10/15/2013 05:45 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

A Canadian Retreat from Sudan is the Wrong Policy at the Wrong Time

Canada can play a role in supporting and facilitating progress toward peace in Sudan. The need is urgent and the time is right. Yet the Conservative government is instead choosing to remain silent and stage a quiet retreat, cutting resources and reducing Canada's presence in the region.

I am very concerned by reports of escalating unrest in Sudan, and in particular of civilian deaths, injuries and arbitrary arrests following the suppression of peaceful protests by government forces. The recent violence has taken place amidst a growing crackdown on independent media.

Sudanese citizens expressing their views in peaceful protest are being subjected to tear gas, live fire, beatings and detention. According to Amnesty International, over 200 people have been killed by security forces. Hundreds more have been arrested, including members of opposition parties and journalists.

Freedom of expression and association, including freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protest, are fundamental democratic principles. The Sudanese government must respect the right of Sudanese citizens and journalists to peacefully express themselves without fear or intimidation. I hope that all parties will avoid violence and exercise restraint in the coming weeks, and that Sudan can return to the path of peace we all hoped for after the agreement of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the independence of South Sudan in 2011.

The need for real and lasting reform in Sudan is increasingly being voiced within the country -- not just by protestors and opposition figures, but also from within the ruling party. A memorandum was recently sent to President Omar al-Bashir calling for improved political and press freedoms, as well as investigations and compensation following the recent crackdown. Among the signatories to this document were a former head of the governing party's caucus, as well as a former cabinet minister who helped lead the coup that saw al-Bashir come to power.

The Sudanese president is unfortunately better known for having been charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide than for his propensity for good governance. Still, there is a new and unmistakable domestic consensus building in favour of reform, and pressure is mounting on the al-Bashir regime.

Canada should be doing its part.

I call on the Conservative government to urge Sudanese authorities to fully respect their international human rights obligations and the rule of law. The use of violence and arbitrary arrest against peaceful protesters is unacceptable. The Canadian government needs to say so, and to take a proactive position of supporting the development of stability and democracy in the region.

That is why I am disappointed that the government has picked this critical moment to disband its Sudan Task Force. Canada's chief aid representative in Sudan has also been removed without replacement.

The STF was a valuable Canadian contribution to security and development in Sudan, coordinating Canada's diplomacy, development, and security efforts in the country. Following South Sudanese independence, its mandate was expanded to cover that country as well. Canada's presence and involvement in both countries enabled us to have both knowledge and influence in this complex and strategically important region.

The government's claim that "Canada continues to have a sizeable development presence in South Sudan" is small consolation. Sudan is larger than Ontario and Manitoba combined; the distance from Khartoum to Juba is the same as from Winnipeg to Calgary, or from Toronto to Halifax. Saying that our presence in South Sudan justifies our absence from Sudan is like saying that another country's presence in Washington justifies its absence from Ottawa. Meanwhile, substantial ethnic, economic, and political differences persist between Sudan and South Sudan; the risk of reversion to full-fledged conflict is real.

Withdrawing from Sudan, and eliminating the organization charged with organizing Canada's role in the region, weakens Canada's voice and influence. It makes it less likely that our supposedly sizeable aid contribution (which in fact has been declining under the Conservative government) will be effective.

By speaking out strongly against abuses, and by supporting democratic as well as economic development, Canada can make a real difference in Sudan -- a positive difference for Sudanese citizens, the wider region and Canada's own interests.

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