Volume 10, Issue 3 - March 2012

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Abyei: An Examination of the Effectiveness of Arbitration for African Land Disputes

Elizabeth Ward
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Class of 2012

Critics question the effectiveness of arbitration in resolving international land disputes, such as the Abyei dispute.  This paper analyzes the Abyei arbitration and uses the Abyei arbitration as a backdrop for analysis of arbitration’s effectiveness in resolving international land disputes..  Abyei is a resource-rich, centrally-located region whose border is hotly contested between Sudan and South Sudan.[1]  Prior to secession, civil war embroiled North and South Sudan; the war had lasted over sixty years and completely devastated the area and its inhabitants.  Years of internationally brokered peace agreements failed to end the violence.  A central part of the countries’ negotiations involved border disputes, including ascertaining ownership of the Abyei region.

Ultimately, the various internationally-led peace-talks and accords failed to ascertain ownership of Abyei and, with much international encouragement, North and South Sudan agree to bring the Abyei issue before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.  While one of the Abyei arbitrators, Judge Awn Al-Khasawneh, predicted that the arbitration award would “in all likelihood, have a profound impact on the future of the Sudan as a State and the peace and well-being of all its long-suffering citizens regardless of their ethnicity or creed,” [2]  on reflection it appears that arbitration actually did little to resolve the Abyei issue or stem fighting between Northern and Southern Sudan.

The failure of arbitration to bring lasting resolution to the Abyei border dispute highlights a larger problem: the inadequacy of international arbitration to resolve border disputes in Africa.  ADR processes—as realized in Africa—are criticized for being “ad hoc, uncoordinated, poorly planned, and largely ineffective,” and the Abyei arbitration was no exception. 3

In order to better appreciate the complex and arduous task facing the arbitrators in a border dispute, Part II provides a brief background of the various failed peace negotiations and agreements between Northern and Southern Sudan concerning Abyei. These events eventually led to arbitration at the PCA.  Part III analyzes the Abyei arbitration agreement and subsequent arbitration proceedings in order to determine whether arbitration was the most appropriate forum for resolving the Abyei boundary dispute by focusing on three key characteristics of arbitration: (1) secrecy, (2) arbitrator selection, and (3) enforcement mechanisms.  Part III then goes on to consider the Abyei arbitration in light of other arbitrations involving African border disputes.


  1. Southern Suden officially seceded from Sudan to become the Republic of South Sudan in 2011.
  2. Judge Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh, Dissenting Opinion, July 22, 2009 at 1; Jeffery Gettleman & Josh Kron, U.N. Warns of Ethnic Cleansing in Sudan Town, N.Y. Times, May 25, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/world/africa/26sudan.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.
  3. Laurence Juma, Africa, Its Conflicts and its Traditions: Debating a Suitable Role for Tradition in African Peace Initiatives, 13 Mich. St. J. Int’l L. 417, 469 (2005).
Posted in: Volume 10, Issue 3

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