On 15 December 2013, political tensions within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), boiled over. In Juba, members of the presidential guard loyal to President Salva Kiir fought those who supported former Vice-President Riek Machar. Violence spread quickly throughout the capital and into Unity and Jonglei states, taking on a worrying ethnic dimension as Dinka and Nuer – Kiir and Machar’s ethnic groups, respectively – targeted one another. (See our South Sudan page for more details about the crisis).
As the Security Council prepares to meet on Friday, 2 May on the situation in South Sudan (with a briefing from UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng), ICRtoP releases its latest blog piece. Written by ICRtoP’s Aisling Leow, the blog examines the most recent shocking ethnic violence in the South Sudanese towns of Bentiu and Bor, the latest attempts at peace talks and mediation, and the ultimate need for accountability.
Attacks in Bentiu and Bor, April 15-17
While South Sudan has been consumed by violence since December, the events of two weeks ago are arguably the most shocking of the conflict. On the 15th and 16th of April, predominantly Nuer rebel forces captured the town of Bentiu in Unity state, killing at least 400 in ethnically targeted violence. The following day, a Dinka group gained entry to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor and opened fire on its mostly-Nuer inhabitants. Initial reports stated that at least 58 people were killed, and 100 wounded, including two UN peacekeepers.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the Bor attack as a war crime, a move followed by the Security Council and several states. UNMISS has decried the killings in Bentiu, and the use of hate speech over the radio. Civil society groups have been vocal, including Coalition member United to End Genocide, and have called for a full cessation of hostilities and an investigation into the violence.
There has also been increased activity at the UN. The Security Council has held an emergency meeting on 23 April 2014, while Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, have travelled to South Sudan on 28 April at the Secretary General’s request.
But where do we go from here? As the world wakes up to an ongoing crisis suddenly highlighted by the attacks in Bentiu and Bor, it should be aware of the possible ‘next steps’ in the international community’s response and the undeniable necessity of ensuring accountability for such atrocities.
The Immediate Need for a Ceasefire
In the short-term, everything hinges on an enforced ceasefire. Speaking in Juba on 28 April, Pillay said the ‘immediate concern’ was that both parties respected the cessation of hostilities agreement – signed on 23 January 2014, and largely ignored since.
Peace negotiations mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – a regional organisation – are the most promising efforts toward this end. In fact, the talks have been described by Herve Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as ‘the only game in town’. But this is worrying, given that the status of Phase II negotiations seems to have alternated between ‘delayed’ and ‘stalled’ for the past three months.
To keep parties at the table, the international community has threatened targeted sanctions against those who undermine the peace process. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may impose unilateral American sanctions during his upcoming visit to East Africa. And the Security Council is reportedly considering sanctions too.
Along with the release of four political prisoners in Juba (a previous sticking point in negotiations) these measures are cause for cautious optimism as the third session of talks resume. But US Ambassador to South Sudan, Susan Page, says she can’t see progress in negotiations without a ceasefire – a worrying catch-22.
One measure meant to ‘reinforce or realize the cessation of hostilities’ was the IGAD Protection and Deterrence Force (PDF) authorised on 13 March 2014. These forces would protect the IGAD teams that have been monitoring the current ‘ceasefire’ since the beginning of April.
There was talk that the force might cooperate with UNMISS on this front, but the PDF has yet to be deployed, and UNMISS has its hands full with more than 75,000 people sheltering in overcrowded UN compounds.
Critical Humanitarian Crisis
Supporting humanitarian access is vital, as ongoing fighting disrupts aid deliveries to 4.9 million people in need of assistance. According to Amnesty International, the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan will kill more people than the conflict.
A ceasefire is crucial to protect a population threatened not only by conflict, but also by the most devastating famine anywhere in 30 years. In light of this, on 29 April 2014 the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan Toby Lanzer called for a month-long truce in May to allow people to plant and cultivate before the rains come.
