South Sudan: Where civilian protection meets state sovereignty

Walt Kilroy

1 January 2018

South Sudan’s conflict highlights the dilemmas surrounding the protection of civilians.

There is no shortage of challenges to focus on for 2018 when it comes to conflict, peacebuilding, and humanitarian crises. Ideally this wouldn’t be a zero-sum game, but we all know that attention spans are limited: one problem demanding action tends to displace another one. However, one which shouldn’t be forgotten (assuming it ever received much attention) is the war in South Sudan.

South Sudan joined the community of nation states in July 2011, after decades of war in which it sought independence from northern Sudan. The hopes and international support for the independence of a war-ravaged country were high. But sadly, deep internal divisions erupted once more in December 2013. It started (or resumed) as a power struggle between different factions in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which had somehow come together to form the first national government.

The divisions have increasingly taken on an ethnic aspect. South Sudan is made up of many tribes (a word used perfectly casually by the people of the country without colonial overtones). None has a majority, but rivalry between the Nuer and the more dominant Dinka underlies much of the violence. Ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, and mass killings based on ethnicity have characterised the war.

Displacement and famine

Of the total population, which numbers about 12 million people, a third is now displaced due to the violence, and to a lesser extent the resulting food insecurity. About half of those forced to flee (2.1 million people) are displaced internally, many of them in camps located beside UN bases due to their perception that protection is greater there. The remaining 1.9 million have crossed into other countries. While Europe’s politics have been profoundly affected by the thought (as much as the reality) of accepting migrants from Syria, Uganda quickly provided shelter for over a million people from South Sudanese within a year.

An unusual aspect of the reaction to this crisis is that 210,000 people – a tenth of those internally displaced – are actually housed in “Protection of Civilians” (PoC) sites located beside bases of UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping mission. These camps were a response to the tens of thousands of people who quickly moved to the UN sites seeking protection when the ethnic basis of the attacks became clear (that is to say, as soon as the war broke out in December 2013). UNMISS, like most UN missions these days, has a mandate to protect civilians from direct violence. There are few situations where this has been more severely tested: in July 2016, the PoC site in Juba and the neighbouring UN base came under direct and prolonged attack from government forces. Two Chinese peacekeepers died, along with many civilians throughout the city. While some peacekeepers did offer genuine protection during this attack, the many failures of the mission were severely criticised by the internal UN report that followed.

Another effect of the insecurity and displacement is that seven million people (more than half of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance. Famine was declared in parts of the country last February, exactly as predicted. The harvest seasons have come and gone in the meantime, and the lean season is returning earlier. As a result, half of the population is expected to be in the “severely food insecure” category in the first quarter of 2018.

One of the key interactions between conflict and the crisis is a lack of humanitarian access. A huge operation involving multiple UN and non-state agencies has indeed brought relief to millions of people, including efforts to stem the return of cholera. But access can be restricted by state regulations and insecurity. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid personnel to work: at least 28 were killed there in 2017 alone.

At the international level, there are concerns about the funding available to support humanitarian and peacekeeping operations alike. A significant contribution comes from the US, whose approach has clearly changed. Like many complex crises, the operational appeal through UN channels is not fully-funded. In December 2017, at the UN Security Council the US’s outgoing Obama administration proposed an arms embargo on the Government of South Sudan, which is one of the parties attacking civilians. This proposal was not vetoed, but it did not secure enough votes to pass either. An embargo, which is strongly opposed by South Sudan, is therefore off the agenda for now, and the Government of South Sudan continues to spend a significant portion of its budget on its military amid the economic crisis it faces.

Searching for solutions

Some attempts have been made to find solutions to the crisis outlined above. A Cessation of Hostilities was agreed on 21 December 2017, but the monitoring mechanism has already reported frequent breaches within a fortnight of the agreement being signed. Impossible though it may seem given the depth of the hostility, a solution is of course only possible through some form of dialogue with the main players. The Dinka and the Nuer people (the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan), as well as the other main groups, would have to buy into any talks process, given that identity-based politics and rivalry have become central to this conflict. An initiative for national dialogue was indeed proposed by President Salva Kiir in 2017, but unfortunately the Government of South Sudan has consistently refused to include its main opponent, the SPLM-IO (SPLM In Opposition), in these talks. The leader of the SPLM-IO, Riek Machar, was forced to flee the capital, Juba, during heavy fighting in July 2016. He has been in South Africa since, where he is reportedly under house arrest. While the enmities are bitter, it is hard to see how a “peace” which does not include his followers and armed faction will amount to much.

The conflict dynamics highlight the nature and importance of the leadership of the main rivals in South Sudan. South Africa and Northern Ireland were fortunate in having some credible leaders with genuine vision, who were willing to “take risks for peace” and who could also bring most of their followers with them. The factions in South Sudan have long histories of fighting each other and of shifting their allegiances—behaviours which they evidenced throughout the war with northern Sudan for eventual independence. The legacy of these traumatic histories makes it harder for the old guard to forge a national identity and build the trust needed for progress to happen.

There are of course voices backed by vision and courage in South Sudan, but the space for civil society is very small. Journalists, lawyers, and indigenous NGOs face a hostile environment, and many are quite rightly afraid to speak up. International NGOs helping to tackle the humanitarian crisis face expulsion, and there is open hostility from the Government of South Sudan towards the UN. While leadership at the top is lacking therefore, it is worth remembering, and focusing on the fact that some real solutions are being offered at the grassroots level.

Further reading

Arensen, M.J. (2016), If We Leave We Are Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016, Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Center for Civilians in Conflict (2016), Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, Washington, D.C.: Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Jok, J.M. (2017), Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, Oneworld Publications.

UN (2016), Executive Summary of the Independent Special Investigation into the violence which occurred in Juba in 2016 and UNMISS response, United Nations, 1 November.

Image details

Title photo caption: Displaced people in South Sudan, mostly women and children, who are waiting for a food ration

Title photo credit: EC Photo/Simon Maina

About the Author

Walt Kilroy

Walt Kilroy is Associate Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) in Dublin City University (DCU).

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