It is has been almost three months now since the current conflict erupted in South Sudan, yet reports received from the field indicate that the overall security and humanitarian situation in the country is worsening. Regardless of who initiated this conflict, there has been varying concerns from regional and international stakeholders that this conflict could simply go out of control and result in a further crisis in the region.
Within these 32 days, more than 468000 have been internally displaced, with at least 65000 persons taking refuge inside UN compounds in different states of South Sudan. Few thousands have even crossed international borders to Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. The conflict is obviously political. Tops leaders from the ruling Sudan People Liberation Movement have lately had serious issues relating to democratic transition of power within the party. Last year, President Salva Kiir – who is also the chairman of the party – embarked on a massive process of demotion within the party, with most senior members being restricted from movement, accused of corruption and in some instances threatened by dismissal from the party. The most remarkable step was the dismissal of Vice President Riek Macher who is also the party’s deputy chairman. Although this wave of demotions was not ethnically-driven, it unfortunately resulted in bloody conflict that has some ethnic dimensions.
As many of you may know, South Sudan is composed of different tribes with different cultural and historical backgrounds. The Dinka constitutes the majority of the population, followed by other groups such as the Nuer, Shiluk, Anuak and Bari. The president hails from Dinka while the former vice president hails from the Nuer tribe. Historically, these two ethnic groups have engaged in different ethnic conflicts over pasture, water and cattle. During civil wars in Sudan (before South Sudan independence) these two tribes became predominantly militarized and weapons used in previous conflicts shifted dramatically from sticks, spears and shields to firearms. This cultural rift contributed to the 1991 massacre in Jongeli State in which more than 2000 civilians were killed by armed militias known as the “white army” loyal to Riek Machar.
Within 32 days today, the UN and some other international right organizations reported that grave human right violations were committed in the country during the last 32 days. There was a clear indication of civilians being targeted on ethnic basis, summary executions, forced disappearances and intended looting of humanitarian aid. Most of the civilians who are currently taking refuge inside UN compounds across the country fear being targeted on ethnic basis. The government and rebel leaders continue to claim that this conflict has no ethnic dimensions while civilians are actually being targeted based to their tribal affiliation.
Yesterday, the UN human rights chief visited Bor and Bentiu towns to witness these violations. During the visit, he reportedly saw dead bodies of people killed with their hands tied to their back, indicating that arbitrators were intentionally carrying out summary executions.
As much as protection of civilians is the primary responsibility of the state, there is a need to place extra pressure on the government of South Sudan to put an end to this conflict. Accusations are being traded by the two parties, but in practical terms, both sides are responsible for these crimes and they need to be punished for that. One of the reasons why these conflicts have increasingly been masterminded by notable politicians in South Sudan is that perpetrators have never been brought to book for these crimes. The African Union which has always been a “custodian” for increased impunity on African leaders has to take further steps now to ensure that South Sudan leaders under heavy impunity do not create a situation of extreme chaos. The example of the neighboring Kenya is a vivid demonstration of why protection through international justice is sometimes required. The role of the international community should therefore continue not only to bring the two warring parties into the negotiation table but also to remedy innocent civilians through transparent justice. Terrorizing civilian populations by destruction of houses, farms and lives could otherwise become one of the features of conflict in the region if such crimes are not punished..
There is always a great role that each and everyone can play in ensuring that governments are fully accountable when it comes to issues relating to violations directed towards civilians. In most case, the UN could barely do nothing to help civilians who are under imminent threat in South Sudan simply because of restrictions placed on their movement. Bureaucratic state practices and sovereignty have also been used by authorities to cause terror among civilians and to risk the lives of millions of people on the mere greed of individuals. The fact that the UN has vocally hinted of the possibility that the government and rebels forces might have committed crimes against humanity is a big victory to those who are concerned about the future and well-being of this country. It’s now the role of people to raise their voices and make sure that the message is heard all over the world that something is going wrong somewhere in South Sudan.