NEW YORK– 222 years ago today, French citizens, angry with their government for years of oppression and abuse, stormed a prison in Paris called the Bastille. This set into motion a series of events that included the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the formation of the French National Assembly. It was a seminal moment in the history of free, democratic governance.
It is fitting then, that 222 years later, the United Nations, which represents the highest manifestation of democratic governance on Earth, should accept into its ranks a country that is, like France in 1789, no stranger to oppression, abuse and subjugation; South Sudan. The General Assembly accepted a resolution making the Republic of South Sudan a member of the United Nations.
“In this place, the world gathers to say in one voice: welcome South Sudan. Welcome to the community of nations,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
General Assembly President Joseph Deiss was similarly enthusiastic about the new nation’s admission to the largest international organization in the world. “I congratulate them on their recent independence and I wish them a warm welcome as the 193rd member state to the community of the United Nations,” he said.
The GA vote comes a day after South Sudan’s application to the UN was accepted by the Security Council, and five days after the nation declared independence after decades of dispute with Sudan.
As was the case in Revolutionary France, South Sudan remains riddled with challenges. The new nation ranks among the world’s poorest, with low human, economic, and social development. Its relationship with Sudan is tenuous at best, with the two nations’ competing interests leading to conflict in Abeyi and South Kordofan. Its other neighbors pose additional problems. Military unrest in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spilled over in the new nation’s borders, disrupting progress.
South Sudanese vice president RiekMachar acknowledged these challenges, and urged both his own government, and the government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, to use the elation that has accompanied South Sudanese independence to generate stability and peace.
“We want to cooperate because we want to create two viable States. We want the borders to be an area where there is economic activity,” he said. “One third of the Sudanese population, in the North and South, live in the belt, the common border. This is the time we should use this euphoria to resolve the conflicts in Southern Kordofan, the general situation in these two areas and also Darfur.”
Today, as it joins the United Nations on Bastille Day, South Sudan can look to revolutionary France as a historical lesson. For one, it can learn that this is only the beginning of a long and arduous process. As the French learned, democracy and human rights are not a given after overcoming oppression; in fact they are very difficult to achieve. It can also learn that if it attempts to look backward and exact vengeance, rather than looking forward to promote progress, it runs the risk of a Thermidorian reign of terror which could, in the end, destroy the principles that the new nation has worked so hard to achieve.
If South Sudan can avoid these pitfalls, and embrace the true spirit of democracy and international cooperation – which it appears wholly prepared to do – then July 14 could be remembered as a great day in the history of Africa, along with Europe.