The Crisis in South Sudan

What Might Be Done

18 May 2014  | by Tom Buitelaar


While the West’s eye is firmly fixed on the worrying events unfolding in Ukraine, the ongoing conflict in South Sudan has steadily escalated into a crisis that is far more devastating.


Since December 2013, thousands of civilians have been killed and well over a million have been displaced, in fighting between troops loyal to  the current President of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS), Salva Kiir, and rebels loyal to the Vice-President-turned-rebel leader, Riek Machar. The United Nations (UN) has accused both sides of crimes against humanity, including massacres, sexual slavery and mass rape. The conflict between Kiir and Machar has exacerbated existing tensions between the nation’s two dominant ethnic groups, the Dinka siding with Kiir, and the Nuer siding with Machar.


Violence has increasingly taken the form of ethnically motivated attacks on civilians. Although ceasefires were signed after negotiations between Kiir and Machar in Addis Adaba, one in January and one this May, they have repeatedly been broken, probably due to the lack of control Kiir and Machar have over those fighting for them. This has led the United States (US) Secretary of State, John Kerry, to warn of – an impending if not ongoing - genocide. Meanwhile, famine threatens the country, as the chaos has disrupted food production and humanitarian access.


This commentary examines some of the main challenges and opportunities as the international community figures out its response.


The international community (especially the US) has been significantly involved in South Sudan since the state gained independence from Khartoum in 2011. The multi-dimensional UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has aided the country in both economic and social aspects of state building. Although the Security Council responded within ten days to the violence with Resolution 2132, which mandated a temporary increase in peacekeepers, the build-up of troops is taking time to materialize. Further action is mostly hampered by differences among the P5.


Having spent a large amount of economic and diplomatic resources on state building in South Sudan, the US is taking an assertive approach to save their prestige project. But other powers, especially China, have based their policy mostly on non-interference. Of course, there are the fundamental differences in the interpretations of state sovereignty and the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. But China’s response to the crisis also appears to be shaped by its major interests in the Sudanese and South Sudanese oil industry where it buys up around two-thirds of the oil exports.


The long history of proxy warfare in the region, with regional governments supporting rebel groups in other countries usually in battles over resource control, adds a further complication. Not surprisingly, the South Sudanese civil war has mainly focused on control of the oil-rich northern provinces. The complex system of alliances that has developed is a major reason for the supposed lack of control that Kiir and Machar have over their forces. For example, Uganda, which supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement during the North-South Sudanese Civil War, has troops in the country that are supporting the GOSS. Commentators have doubted Kiir’s control over these troops.


Additionally, GOSS has accused Khartoum of supporting militias in South Sudan’s north which are now continuing their fight against the government. These foreign-supported troops obscure the chains of command in the country and might lead to a replay of the decades-long rivalry between Sudan and Uganda, making a lasting ceasefire more difficult. The history of regional rivalries has furthermore made the UN suspicious of integrating local peacekeeping forces into UNMISS. The East-African Intergovernmental Authority on Development has authorized a Protection (and Deterrence) Force, which would supplement 2.500 regional troops to protect ceasefire monitors.  


Although this is understandable, the slow reinforcement of UNMISS is worrying. American, UN and regional engagement have resulted in Kiir and Machar signing a ceasefire, but civilians still face major security problems as the violence continues. Therefore, it is imperative that the violence ends as soon as possible, so that all can focus on solving the major humanitarian crisis. American engagement is promising, but in the end, it will be the South Sudanese leaders themselves who will have to commit to a lasting peace. They have to immediately stop playing up ethnic divisions, and seek a peaceful solution for their political problems. To make sure that both the government and the rebels commit to this, intervention by the international community can be helpful. So what can be done?


The UN should strengthen the UNMISS peacekeeping force, which has so far largely been unable to provide security. UNMISS has come under attack by both GOSS forces and the rebels. In one incident, a UN-guarded refugee camp was attacked by rebels, leaving more than 50 people dead. The temporary increase in the number of peacekeepers is not enough. The UN should additionally broaden the mission’s mandate, so that it can more efficiently defend the population against obstructions to peace.


Advances by the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO) in defeating rebel groups in eastern Congo could serve as an example. In October 2013, the reinforced group of peacekeepers managed to defeat the M23 rebel group there with an impressive military operation. At the same time, the US should continue to pressure government and rebel leaders, to make sure that the nation it helped to create does not wither away before getting a proper chance to flourish. 


While the UN’s focus is now firmly on solving the political crisis, some commentators have urged the international community not to forget about accountability for the crimes against humanity. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has called for an ad-hoc tribunal, while the Security Council is investigating an opportunity to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. These crimes indeed call for condemnation and necessitate a reaffirmation that violence is not the solution for political grievances. Still, it is important to ensure that justice does not stand in the way of peace, which is so desperately required right now to aid the millions in humanitarian need. A do no harm approach is called for, with extra attention to timing and a keen eye for the adverse impact prosecutions might have.


As the UN Security Council prepares to expand the mandate of UNMISS or increase its numbers, it appears that some countries, especially China, remain reluctant to cooperate. Although it is promising that China has already shown willingness to resolve the crisis bilaterally, multilateral efforts have not received much support.


However, there might be opportunities here. As China increasingly comes under fire (especially from the West) for allegedly ignoring human rights in its engagement with Africa, it could counter this critique by joining a concerted international effort for a just end to the crisis. As such an important player in the country’s economy, there is scope to put pressure on both the GOSS and the rebels to establish a lasting ceasefire and a peaceful transition. After all, a stable environment is far more

conducive to sustainable economic investment.


Special thanks to: Eamon Aloyo, Manuella Appiah, Mark Bailey and David Connolly for their substantive input. 

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