There has been much controversy over the UK's role in Afghanistan, with many questioning what we are doing there or whether we are giving enough support to our troops. But the question that no one is asking is how much more effective it would have been to get involved at a much earlier stage, when prevention was perhaps possible.
While our politicians argue over how to best pick up the pieces in war-shattered Afghanistan, another strategically-important country, Sudan, slides ever closer to all-out war as the UK government does little more than stand back and watch, even though Sudan is a country where the UK does have some influence and previous positive engagement.
This year alone, an estimated 2,000 people have been killed in southern Sudan – the rate of violent deaths in the south now surpassing that of war-torn Darfur. As religious leaders of different faiths, we are all too aware that while divisions in Sudan are often simply characterised as a conflict between a Muslim north and a largely Christian south, the reality is far more complex. Communal ethnic violence, cross-border rebel militias, ongoing tensions in Darfur, disputes over resources, political grievances and broken promises – all these contribute to a highly volatile situation that we fear will deteriorate further if urgent action is not taken.
With national elections due to take place in April 2010 and a referendum on southern self-determination less than a year after that, the violence we are witnessing only looks set to escalate.
Sudan's painstakingly-negotiated 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), witnessed by UK representatives and others, promised to bring an end to the civil war between north and south that had devastated communities in Sudan for 22 years. Four years on, we bear witness to the continued suffering that has resulted from the failure to fully implement the agreement. As one of the parties formally involved in the CPA peace negotiations and involved in Darfur peace talks, the British government has obligations to the people of Sudan that it has not done enough to fulfil.
In yet another international meeting on Sudan last month (October 2009), UK, EU, US, French, Russian and Chinese diplomats met in Moscow for discussions on the future of Sudan. Yet, while the international discussions come and go, there is no evidence of real progress to be seen and people in Sudan continue to suffer routine violence as a consequence of political failures to bring about a lasting peace.
Building peace is hard work. It is always a long-term project and it is always easier to take preventative measures than to wait until terrible acts of violence compel us to respond. Profoundly committed to the peaceful settlement of conflict by nonviolent means, we urge the British government to take seriously its obligations to the people of Sudan, and to take these obligations seriously now, while peace is still possible, rather than waiting until the country has fallen apart. The UK must take urgent and decisive action to reinvigorate the peace processes in Sudan. Only with real international leadership can we hope to realise our commitment to protect the dignity of human life in Sudan.
(c) Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral. This appeal was penned jointly with Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, chair of Religions for Peace UK, and Rabbi Maurice Michaels, South West Essex & Settlement Reform Synagogue.