Reading the various reports coming out of South Sudan this week, it is still difficult to be sure what exactly happened and what this outbreak of violence means for the future of the country. It remains to be seen whether this was a plotted coup attempt, or a retaliatory response that has escalated. What we do know is that in the country’s capital city of Juba, approximately 500 were killed and over 700 were injured in a matter of a few days. Further, nearly 20,000 civilians have sought refuge on the compounds of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). It seems that for the moment hostilities have calmed, but not ceased completely. Civilians are still making their way to UNMISS compounds, and many are left wondering whether this could mark the beginning of yet another civil war in the region.
Prior to the recent split into two separate states, Sudan had been marred with a long history of violent and long-lasting civil wars. The most recent of which began in 1983 and officially ended in 2005 when the North’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the South’s Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA-M) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It was the signing of this document that allowed for the eventual referendum on independence for the south and the establishment of what is now known as the Republic of South Sudan. The creation of this new state is a step forward for the region; however, this newly acquired independence does not erase the history of civil war, nor does it bring an immediate end to ethnic tensions in the region.
In his article, “Sudan: A Nation in Turbulent Search of Itself,” Francis Deng wrote about Sudan's complicated struggles to reconcile the various identities carried by its people; from ethnic to racial to cultural to religious. Arguably, a mistake often made by the international community in its dealings with the region has been a failure to take under serious consideration the history and complexity of its peoples. Today, there is not one singular conflict in the region but a multitude which tangle together in a complicated web of politics, history, and violence.
As we watched the violence unfold in Juba this week, civilians in Darfur and Blue Nile were faced with an even more painful reality. Such complexity makes the path toward peace in Sudan and South Sudan daunting, yet ever more necessary for the international community to make a true commitment to that path. Current President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar have had a tumultuous relationship, leading to the ousting of VP Machar this past July. President Kiir is a part of the Dinka, and former Vice President Machar the Nuer. These two ethnic groups have struggled to maintain peace, and Kiir and Machar's public disputes have not helped matters.
The UNMISS leadership has been actively working to calm tensions, meeting with President Kiir and issuing statements calling for an end to the violence, warning of the danger of allowing this situation to evolve into a broader ethnic clash. In her statement, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Hilde F. Johnson said, “At a time when unity among South Sudanese is needed more than ever, I call on the leaders of this new country and all political factions and parties, as well as community leaders to refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence.” Responsibility here lies first with the leaders of the nation to stand up and use their influence to stop the violence before it escalates. That said, the UN must maintain a strong stance here and follow up harsh words with legitimate action.
Currently, UNMISS has over 10,000 personnel on the ground, including uniformed personnel, civilian personnel, and UN volunteers. The mission was established in 2011 in order to maintain peace in the volatile region. According to UN Resolution 1996 (2011), UNMISS exists under a CHVII mandate, tasked with three main responsibilities:
1. Support for peace consolidation and thereby fostering long-term state-building and economic development.
2. Support the Government of the Republic of South Sudan in exercising its responsibilities for conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution and protect civilians.
3. Support the government of the Republic of South Sudan, in accordance with the principles of national ownership, and in cooperation with the UN Country Team and other international partners, in developing its capacity to provide security, to establish rule of law, and to strengthen the security and justice sectors.
This mandate, established in 2011, has been extended until July 2014 under UN Resolution 2109 (2013).
The United Nations Security Council has been the target of a few high-profile condemnations in recent weeks over what many see as its lack of commitment to effective civilian protection and humanitarian relief. International organizations are getting fed up with what they see as blatant disregard for the lives of those suffering around the world.
This past Wednesday, Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) addressed the Security Council, berating those states party to the Rome Statute for their failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Bensouda demanded, "we owe it to Darfur's victims to show that we have not abandoned them."
The following day, Dr. Joanne Liu, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), issued an open letter to Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN. In the letter, Liu outlines the failures of the humanitarian effort in the Central African Republic (CAR). Included in her list of examples are evacuations of UN staff when they are needed most, delayed deployment, and inaction "in the face of glaring need."
With resources and personnel on the ground, and open communication with the government of South Sudan, UNMISS has a chance to make a positive impact and succeed where the UN has failed elsewhere. I write often about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), of which the most heralded pillar is the responsibility to prevent. In Juba, there is a window of opportunity in which leaders can prevent the escalation of this week's violence into a full-blown conflict. The question remains: will they take advantage of that window, or will they let it pass them by? With an existing mandate, an established mission on the ground, and a well-known principle of prevention, I am hopeful there will be at least an earnest attempt at restoring a lasting peace to the city and eventually the region.
Ethnicity, Humanitarian Intervention, R2P, South Sudan, United Nations, Violence