Unhappy fourth birthday for South Sudan

Children at a protection of civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, run by the UN Mission, perform at a special cultural event in March 2015. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Children at a civilians protection site in Juba, South Sudan, run by the UN Mission, perform at a cultural event in March 2015. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

UN’s Secretary-General has called on South Sudan’s president and vice president to come to the negotiating table as the war-torn country celebrates an unhappy fourth birthday.  Ban Ki-Moon released a statement on the birthday eve last week where he spoke of a country where hope was in short supply after a civil war that has gone on for 18 months wreaking havoc of “unconscionable levels of violence and unspeakable sexual abuse”. The Secretary-General said more than 1.6 million people have been displaced, including over 150,000 seeking refuge with the UN. “Some 4.6 million face severe food insecurity and over 600,000 have been forced to flee into neighbouring countries,” he said.

Ban called on president Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar to find a political solution to end the war. The war in South Sudan began in December 2013 as political in-fighting between Kiir and Machar. Kiir unleashed his troops on Machar’s forces after Kiir claimed Machar had launched a coup against him.  Though the pair had fought together against Khartoum in the war of liberation against Sudan, Kiir reminded his audience that Machar had broken away from the main guerrilla army in 1991 and was now doing so again.

Hostilities quickly turned into fully-fledged conflict, resulting in atrocities and possible war crimes. Almost 50,000 people have been killed in what has developed into ethnic conflict between Dinka and Nuer groups. Sexual violence is out of control while 12,000 children have been forced to become child soldiers. The UN estimates three-quarters of a million people have fled into Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan while another 1.5 million remain internally displaced, many ending up in overcrowded “protection-of-civilians” sites run by the UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Yet organisations like Human Rights Watch have been critical of the UN for the failure of its Human Rights Council to appoint a special rapporteur to focus on South Sudan. It says the Council needs to to urgently create a robust mechanism to create accountability for South Sudan and put leaders on notice they would be charged for war crimes. However a US/UK proposal to create the rapporteur position was trumped by an African proposal which, HRW says, is just another “fact-finding mission”.

In any case, Kiir has rejected as “misguided” what little sanctions the UN has in place. On July 2 the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on six military generals, three from Kiir’s government and three from Machar’s faction. The sanctions included travel bans and freezing of assets. Kiir claimed the sanctions would obstruct the peace process but at the same time justified continued attacks on Machar’s forces. “A sovereign nation, we are tasked with the greatest rights, protecting our people and our land as we are committed to filling that right in pursuit of justice for our nation,” Kiir’s spokesperson said.

An editorial in the Guardian this week says the state of South Sudan was misconceived and its constitution was troubling. “The army swelled, without unified command, and the ruling party remained unreformed from the days of revolution. It had little to offer the people,” the paper said. “Society is now bitterly divided, even between communities still at peace.”

The failure of South Sudan is a personal failure for the US. Former president George W Bush had a particular interest seeing the nation as Christian (and oil-rich) bulwark to the Muslim state of Sudan.  Though Obama was less obsessed, his Secretary of State John Kerry played a big role in fast-tracking independence and helped “midwife the birth of this new nation”.  But in 2011 the new nation had virtually no civil institutions, only 120 doctors for a population of nine million, and just over 50km of paved roads in a territory the size of France. It was also landlocked, ethnically diverse, and entirely dependent on oil revenue.

Four years later and 18 months into interminable conflict, matters have only worsened with staggering inflation, declining oil production and plummeting world prices. Al Jazeera said a water company, one of the few manufacturing businesses operating in the country, had to shut down in December unable to cope with the deteriorating business environment. The company’s owner said they couldn’t access the hard currency to pay for the imports needed for their operations. South Sudan ranks fifth worst on the world’s corruption index and the only way to trade dollars is on the black market. The country’s only hope is a lasting peace deal but it is hard to see that happening while Kiir and Machar maintain their appetite for a proxy war.

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