Switzerland's Walter Kälin, the UN's Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, tells swissinfo more aid is needed for Southern Sudan.
The law professor warns that while peace may have returned to the troubled region after 20 years of civil war, the situation is still far from secure for returnees.
After a ten-day visit to Southern Sudan, Kälin called this week on the international community, donor countries and the Sudanese government to ensure the rights of some four million Sudanese displaced during years of conflict and who now want to return to their homes.
The UN is trying to increase protection for the 500,000 Sudanese expected to head home in the next six months and has asked for $48 million (SFr62 million) to help provide shelter and other needs.
swissinfo: Governments around the world say there is peace in Southern Sudan. But how safe is it for people to return there?
Walter Kälin: It is safe insofar there is peace. But it's not safe to go to each part of that region because not all problems have been solved. Some villages are not accessible because of landmines; in other areas there are undisciplined militias still on the ground harassing the civilian population. And in general there are too many armed civilians, mostly young men, harassing returnees who might become a danger for returnees. So depending on where you go the situation might still be quite volatile.
swissinfo: So the problem is not peace, but security?
W.K.: The first goal was to achieve peace, which was a gigantic step for Southern Sudan. But the next stage is to bring stability and security to the region. The United Nations is showing some military presence, which is a good start, but a lot more still needs to be done.
swissinfo: The UN is on the ground, but are more means needed to ensure security?
W.K.: When it comes to the protection of the rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in general, and not just against threats to life and limb, I saw the UN presence is far from sufficient. Up until now, the internationals have remained mainly in the few urban centres. What is needed now is a much bigger presence of the international community in all parts of Southern Sudan.
swissinfo: What are the problems faced by returnees?
W.K.: Security is one issue faced by returnees. Then there is basically a lack of everything: a lack of water outside urban centres for example. I also saw communities on the brink of hunger because of the lack of food and agriculture. There are also problems with the absence of services such as education and healthcare.
Returnees from the north, especially those who stayed in the area near the capital Khartoum, insist on the need for basic educational services for their children. They fear without education the next generation will be marginalised.
swissinfo: Should people be discouraged from returning now?
W.K.: It's not just a question of telling IDPs to wait. Many of them are returning spontaneously, some of them because they are eager to go home. There are communities who think they must be present in the area and have organised transport to get home.
But it's too early to move towards a large-scale return. So I'm calling on the Sudanese authorities and the international community to provide those who return home on their own with humanitarian assistance and protection. However, we should move cautiously and not rush with organized and assisted return operations to bring people back to southern Sudan.
swissinfo: What can countries like Switzerland do in Southern Sudan now?
W.K.: I see a less political role for Switzerland. It should concentrate on its position as a donor country to pressure international organisations and non-governmental organisations into implementing their planned activities now and deploying their staff on the ground as has been planned for some time now.
swissinfo: With peace an accepted fact in Southern Sudan, there has been talk from countries like Switzerland to move from humanitarian aid to development cooperation. Is this wise?
W.K.: Usually, humanitarian workers move out and cooperation specialists move in not long after the end of a conflict. But I don't think that such a phased approach is appropriate in Southern Sudan. Because of the lack of infrastructure, people will still rely on humanitarian aid for quite some time. However, we have to avoid just moving IDPs from one camp in the north to another in the south. So reconstruction and economic recovery has to start right now.
swissinfo: As the UN's top adviser for IDPs, how do you rate the situation in Sudan?
W.K.: Sudan is the biggest situation in Africa in terms of sheer numbers. There aren't just IDPs from 20 years of conflict in the south, but we also have the situation in Darfur as well as smaller displacements. Sudan really is the country of displaced persons.
The Darfur situation is still very difficult. It has got worse in the past two weeks with attacks against the African Union peacekeepers on the ground.
But in Southern Sudan, we have a window of opportunity now and I feel from the perspective of protecting IDPs, it is necessary to use that window to ensure that problems that will crop up during returns can be managed from the start. We want to avoid a new human rights crisis in the south.
swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper
There are around four million IDPs waiting to return to their homes in southern Sudan.
They were forced to flee because of the civil war opposing Christian and animist rebels in the south and the Muslim government in the north.
A peace accord was signed in January, putting an end to Africa's longest conflict that left an estimated two million dead.
Walter Kälin is a professor of constitutional and international law at Bern University.
In September 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Kälin as his new representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons.
Kälin is also a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
He will report his findings on Southern Sudan to the UN general assembly this month and the UN human rights commission next spring.