South Sudan: Another Tragedy in the Making

Tuesday, February 7, 2017TOPICS: Faculty and Staff

Mr. Yishak Tefferi & Dr. Necla Tschirgi

Written by MA in Peace and Justice student Yishak Tefferi and Professor of Practice Necla Tschirgi1

Mass euphoria and cautious optimism reigned when South Sudan got its long-awaited independence from Sudan in July 2011. Sadly, the euphoria and any lingering sense of optimism are now long gone. Barely two years after its independence, the country plunged into civil war in December 2013. In the face of ethnically charged clashes between the government and the opposition, civilians, mainly women and children, have born the heaviest brunt of the violence. Tens of thousands have been killed due to targeted ethnic attacks and over 2.7 million have become refugees and internally displaced. A Compromise Peace Agreement was signed in August 2015, but its implementation is now in tatters after the designated First Vice President Riek Machar fled the capital Juba after clashes with government forces in July 2016. 

At the third anniversary of the violence, the country remains on the brink. Renewed hostilities brought new waves of displacement and ethnic targeting of civilians. On 17 November 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned of “real risk of mass atrocities” in South Sudan and alerted the UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan to be prepared to protect innocent civilians. On 19 November 2016, the 15-members Security Council expressed its alarm regarding the level of ethnic violence and incitement in South Sudan. Both the Security Council and the Secretary General expressed their dismay on the rise in hate speech by forces loyal to the government and the opposition. The UN’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide further warned that the conflict in South Sudan is now transforming into an “outright ethnic war”.

In its 19 November statement, the Security Council vowed to take measures to prevent the impending ethnic violence. But, the issue remains: how does it prevent further escalation of the violence and the continued targeting of innocent civilians? How would its approach be different from the previous measures that have been tried and failed to bring the desired result?

The Security Council has so far taken three major approaches to address the violence in South Sudan: support to the regional-led peace process; apply targeted sanctions against individuals who impede the peace process; and strengthen the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan’s  UNMISS) capacity to protect civilians. These measures have failed to prevent the escalation of the violence and the ethnic targeting of civilians. The implementation of the peace agreement has collapsed, civilians continue to be target by the parties to the conflict and targeted sanctions have failed to prevent spoilers from escalating the conflict.

The tragedy is that the UN still relies on measures that have proven to be ineffective to prevent “mass atrocities”. Particularly, the over 12-000-strong UN peacekeeping forces have failed to prevent the targeting of civilians. On 02 November 2016, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced the sacking of the Force Commander of UNMISS for the mission’s shortcomings to protect civilians and humanitarian workers during the recent violence in Juba. Even while he warned of impending “mass atrocities” and called for the UN peacekeeping force to prepare to prevent atrocities against civilians, the Secretary General painfully acknowledged that UN peacekeeping forces do not have the “appropriate manpower or capabilities to stop mass atrocities”.

In mid-December 2016, former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed David Shearer of New Zealand as new head of UNMISS, replacing Ellen Margrethe Løj of Denmark, who served the mission for over two years. However, the situation on the ground has not shown any sign of abating and the conflict continues to escalate in the Equatoria region. UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, in his press briefing on February 4 noted that fresh hostilities in Central Equatoria region prompted mass displacement and the exodus of refugees to neighbouring Uganda. The worsening economic situation of the country further puts additional strain to the already dire political situation of the country.

Meanwhile, the U.S. proposal for an arms embargo on the warring parties failed to materialize due to Russia’s fierce objection and exercise of veto power in the Security Council.  In the absence of a robust new approach, the chances of an all-out ethnic war remain imminent. Barring any miracle, yet again the world seems to be on the verge of witnessing another tragic failure by the international community to uphold and exercise its responsibility to protect—the solemn commitment undertaken by UN member states in 2005 to intervene in countries where governments are unable or unwilling to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.  

1Mr. Yishak Tefferi, a native of Ethiopia, is a graduate student at the Kroc School after having earned an LL.B. from the School of Law at Addis Ababa University and working as a human rights officer at the UN mission in South Sudan. Dr. Necla Tschirgi, a native of Turkey, is Professor of Practice in Human Security and Peacebuilding at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.  

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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