On Saturday 9 July 2016, South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary as the world’s youngest country. After five years of independence, however, the country has not flourished, but remains today in a state of insecurity and crisis.
Two years ago, I wrote a commentary examining some of the main challenges and opportunities as the international community was figuring out its response to the initial outbreak of fighting. Sadly, much of it remains relevant today.
President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar signed a peace deal in August 2015 after various botched earlier attempts, but over the past weekend fighting between troops loyal to Kiir, and forces loyal to the Vice-President-turned-rebel leader-turned Vice-President Machar broke out once again. So far, more than 300 people have reportedly died in this recent spate of violence, while the bigger conflict, which erupted in December 2013, has resulted in thousands more killed. The UN reports there are more than 2.3 million refugees and internally displaced, and continues to warn of famine and malnourishment as fighting has destroyed infrastructure and disrupted humanitarian access.
Additionally, several inquiries have found that both sides have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. The conflict between Kiir and Machar has further exacerbated existing tensions between the nation’s two dominant ethnic groups, the Dinka siding with Kiir, and the Nuer siding with Machar.
Problems with the implementation of the peace deal continue: apart from the continued fighting, the re-appointment of Machar as Vice-President saw various complications, while the numerous competing armed groups have not yet been integrated into one national army, as called for by the peace agreement.
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. Conflicts between local groups further complicates moves towards peace. While Machar and Kiir might genuinely condemn violations of the ceasefire, the continuation of hostilities shows that they do not fully control the forces that support them.
This only underlines the need for strong action by the UN. The multi-dimensional UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has aided the country in both economic and social aspects of state building. In May 2014, the Security Council responded to the fighting by increasing UNMISS troop levels and emphasizing its mandate to protect civilians, monitor human rights, and support humanitarian assistance. The rise in troop levels war partially met by China, who for the first time in its history, contributed to a UN peacekeeping mission in a major way, sending over 3.000 personnel to South Sudan. There is still scope to strengthen UNMISS however, both in troop levels and in mandate. It is important that the mission protects civilians and makes the utmost efforts in difficult circumstances to protect civilians wherever and whenever it can. 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.
The UN and individual countries can also maintain pressure on the government and rebel groups to comply with the peace agreement by maintaining the pressure of targeted sanctions. The US in particular has been actively warning of UN sanctions against those who undermine the peace deal. In this regard, it is a positive sign that the UN Security Council quickly issued a Press Statement that warned all parties that “those involved [in war crimes] must be held accountable and could be potentially subject to sanctions as authorized under resolution 2206 (2015) for actions that threaten the peace, security or stability of South Sudan.”
However, such arrangements must also be enforced, both by the international community at large and by Sudan’s neighbors: this includes not allowing some sanctioned individuals to travel in violation of their travel ban. There is particular scope for China to play a bigger role in pressuring the country’s leaders to remain committed to peace. The large number of peace keepers and its major interests in the Sudanese and South Sudanese oil industry where it buys up around two-thirds of the oil exports, should be an important incentive to maintain a stabilized and safe South Sudan.
International 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.
While the UN’s focus is now firmly on solving the political crisis, we should not forget about accountability for the crimes against humanity. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has called for an ad-hoc tribunal in the past, and the Security Council has been investigating an opportunity to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. However, there is little scope at the moment for successful attempts to hold individuals accountable. 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.
The South Sudanese deserve a lasting and meaningful peace. If the UN and the international community effectively intervene and if the South Sudanese leadership can finally refrain from using violence for political gain, then hopefully, in two years’ time we can discuss progress in the world’s youngest nation.