(CNN) -- International observers will be watching out for "potential spoilers" as southern Sudan votes on whether to break away from the rest of the east African nation next week, a leading human rights activist said Monday.
"The world has invested a lot in having a peaceful referendum that really determines what the southern Sudanese people want for their future, whether they want a free southern Sudan or stay in the united Sudan," John Prendergast, an outspoken critic of the Sudanese government, told CNN's "The Situation Room."
Sunday's referendum in southern Sudan could establish the world's newest country or potentially trigger a renewed civil war in the region. The vote was part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of violence between Sudan's north and oil-rich south that left 2 million people dead, many from disease and starvation.
The hope is that the balloting will turn a framework peace agreement into a permanent solution. But the stakes are high as the war-torn country tries to move past its bloody history.
"We have to keep our eye on those potential spoilers that will attempt to undermine the process and the aftermath of the process in order to keep Sudan united and the oil flowing from southern Sudan to northern Sudan," said Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, which is aimed at ending genocide and crimes against humanity.
In a September speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the south Sudan situation "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence." Clinton urged international leaders to help ensure a successful referendum process by intensifying efforts to bring the north and south together.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that Washington is "optimistic" about the referendum.
"Our view (is), and the observers in Sudan have viewed the registration process as very credible," Crowley told reporters Monday.
"Sudan and southern Sudan have come a long way over the past few months," he added.
Sudan is Africa's largest country, a quarter the size of the United States. In a New Year's Day speech marking the 55th anniversary of independence, President Omar al-Bashir said he will accept the results of the referendum and called on the government in the south to provide a safe environment for the balloting.
"Our acceptance of the final results will not be withdrawn or hesitated about," he said, "because the peace is our ultimate goal in our relationships with our southern brothers, even if they choose a path other than unity."
Al-Bashir is expected to visit Juba, which would be the capital of an independent south, on Tuesday to inspect the referendum process and meet with other senior officials in South Sudan, Sudanese state media reported.
"Depending on the choice made by the people of south Sudan this weekend, we know there's still a long way to go and a difficult road ahead," said Crowley.
The Sudanese leader has ruled since 1989. But he is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide stemming from a separate conflict in western Sudan's Darfur region, where an estimated 300,000 people have died since 2003.
The vote in the south has sparked fears of renewed violence there, but the launch of a new satellite surveillance project spearheaded by actor George Clooney is aimed at preventing another genocide in the region.
The program, dubbed the Satellite Sentinel Project, is expected to launch this week. It will use satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google's Map Maker technology to deter a potential breakout of a civil war between north and south Sudan, Clooney told "The Situation Room."
The effort will add an eye in the sky to the arsenal of an international community looking closely at a region long gripped by famine and strife.
"It's harder to commit any sort of atrocities if everyone is watching," Clooney said.