Sudan - the first challenge for the EU's new foreign policy chief
Responding to the worsening conflict in Africa's largest country will represent the first test of whether under the new Lisbon Treaty, Europe can live up to its potential for coordinated foreign policy action and effective conflict prevention.
On Saturday (9 January), Sudan marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement that ended one of Africa's longest and deadliest wars.
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But a new report by aid agencies, Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan shows the deal is currently on the brink of collapse.
It is not yet too late to avert disaster, but Sudan is at a crossroads, and the next 12 months are critical. Urgent international action is vital to save the peace agreement. The EU has a key role to play, since it was its own diplomatic and financial engagement that helped broker the peace agreement in the first place. And Sudan is currently EU's largest recipient of humanitarian aid.
All this effort cannot go to waste. Despite being in such a critical moment, Sudan does not yet seem to figure high on the EU political radar.
Last year, some 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 forced to flee their homes in southern Sudan, a human toll greater than occurred last year in Darfur. Yet the world has largely overlooked this suffering.
Communities say that women and children have increasingly been targeted in attacks, and neither the nascent government of Southern Sudan nor international peacekeepers have been able to protect them.
The next 12 months will see a number of potential flashpoints that could inflame violence if proper planning is not in place. These include multi-party elections in April, Sudan's first in 24 years, and a referendum in January 2011 in which southerners will decide whether to remain united with the north or to secede and become independent.
The EU must work with the international community to help mediate between the parties before the elections and referendum in order to reduce the likelihood of conflict, and to support the government in the south to provide security.
Southern Sudan is already one of the poorest and least-developed regions in the world. Less than half the population has access to clean water and maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the world. There are fewer than 50kms of tarmac road in the entire region, an area the size of France, and during heavy rains many areas are cut off for months at a time, making the delivery of humanitarian aid almost impossible. Some 80 percent of adults cannot read or write and one in seven children die before their fifth birthday.
The EU must provide more predictable funding for projects - including basic services like health care and education and infrastructure such as roads and bridges - that contribute to the fragile peace and stability achieved since the signing of the peace agreement.
Money should also be spent on technical support and training to the government of Southern Sudan, which, since it was created under the peace agreement with almost no first-hand experience of governing, has struggled to respond to massive development and security challenges.
A return to war is by no means inevitable, but it depends whether the world heeds the warning signs of the past year and has the political will to save the peace.
Noah Gottschalk is Oxfam International's EU Humanitarian Policy Advisor.