For the latter part of the 20th Century the Republic of Sudan was plagued by civil war and humanitarian crises that claimed the lives of millions. A peace agreement between the North and the South was finally reached in 2005, which paved the way for South Sudan to formally gain independence in July 2011. In just over two and a half years, the jubilation felt across the world’s newest state on gaining independence has been replaced with conflict verging on the brink of an ethnically motivated civil war.
The recent escalation in fighting began on 15th December 2013, when a meeting of the National Liberation Council resulted in fighting between the Dinka and Neur elements of the National Army. The Dinka and Nuer are the two most populous ethnic groups in South Sudan, with the President, Salva Kiir, being an ethnic Dinka, and the former Vice President, Riek Machar, being an ethnic Nuer. The President alleged that his former deputy attempted a coup against him that night, and simultaneously the former Vice-President took up command of the rebel army. What started as a political fallout quickly descended into ethnic violence.
Glimmers of hope for peace came from Ethiopia, which hosted ceasefire talks between the government and the rebels at the beginning of this year. A ceasefire was signed on the 23rd January, which received wide ranging support from the Security Council and the International Community as a whole. Regrettably, it did not take long for this ceasefire to be comprehensively breached when fighting broke out in Malakal, the capital of South Sudan’s upper Nile state.
Despite the conflict being in its infancy there is wide ranging evidence that grave human rights violations have been committed across the country. In late December, the BBC reported the rounding up and killing of 240 Nuer men at a police station in Juba. As of late February, it is estimated that more than 700,000 people have been forced to flee their homes to find safety.
A UN report released on the 21st February details human rights atrocities committed in four states that have been home to the heaviest fighting so far. The UN Mission in South Sudan issued a news release, in which it said that “numerous witnesses have reported the deliberate targeting of both national and foreign civilians in extrajudicial and other unlawful killings, including mass killings, enforced disappearances, gender based violence such as rapes and gang-rapes, and instances of ill-treatment and torture from both sides of the conflict.”
Accountability for such grave human rights abuses is vital for any attempt at bringing peace to the region, and is one possible way of tackling the root causes of the continuing violence. One significant problem facing those lobbying for peace is the lack of accurate information available to those on either side of the conflict. This has led to fighters on both sides blindly blaming their opposition for any atrocities committed, which then leads to what Hilde Johnson, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for South Sudan, describes as click here a ‘perpetual cycle of violence’. If accurate information is available then this can be used as leverage in peace talks between the two sides. Further, at a more fundamental level accountability is crucial for the country to move forward, as if the actors are to receive impunity for their actions one readily foreseeable and potentially disastrous consequence would be further deepening divides in an already ethnically segregated country.
One possible way for the process of accountability to commence would be for the International Criminal Court to indict the commanders of the opposing sides for the atrocities committed. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has called for the prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations in South Sudan. However, the ICC may only investigate the alleged abuses if the Security Council passes a resolution authorising the court to begin an inquiry. Were the court to do so without such authorisation, it would violate South Sudan’s sovereignty as the country is yet to become, and is unlikely to do so in the near future, a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the Hague-based court.
Alternatively, courts could be established in South Sudan itself, with help and backing from the international community, which would allow the State to retain its sovereignty but yet give credibility to a system which is awash with political and ethnic discrimination. The independence of the court system would be crucial for the accountability process to have any credibility. One such step already taken has been the African Union establishing a Commission of Inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the conflict in an attempt to secure justice.
Despite a lack of clarity surrounding many aspects of the conflict, what is clear is that the world’s newest State is on the brink of complete humanitarian crisis. In December 2011, speaking at an investment conference held in Washington, President Kiir declared that South Sudan is open for business. A little over 2 years later the international community is imposing sanctions on the regime. Just over a month of fighting has set the country back years in terms of its progress and potential for future development.
If anything can be learnt from the situation the world has observed in countries such as Syria, it is that once a rebellion takes hold, factions of that rebellion are bound to split off, and the conflict rapidly turns from a two sided dispute to a multi-dimensional one, where many groups are fighting for different causes. The danger is that as the conflict goes on and as stability in the country worsens day by day, the country will become a breeding ground for groups whose sole purpose is to fight. Concerns are already being expressed that Machar is not in complete control of his rebel forces, and unless an all inclusive political solution is found soon, implemented by a commanding officer with the authority to enforce it, the future for South Sudan becomes less promising every day.