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UN official voices hope for peaceful Sudanese polls

By UN

23 February - Many challenges remain with just under 50 days left until the historic national polls in Sudan, but a United Nations official today expressed hope that the process will continue to be peaceful and reflect the will of the people of the vast African nation.

“We have all recognized for some time the complexity of these elections,” Ray Kennedy, Chief Electoral Affairs Officer for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), told reporters today in Khartoum.

The April polls will be the first inclusive elections to be held for decades in the country and are a major milestone in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended over 20 years of north-south strife in one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars.

“Many aspects of the elections are new for voters, and especially so for the majority of voters who are taking part in multi-party elections for the first time in their lives,” Mr. Kennedy pointed out.

In spite of its meagre resources, the National Elections Commission (NEC) has displayed “admirable commitment” in its work to organize and conduct the polls, he said.

It faces many obstacles, including the size and landscape of Sudan, coupled with weak infrastructure in many parts of the country.

For their part, the official said, the Sudanese people can prepare themselves for the elections by attending debates and rallies to learn about the parties and candidates; discussing their views freely and openly with their friends, neighbours and colleagues; and understanding the many ballots they will come across.

The media has a key role to play in informing the electorate, “both by presenting factual information and by encouraging readers and listeners to analyze the world – and the political campaign going on – around them,” he stressed.

While the campaign to date has been peaceful overall, Mr. Kennedy noted that there have been some incidents provoking concern, including reports of civil society groups being preventing from holding awareness workshops on the electoral process.

“We want to take this opportunity to encourage all registered parties and their supporters to continue to demonstrate maturity and respect for the rights of others to campaign, to attend campaign events, and to make their personal choice of leaders and representatives when they are in the voting booth in just a few weeks' time,” he said.

UNMIS, he underlined, does not have a role in observing or monitoring the polls, which falls to international and domestic observers; its part, rather, is to support its Sudanese counterparts “by sharing with them all our experience gained in electoral support missions all over the world.”

UNMIS is assisting the National Elections Commission in several areas, such as advising on the development of plans and procedures for voter registration, nominations, polling, counting and the results' tabulation and announcement. It is also helping to create voter education plans and materials.

“In all these areas, we are able to offer the NEC a variety of options for these activities and to share with them our experiences with those various options elsewhere,” Mr. Kennedy said. But ultimately, “it is the NEC that makes the decisions and that guides the entire process.”

In a related development, UNMIS is also taking steps to enhance the participation of deaf people in the upcoming polls by boosting awareness of the electoral process.

A 10-day workshop, sponsored by the Mission and which kicked off yesterday at the Juba Christian Centre in Southern Sudan, aims to teach participants international sign language so they can communicate with each to address human rights, health and other issues.

The Mission noted that many within both the deaf and hearing populations are not aware of either the voting process or the candidates.

Mathew Dominic, who heads the Electoral Assistance Division in Southern Sudan for UNMIS, stressed that every single vote counts. “It is important for us to recognize this fact and ensure that PWD (Persons with Disabilities) have equal opportunities for voter education,” he said.

Persons with disabilities, he emphasized, have the same rights as others to take part in the elections as voters, members of a political party or candidates.

Mr. Dominic commended the Southern Sudan Deaf Development Concern (SSDDC), which organized the workshop, for its “commendable effort” in reaching out to persons with disabilities.

Earlier this month, the UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, Mohamed Chande Othman, wrapped up a visit to the nation, telling reporters in Khartoum that representatives of political parties taking part in the April polls complained to him of harassment, intimidation, and restrictions on their activities.

“With the election date fast approaching it is essential that the Government creates a conducive environment for free and fair elections with firm guarantees of the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the constitution,” he said.