With only 5 years since it gained independence in 2011, South Sudan has struggled through a civil war that has killed approximately 50,000 to 300,000 people and displaced 1.6 million (1). The war broke out in December 2013, following President Salva Kiir’s accusations that former Vice President Riek Machar was plotting a coup d’état. This conflict has resulted in three years of fighting between government forces, rebel troops and allied militias. The fighting has mostly pitted Kiir's Dinkas, the dominant ethnic group estimated to be roughly a third of the population, against Machar's Nuer tribe. But dozens of other ethnic groups, South Sudan have been pulled into the conflict as the fighting spreads. Despite a fragile peace deal signed last year, fighting and attacks on civilians continue.
The civil war has resulted in United Nations condemnation and allegations of ethnic cleansing. The UN established the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (UNMISS) in March 2016 to monitor and report on the human rights situation. On December 1, the head of the commission reported that there was a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in the country, involving massacres, starvation, gang rape and the destruction of villages. "The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it,” commission chairwoman Yasmin Sooka told a news conference (2). "You have ethnic tensions because people have been displaced from their land based on ethnicity. Everybody believes that a military conflict is almost inevitable in different parts of the country,” Sooka told Al Jazeera (3). The United States also warned of escalating violence. "We have credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in Central Equatoria and preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks," Keith Harper, the US representative at the UN Human Rights Council, said in Geneva (4). In November, the UN's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, told the Security Council there was a risk of "outright ethnic war" and the "potential for genocide” (5). The UN human rights experts are expected to publish a report on their findings in March.
Despite the UN’s critical reporting on the situation in South Sudan, there has also been criticism of UNMISS and how the UN has handled the crisis. This criticism is justified as the commission’s failure to send help when a call came from the nearby compound under attack resulted in dozens of people being killed between July 8 to 11 (6). At least five foreign aid workers were raped when between 80 and 100 uniformed soldiers overran a hotel (7). In the weeks following the violence, UNMISS also struggled to send out patrols. During this period, several South Sudanese women were raped by soldiers from President Salva Kiir's Sudan People's Liberation Army. Peacekeeper’s deaths could have been prevented with a quicker response and better access to medical care. UN leadership has failed peacekeepers through inadequate emergency care and a timid response to government obstruction (8). Although the UN opened an investigation into the situation, it did not address these failures directly. Instead, the investigation resulted in Ban Ki-moon firing the Kenyan commander of peacekeeping forces in the country for failing to protect civilians.
This response resulted in Kenya pulling out its troops deployed in South Sudan as a form of protest against the UN. The Kenyan ministry expressed anger that this incident was unfairly blamed on a single individual, and said that Lieutenant General Ondieki was not to blame for violence that killed dozens of people (9). "What is clear is that UNMISS suffers from fundamental structural and systemic dysfunctionality, which has severely hindered its ability to discharge its mandate since its inception," the ministry said (10). Although the response by UNMISS was inadequate, improved trauma care and medical support is necessary to help them in their mission. The government of South Sudan has tried to relentlessly block UNMISS's movement, including trying to limit deployment of additional peacekeepers. Peacekeepers in the region need real support, including an arms embargo, instead of UN headquarters merely offering condemnations.
On December 1, South Sudan President Salva Kiir denied allegations by the United Nations that ethnic cleansing in the country's conflict is so bad that the stage is set for genocide."There's no such thing in South Sudan. There's no ethnic cleansing," he told Reuters news agency in the Johannesburg (11). Security guards prevented further questions.
Despite Kiir’s denial, the violence cannot be ignored. More than 4,000 people are crossing into Uganda daily, where the Bidibidi refugee settlement, open since August, now hosts some 188,000 people (12). Another 36,600 refugees have reached Ethiopia since early September, and more than 57,000 fled to Congo this year (13). It is the largest mass exodus of any conflict in Central Africa since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In the Equatorias region, the UN commission "heard numerous accounts of corpses being found along the main roads," the UN's Godfrey Musila said (14). Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it has become 'normal' in this environment (15). UN workers have heard villagers all over the country declaring that they are ready to shed blood to get their land back (16). Additionally, a cattle-raiding feud between rival ethnic groups in Jonglei state has left hundreds of people dead and some 100,000 displaced since South Sudan’s independence (17). The countless accounts of violence and mass human rights violations show that the political conflict has resulted in ethnic cleansing, despite Kiir’s protestations to the contrary.
The reasons behind the political crisis and civil war go beyond ethnic conflicts. Although the country is rich in oil, it is still one of Africa’s least developed economies. Instead of using oil money to fund infrastructure, health services or other initiatives that benefit the public good, oil money has been stolen by elites or spent on the military. Post-independence excess of money, as well as arrogance within the government, resulted in shutting down the national oil production because of a dispute with the northern Sudanese president. Kiir’s “big tent” policy, which in practice resulted in using state funds to buy loyalties by licensing corruption, required a large income, which no longer existed (18). This policy had the repercussion of intensified political competition within the ruling party. It was also highly problematic that the nation did not have a professionalized, institutionalized army, but rather a collection of militias.
Political conflict caused political identity to default into ethnic identity. In South Sudan, groups, including militias, have been historically organized on an ethnic basis. Likewise, the groups that have organized around the president––the militias that carried out the massacres in Juba in the first days of the conflict in December 2013––have organized on an ethnic basis (19). Political tension and ethnic-based fear and resentment has resulted in people turning inwards to their own ethnic groups for security. Riek Machar resorted to ethnic mobilization because it was quick and cheap. He could call upon the Nuer militia and the so-called “White Army” to mobilize almost overnight, as they have done for some 20 years (20). And then, inevitably, the conflict became primarily Nuer verse Dinka.
In order to prevent this civil war from turning into genocide, the international community needs to step in immediately. To avert continued mass bloodshed, the UN experts lists a number of steps: expedite the immediate arrival of the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force in South Sudan; ensure that the force is not restricted only to the capital; freeze assets; enact targeted sanctions; and implement an arms embargo (21). Peacekeepers on the ground need the support of an arms embargo; otherwise, violence is going to continue to get out of control. Although the UN’s condemnations are a necessary step, it is important that it is followed up with actions that directly address the situation. There also needs to be immediate deployment of the regional protection force already approved by the UN Security Council in resolution 2304. The force's mandate should be expanded to include monitoring, disarming and demobilizing any armed group targeting civilians. In addition, the African Union Commission and the South Sudan government need to urgently establish the proposed Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS). Although it is imperative that the fighting is brought to an end, those responsible for crimes against humanity still need to be held accountable. The international community needs to act now to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide and state-collapse in South Sudan.
(1) Waal, Alex De. "Understanding the Roots of Conflict in South Sudan." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
(2) "UN: 'Ethnic Cleansing under Way' in South Sudan." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 01 Dec. 2016. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
(6) "Kenya Withdraws Troops from UN Mission in South Sudan." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
(8) Wells, Matt. "The UN Has Failed Its Peacekeepers in S Sudan." Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera Media Network, 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
(9) "Kenya Withdraws Troops from UN Mission in South Sudan." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
(11) "South Sudan Denies UN Allegations of 'ethnic Cleansing'" Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
(14) "UN: 'Ethnic Cleansing under Way' in South Sudan." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 01 Dec. 2016. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
(17) "South Sudan Profile." BBC News. BBC, 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
(18) Waal, Alex De. "Understanding the Roots of Conflict in South Sudan." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
(21) "Security Council Approves Regional Protection Force for UN Mission in South Sudan." UN News Center. United Nations, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Image: © Paskee | Dreamstime.com - Fleeing the fights