But on 30 April, after meeting both Kiir and Machar, Pillay described the leaders’ reaction to the proposal as ‘luke-warm’. At the press conference in Juba, Pillay’s remarks reflected the thoughts of many:
“If, in the very near future, there is no peace deal… I shudder to think where South Sudan is heading”.
The Ultimate Need for Accountability
Unfortunately, the events of April 15th – 17th are, as former BBC correspondent James Copnall puts it, ‘only one in a long series of massacres… stretching back decades’. Indeed, many in the rebel army – the force reportedly responsible for massacre in Bentiu – say they joined because of the massacre of 200-300 Nuer by the Dinka in the first days of the war.
At the heart of the problem is South Sudan’s culture of impunity. David Deng, director of the South Sudan Law Society, says it plainly: “No one in South Sudan has ever been held accountable for anything”.
This lack of accountability is – metaphorically – part of the country’s DNA; the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), instrumental to the birth of South Sudan as the world’s youngest country, had only a ‘vague reference’ to reconciliation, and ‘nothing in terms of real accountability for past human rights’. This was in spite of a bloody fight for independence from Sudan (1983-2005), marked by its own massacre in 1991, where 2,000 people are estimated to have died.
As actors pursue a peace agreement in Addis Ababa, the international community has been clear about the need to end impunity this time around – in ‘marked contrast’ to roughly ten years ago, says Amnesty International.
Civil society has been at the forefront of this movement. Days after the attack, the International Centre for Policy and Conflict stressed that:
“Kiir and Machar must unequivocally renounce senseless criminal ethnic violence being committed by their militia supporters and take concrete positive steps to secure peace and stability”.
Citizens for Peace and Justice, based in Juba, called on the government and opposition to:
“Publicly denounce crimes committed by your forces and hold accountable those who directly target civilians as well as those with command responsibility over the acts”.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the United Nations Security Council should request a fact-finding mission, and also called on the government of South Sudan to investigate the attack in Bor. Daniel Bekele, HRW Africa Director, warned that:
“[C]ommanders and leaders responsible for abuses on both sides have been let off the hook for too long… Unless they are held accountable for their crimes, the ethnic violence will continue to engulf this young country, with UN peacekeepers left to pick up the pieces.”
On 24 April 2014, in a press statement released following their emergency meeting, the Council asked for an ‘urgent investigation’ into the attack in Bentiu. In the meantime, UNMISS has said the mission’s comprehensive report on human rights violations in South Sudan – due in ‘the coming weeks’ – will cover the attack in Bentiu.
But the most promising avenue for accountability in South Sudan may be the African Union Peace and Security Council Commission of Inquiry – the first of its kind. Established on 30 December 2013, the commission’s first field mission is taking place between 24 April and 1 May.
The commission’s mandate is challenging, as it is expected to not only investigate the crimes, but also make recommendations on the ‘best ways and means to ensure accountability, reconciliation, and healing’.
Adama Dieng has called the commission a ‘ground-breaking development and a policy watershed’. Analysts say the commission is important not only for South Sudan, but for Africa more widely, given its unique position as a precedent. According to Casie Copeland, an analyst at International Crisis Group, the commission is an opportunity for the AU to ‘define action in situations of mass atrocities elsewhere on the continent’.
A ceasefire will not be enough for a country where a conflict characterised by ‘tit-for-tat attacks’ has had a ‘brutalising effect’ on its population. If there is to be lasting peace in South Sudan, there is an overwhelming need to end impunity. Dieng’s remarks in Juba on 30 April are clear on this point:
“As we search for peace in this young nation, we must also ensure that those responsible for crimes committed here must be held to account. There can be no peace without justice. The current culture of impunity will only serve to undermine our efforts. We have learned this the hard way, from events in other places, including from the genocide that took place 20 years ago in Rwanda”.
South Sudan urgently needs a ceasefire, but the world’s newest country will not achieve stability without accountability.