Award Map, PCA website, (last visited July 29, 2009); About Us, PCA website, (last visited July 29, 2009).)

To south Sudan, the Abyei borders are especially significant because, under the terms of the 2005 peace accord, Abyei residents are to hold a referendum on whether to join the south in January 2011, and south Sudan is scheduled to vote on the same day on whether to establish a separate country. While Abyei residents expressed satisfaction with the PCA decision, there is some concern over northern Arab nomads' reaction. The ruling guarantees them access to cross over the area's borders with their animals, but they may view the fixed boundaries as a challenge to those rights. (REUTERS, supra.)

In the view of Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, Abyei is “an important test” of whether the relevant parties will, counter to past practice, actually fulfill a commitment and be held to account. Experts on Sudan see the Abyei issue as having ramifications for Darfur, warning that “if violence returned to Abyei, peace and stability in Sudan, including Darfur, would be increasingly difficult to achieve.” (Id.)