The International Community Can’t Forget About South Sudan
In July 2011, South Sudan became independent from Sudan, following six years of autonomy and 20 years of brutal war. Only two years later, a mostly ethnic divide in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which led the independence movement for the country, pitted President Salva Kiir against his Vice President, Riek Machar. Their rival militias clashed, fueled by long-standing tension between the Dinka and Nuer, the country’s largest and second largest ethnic groups, respectively. Now that the two sides have once again agreed on a peace accord based on power sharing, the question is how to solidify an accord that remains extremely fragile, amid a powerful urge for revenge and retribution by some on both sides.
A brief review of the horrifying toll the war has exacted will point to the task that lies ahead to alleviate the suffering that people of South Sudan have experienced.
According to statistics, hundreds of thousands lost their lives in South Sudan, and roughly 8.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, close to 1.5 million are internally displaced and 2.2 million are refugees; more than 1.9 million people, largely women and children, are acutely malnourished, while a significant part of the country has been plunged into famine.
Indeed, children have suffered the most. As many as 13,000 children were recruited by both sides as child soldiers, and young girls were raped. Rape is employed as a weapon of war and as an incentive for recruitment for soldiers. There’s also looting, pillaging, and other horrible crimes.
The failure to stop these atrocities from recurring in many different countries points to how morally bankrupt many in these countries are, and how apathetic the international community has become, especially the United Nations Security Council. In addition, alliances such as the Arab League and the African Union have long since forfeited their commitment to ensuring peace, security, and economic progress for their member states, thereby surrendering their moral obligations to human rights.
Several agreements between the rival factions in South Sudan have been signed over the past few years, but fail to address the central issues of leadership and distribution of resources. The country still faces a plethora of national crises, including persistent low-level violence, poor governance, weak institutions, and a lack of law enforcement. Thus, it is critically important for the government to fully adhere to all the provisions of the new accord — and they need the strong support of the international community to hold the peace agreement together.
There are several critical measures that the South Sudanese government and the international community should undertake to ensure the country does not descend back into violence.
The South Sudanese government must first invest in healthcare, education, clean water, and agriculture rather than overspending on security. Moreover, the government should embark on real social and political reforms, including ethnic equality, freedom of religion, the right to vote, adherence to the rule of law, and freedom of the press and assembly. Additionally, the government must prevent any human rights violations while weeding out corruption; this is central to the country’s future prosperity and growth.
These changes can happen only by addressing ethnic conflicts through political discourse, instead of reverting back to violence.
Other critical measures include reconstituting the parliament, reforming the abusive national security and intelligence services, uniting the tens of thousands in rival militias into a single army, and preventing local violence from festering. In addition, South Sudanese elite, civil society, and religious leaders must work together to buttress the government.
Finally, South Sudan needs to establish a legally binding and internationally-monitored succession of power, which remains critical to preventing deadly rivalries. The country’s leaders should broaden power sharing, and under no circumstances settle on a winner-take-all approach in the upcoming 2022 election.
The international community has a critical role to play to prevent such calamities, and cannot remain silent. It must direct serious resources to this effort.
Given that South Sudan is lucrative in oil resources, Western oil companies should work with the South Sudanese government to export crude oil and refine oil for internal consumption. Where foreign aid is provided, it must be granted for specific projects, with monitoring and accountability enacted by international donors.
The US in particular, which helped broker the independence of South Sudan, should play a direct role. President Biden, who is extremely in tune and sensitive to human right issues, will certainly be more disposed to help South Sudan. More important, however, is for the international community to wake up and quickly intercede to prevent this horrifying conflict from spinning out of control once again.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.