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South Sudan: from political crisis to ethnic war—the process of genocide?

…there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.

This assessment of the situation in South Sudan by the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, was backed by the US Representative to the UN, Samantha Power, who led the UN Security Council (UNSC) mission to South Sudan in September 2016. Power described South Sudan as ‘a nation at the precipice’ and stressed that when ‘the UN’s designated Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide reaches the conclusion that genocide could be imminent, it should serve as a wake-up call for us all’.

On 18 November 2016, the UNSC ‘strongly condemned’ the escalating violence and asserted that ‘the only way forward in South Sudan is through a genuine and inclusive political process based on the framework provided by the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan’.

Peace agreement and unity government

In August 2015, the main warring parties to the conflict—President Salva Kiir (Government) and Riek Machar (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO))—signed a peace agreement to end the violence.

The agreement was negotiated by the expanded Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), known as IGAD–Plus, which involved the African Union, the UN, China, the EU, Norway, and the UK. Under the agreement, the signatories were to establish a Transitional Government of National Unity, but this did not occur until April 2016 when Machar safely arrived in the capital Juba and was sworn in as First Vice President.

Within months the political process had broken down and, consequently, the peace process stalled once again and fighting erupted in July 2016. Machar left Juba and in his absence, Kiir appointed Machar’s chief negotiator, Taban Deng Gai, as South Sudan’s new First Vice President. Machar is believed to be in exile in South Africa.

Despite the rapid escalation in violence since July—which included attacks against foreign nationals—the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission in South Sudan remained optimistic about the situation. The JMEC noted during a 19 October 2016 meeting in Juba, that the ‘current peace process is essentially functional’ and called for all parties to renounce violence and return to the peace process. The South African Government’s recent attempt to bring Kiir and Machar back to the negotiating table failed.

UN mission strengthened…?

In response to the renewed fighting, the UNSC authorised a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force in August 2016 as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), to which Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya pledged troops (although Kenya recently announced a drawdown of its forces). The RPF was expected to deploy initially up to 15 December 2016, but lack of consent by the South Sudanese Government stalled the process.

The authorised strength of UNMISS includes up to 17,000 military personnel (including the 4,000-strong RPF), around 2,000 civilian police personnel, as well as a civilian component. As at 31 August 2016, the actual total force numbers for UNMISS were 16,147. On 28 November 2016, the UN acknowledged that the South Sudanese Cabinet had only recently approved the deployment of the RPF without conditions.

Among the critics of the UN’s response to the July violence, was the group Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) which reported in October 2016 that the UNMISS mandate and equipment was inadequate to deal with the ‘extremely challenging environment’:

Had peacekeepers tried to push out of the base from July 8-11, the heavily armed soldiers in the area may have fired on them. Given the Mission’s problems with emergency medical care and evacuation for its own personnel, there was an understandable reluctance on the part of peacekeepers to put themselves in harm’s way.

Yet, even given the difficult environment, it is clear that the Mission underperformed in fulfilling core parts of its mandate. Peacekeepers still appeared unclear about their rules of engagement and, at least in POC1, abandoned their positions during the fighting. The Force failed even to try to leave the base to respond to the horrific attack on the Terrain compound. One of the most important humanitarian warehouses was looted for days after the fighting ended, without UNMISS intervening to try to stop it. In the weeks after the fighting, peacekeepers were unable to stem sexual violence within close proximity—and at times even eyesight—of the POC sites.

However, CIVIC pointed out that the UNMISS Protection of Civilian (POC) sites did save lives. As at 24 November 2016, the number of civilians seeking protection at POC sites across South Sudan totalled 212,071—a significant increase from 169,418 at 30 June 2016.

Dire warning by UN envoy

During his visit to South Sudan in November 2016, Adama Dieng emphasised that ‘genocide is a process’ that does not happen overnight and for that reason, ‘it can be prevented’. He warned that ‘action can and must be taken now to address some of the factors that could provide fertile ground for genocide’:

Inflammatory rhetoric, stereotyping and name calling have been accompanied by targeted killings and rape of members of particular ethnic groups, and by violent attacks against individuals or communities on the basis of their perceived political affiliation. The media, including social media, are being used to spread hatred and encourage ethnic polarization, and letters threatening specific groups have surfaced in the last month … the patterns are there … what began as a political conflict has transformed into what could become an outright ethnic war. With the stalling of the implementation of the Peace Agreement, the current humanitarian crisis, a stagnating economy and the proliferation of arms, all of the ingredients exist for a dangerous escalation of violence.

While the US called on the UNSC to pursue a stronger response, it stopped short of an intervention based on the responsibility to protect:

Let us stop asking for permission to carry out a mandate authorized by the UN Security Council in the interest of peace and security, and instead start demanding it. Unite around that message, unite around that mandate. Let us stop acting as if the principle of sovereignty, as critical as it is to the functioning of the international order, as if that principle gives the South Sudanese Government – or any government – license to commit mass atrocities against its own people, or to fuel a humanitarian crisis that has left millions of lives hanging in the balance.

Australia’s response to the current crisis

Australia’s military contribution to UNMISS (Operation Aslan) involves around 25 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. The ADF is deployed in a peacekeeping capacity in ‘positions such as military liaison officers, aviation, logistics support roles and a national support element’, most of which are based in Juba. Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Ray Griggs, noted on 19 October 2016 that the ADF continues to monitor the situation closely.

The Australian Government publicly acknowledged the escalating violence on 12 July 2016, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, issued a media release stating that the Government was ‘deeply troubled by the recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan’ and calling for ‘calm to prevent any escalation’.

At the UN Peacekeeping meeting in London on 9 September 2016, the Minister for Defence, Senator Marise Payne, announced ‘additional funding of $1.2 million over five years to further enhance regional UN peace operations e-learning training, and $90,000 to support the dissemination of UN Protection of Civilians guidelines and policy’. However, Australia’s contribution to UNMISS was not specifically mentioned.

On 17 October 2016, the ministers jointly announced Australia’s endorsement of the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, stating that this ‘will improve the capacity of United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians facing violence’. Again, Australia’s contribution to UNMISS was not mentioned.

In the meantime, the UNSC recently delayed a vote on a US-led draft resolution seeking to impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on South Sudan, while another visiting UN mission warned of an ‘impending genocide’. The failure of the UN and the international community to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994 prompted the concept of a collective responsibility to protect. The UN presence in South Sudan is substantially greater than it was in Rwanda in 1994, but will it be enough to prevent an ‘impending genocide’?


Tags: South Sudan