Vienna, Asharq Al-Awsat- Between the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and the Austrian capital, Vienna flows a relentless and active official movement represented by exchange of visits by current government officials up to the level of the foreign ministers of the two countries, and former ministers of the rank of defense minister who still is an active member of his party, which is a part of the coalition government.
Moreover, Austrian studies centers last November hosted a consultative conference on the post-referendum challenges to the future of South Sudan; the conference included prominent political and social Sudanese faces, from the north and the south.
Within these rare Sudanese-western relations, a few days ago Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger paid a visit to Sudan, which he described to Asharq Al-Awsat as a success. While Spindelegger stresses the importance of the role played by President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir in conducting a referendum on the future of South Sudan, he denies that Austria is trying to play the role of some mediator between the two Sudanese sides of the conflict, or between the Khartoum Government and the International community for the sake of achieving a deal that would put out the fire of the international accusations that haunt President Al-Bashir in exchange for his commitment to carry out the referendum and to accept its result.
Spindelegger points out that the visit takes place out of Austria’s commitment and permanent attention to preserving the rights of the civilians in implementation of the international resolutions that demand the adherence to human-rights conventions. The visit also is to offer any help required because of its expertise in such fields as referendums.
However, the Austrian foreign minister denies any knowledge of any future Austrian investment deals in the promising territories of Sudan, whether the country is partitioned or it remains united. He denies that any talks are taking place about deals to sell Austrian weapons to any of the two governments in Sudan.
Q) What are the reasons behind your visit to Sudan?
A) Usually Austria attaches great importance to the protection of the civilian population, and adherence to human rights, especially through its current role as a member of the UN Security Council. Now the future of Sudan is at the top of the international agenda. At a high-level meeting last September in New York, which was also attended by US President Barack Obama, I presented some Austrian legal advice from the core of our expertise to be utilized during the preparatory stage of the referendum on the future of South Sudan, which was accepted by both sides of the government in Sudan.
At a consultative conference convened last month in Vienna and attended by representatives from both sides (participating in that conference were Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Kurti; Ambassador Al-Dardiri Muhammad Ahmad, supervisor of the dossier of Abye region at the National Congress Party; Lual Deng, minister of oil; and Luka Byong, minister of cabinet affairs) it became clear that there is unanimity on a single decisive point, namely there could be no permanent peace and security for the people in the region unless the two sides commit themselves to continue their cooperation after the referendum.
The north and the south of Sudan undoubtedly will need each other. During my visit, I intended to get a personal impression about the situation in Sudan days before the referendum, and to make sure that each of the two sides would adhere to the cohesion that makes it necessary for them to cooperate closely regardless of the result of the referendum.
Q) What were the reactions of the two sides on the ground?
A) Their reactions were positive. They understand the fact that whatever the results of the self-determination referendum in South Sudan might be, the future – not only in Sudan, but in the entire region – depends on the existence of an organized process to proceed forward. On the other hand, I reiterated the possibility that Austria can offer and provide legal expertise in the issues of citizenship, which would emerge if South Sudan secedes. The two sides accepted our offer.
Q) Is Austria pursuing a mediator role between the Sudanese Government and the International community to build a kind of agreement to release President Al-Bashir from the charges against him in exchange for conducting a smooth referendum?
A) President Al-Bashir has an important role to play within the context of conducting the referendum; however, I cannot see any role for Austria as a mediator between Sudan and the international community over President Al-Bashir.
Q) Is Austria planning to preempt the opportunities of investment in Sudan?
A) I have no knowledge of any Austrian plans to invest in Sudan.
Q) What about the talk about deals to sell Austrian weapons?
A) The Austrian law prohibits selling weapons that are classified as means of war to countries like Sudan.
Q) What about selling to the South Sudan Government?
A) This also applies to the independent State of South Sudan.
Q) What is your impression of the situation? Is it better or worse than you expected?
A) I came to Sudan with an open mind in order to listen to the largest possible number of Sudanese, and to obtain direct information about their apprehensions. I returned full of admiration for the positive attitude of both sides, and for their commitment to conduct the referendum at the date they scheduled and agreed, namely 9 January. This does not mean the absence of a great deal of mistrust between them. Through my talks in Sudan, and before that in Vienna, it became clear that there still is a great deal to be done in Sudan by the Sudanese, and also by the political powers in order to achieve progress; if it is necessary, Austria is prepared to help in this field.