As South Sudan Marks One-Year Anniversary, RtoP Remains Essential As Country Confronts Challenges Moving Forward

South Sudan marked the one-year anniversary of its independence from Sudan on 9 July, with the official Twitter account of the Government of South Sudan (GRSS) sharing its optimism for the future, and President Salva Kiir vowing to work towards a more complete independence for the country at the celebrations in Juba.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also extended his congratulations to the people of South Sudan for “realizing their long-held aspirations” of independent nationhood.

One year on, however, the world’s newest nation has endured a number of challenges that have wracked its first year of independence, and will continue to threaten its stability as it enters its second year of nationhood.

Border Clashes, Oil Dispute with Sudan

To begin, the split with Sudan has not brought about a peace dividend between the two countries. An oil dispute over pipeline fees with Sudan led the South to halt the production and export of oil in January, which has amounted to an apparent economic disaster in South Sudan.  Protracted skirmishes over natural resources and contested border areas have also nearly led to open war between the two nations, with civilians often caught in the crossfire.

In April, South Sudanese forces captured Heglig, an oil-town in Sudan, which was met with immediate condemnation from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as well as threats from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to overthrow what he called the “insect” government in South Sudan. In the aftermath, Sudan has been charged with conducting cross-border aerial bombardments on South Sudanese territory on 23 April and 9 May, in direct violation of the UNSC Resolution 2046 of 2 May, which called for an immediate end to hostilities between the two countries.

While an uncertain verbal agreement struck on 8 July between the two countries currently holds a fragile peace in place, a number of outstanding provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the decades-long Sudanese civil wars and led to the creation of the independent state of South Sudan, remain unresolved, including the status of disputed border areas in Abyei, issues of citizenship, and the sharing of oil revenues.

Amnesty International charged in an 8 July press release that a failure of leadership in Juba and Khartoum has led to increased tensions and conflict between the two countries, The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reiterated this message, stating that the failure by both Sudan and South Sudan to resolve outstanding issues has resulted in the commission of mass atrocities in both countries. With the UN-imposed deadline of 2 August to resolve outstanding CPA issues fast approaching, the threat of a return to violence between these two countries, along with it the commission of mass atrocities, remains. In response to this, a global campaign backed by over 150 human rights activists, civil society organizations and faith leaders called We Choose Peace urged the UN, the African Union, and the League of Arab States to persuade the governments of South Sudan and Sudan to resolve the remaining CPA issues and cease all hostilities.

Ethnic Violence in Jonglei State, Human Rights Concerns

Internal violence has also marred South Sudan’s first year as a nation, with widespread ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle tribes claiming the lives of nearly 900 in Jonglei State between December 2011 and February 2012.  In a 25 June report by the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), entitled Incidents of Intercommunal Violence in Jonglei State, the ethnic clashes were characterized as, “one of the biggest challenges for the GRSS [Government of the Republic of South Sudan] since independence in terms of testing its capacity to protect civilians and to demonstrate its capacity to impose law and order.”

The report subsequently describes how, despite warnings of an impending attack by a large number of Lou Nuer,  the GRSS was “slow to respond”, and failed to prevent or contain the violence. As the report reads, at the heart of the failure by the GRSS to uphold its primary responsibility to protect civilians was a lack of capacity:

Supported by UNMISS, the Government made efforts to contain the violence but these were constrained by the weak capacity of GRSS institutions, particularly local government, security and justice, a lack of human and logistical resources and the tenuous control that state institutions have over territories such as Jonglei, which have been marginalised and neglected over many years.

The report also reflects on the capacity gap faced by UNMISS to assist the GRSS in responding to the crisis:

While UNMISS, as part of its mandate to support the government in protecting civilians, used its resources to the maximum and the actions of both the Mission and the SPLA [Sudanese People’s Liberation Army] contributed to saving lives, it too faced serious constraints to fulfill its mandate obligation in this regard.

As we detailed in a February blog post, the ethnic violence in Jonglei State not only confronted South Sudan’s ability to uphold the first pillar of RtoP – its primary responsibility to protect civilians – but also exposed key challenges for the international community in fulfilling its second-pillar responsibilities of assistance and capacity building:

With the GRSS unable to uphold its responsibility to protect its population without international assistance, UNMISS sought to support national action through preventive deployment, fulfilling RtoP’s second pillar. At the same time, however, UNMISS itself is reeling from a capacity deficit – most importantly, in flight-ready helicopters – which has obstructed the force from effectively carrying out its civilian protection mandate during the recent outbreak of inter-ethnic violence. Thus, although the Security Council established UNMISS in a timely and decisive manner – and with a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians by “all means necessary” – the force itself has been constrained from providing protection for the South Sudanese population.

Compounding the challenge of upholding pillars one and two has been a lack of accountability for the violence. In a 5 July news release, Coalition-member Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the GRSS to address the issue of impunity, as well as much-needed human rights reforms, ahead of independence celebrations, stating:

“The government has yet to demonstrate that it will respond to the violence appropriately by actually identifying and prosecuting those responsible,” Bekele said. “South Sudan needs justice, in addition to peace efforts, to stem the violence. The absence of justice contributes to the cycles of attacks and counterattacks across the country.”

The International Federation for Human Rights also documented concerns over the human rights situation in South Sudan in a 6 July report published to mark the first anniversary of the country’s independence, which catalogued concerns over violations of women’s rights, infringements of freedom of expression, and illegal arrests and detention.

 RtoP Essential Moving Forward as South Sudan Confronts Challenges

On top of South Sudan’s internal struggle with ethnic violence and human rights, as well as the looming threat of a return to war with their neighbours to the north and a dismal economic situation, Oxfam International has stated the country is, “facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the war in 2005.” The World Food Programme (WFP) has also reported that levels of hunger and malnutrition in South Sudan are higher now than they were one year ago, affecting nearly 4.7 million people. Tied to this is the conflict with Sudan, which, according to the WFP, “continues to produce a flow of refugees and displaced families, who put further strain on an already overstretched food supply system.”

As South Sudan begins its second year as a nation, the path ahead is fraught with an interconnected web of political, economic, and humanitarian challenges that, if left unresolved, would threaten to subvert the dream of a, “peaceful, prosperous, secure and stable South Sudan.” It is critical that lessons learned from the December 2011-February 2012 violence in Jonglei be institutionalized so as to improve the manner in which the GRSS and UNMISS confront any threatened or actual outbreaks of mass atrocity crimes in the future. In this sense, the Responsibility to Protect remains a critical framework for South Sudan and the wider international community as the world’s newest nation struggles with the extraordinary challenges it faces.

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Filed under African Union, Arab League, South Sudan, Sudan, UN

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