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South Sudan: why the international community needs to act urgently

Graves of unidentified people killed during fighting in Juba, South Sudan, in 2016. There are fears the country could descend into genocide. Reuters/Adriane Ohanesian

South Sudan: why the international community needs to act urgently

Graves of unidentified people killed during fighting in Juba, South Sudan, in 2016. There are fears the country could descend into genocide. Reuters/Adriane Ohanesian

The international community is focused on defeating ISIS, dealing with the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis on their doorsteps as well as home grown terrorism. But, now more than ever, it needs to be actively engaged in South Sudan or the situation could rapidly deteriorate. The country is dealing with a deadly cocktail of personal ambition, state failure, high level corruption and political manipulation, and a failure to transform a revered liberation movement into an accountable ruling party.

It’s only a matter of time until the world witnesses massacres in South Sudan on our TV screens again.

The international community has repeatedly called on South Sudan’s leaders to implement the peace agreement signed in August 2015. But it has still failed to exert enough pressure to nudge things along. This matters both for South Sudan and for the world. Mass atrocities in any one place can undermine the entire international system of collective security by calling into question the UN Security Council’s ability to live up to its responsibility as the authority tasked by law with maintaining international peace and security.

Too often, the international response has been either too late or too weak. Rwanda and Syria stand out as two marked examples. It is therefore imperative that the international community –and other leading bodies – begin to act and do something about what is happening in South Sudan. This needs to happen now.

South Sudan has been consumed by fighting since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his former first vice-president Riek Machar of plotting to overthrow him. The fighting rapidly transformed into ethnic conflict, pitting supporters of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against those backing Machar, an ethnic Nuer.

Three years later the UN has estimated that at least 50,000 civilians have been killed and a further 2 million have been displaced. South Sudanese citizens and remaining international staff live in daily fear of insecurity. A complete breakdown of the rule of law is evident as government forces harass, torture and – in some parts of the country – kill civilians with impunity.

This has led to the proliferation of localised self-defence forces that have been on the rise since fighting erupted in 2013. Kiir’s controversial tinkering with state boundaries in 2015 seems to have fuelled the creation of these militias. This will only accelerate the slide into further violence, threatening to become one of the greatest challenges for South Sudan’s future stability.

Concerted interventions by various international players can stop the slide into chaos.

The main actors need to come to the party

The leaders in South Sudan will continue to play games unless members of the international community – such as the US, UK, the eight-country East Africa bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union – apply considerable pressure on the leaders to move the country forward.

Urgent steps are needed to bring peace to South Sudan and to end the threat of massacres.

There are a number of steps that could be taken. These include:

  • Sanctions on Kiir;

  • A firmer arms embargo to stop the flow of weapons;

  • Restrictions on trade with South Sudan’s leaders; and

  • A freeze on oil exports. A UN security council decision to block the imposition of an arms embargo was greeted with outrage in many quarters.

The International Criminal Court could also play a role. Now is the time for it to consider starting proceedings to indict both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. This would send a clear sign to the two leaders that violence and continued fighting would not be permitted and force other members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to move together and move south Sudan forward.

And the AU needs to act too given that its human rights investigation found that both the government and rebels have carried out war crimes against civilians.

The question for the international community is whether it acts, or just sits by and allows this to continue.

Steps to be taken internally

But South Sudan’s political class also needs to step up to the plate. The vicious cycle of violence will continue unless it allows the country to establish democratic institutions, good governance, and a process of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation among the various ethnic groups. The out-of-date and unconstitutional SPLM must now be dissolved and done away with. It is the source of South Sudan’s problems. It is legitimate machinery for perpetration of violence, corruption and assorted depravities.

Realistically speaking this will take decades. But it is the only way that the country can move forward peacefully. Inaction will undoubtedly result in the world’s newest state falling through the cracks of peace and suffering a disconsolate fate and a full-scale civil war yet again.

A useful first step would be for South Sudan’s leaders to be honest about the atrocities of 2013. Their acceptance would help many civilians seek closure. It would also start a process of dialogue and reconciliation among the different communities and the diaspora in neighbouring countries.

This would provide many of the victims with a platform for their stories to be heard. It would also help reconstruct many of the local institutional structures that were eradicated during the civil war and allow a process of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to transpire. This is not a simple one-size fits all theoretical solution but a recommendation that could allow the country to slowly move forward.