Discuss the roles of different actors in the reconciliation process in South Sudan | HART Prize for Human Rights

21 April 2016


This essay, by Daniel Cullen, received first prize in the 2016 HART Prize for Human Rights, Senior Essay Category.


In December 2013, two weeks after the start of South Sudan’s recent internal conflict, South Sudanese academic Jok Madut Jok told a New York Times interviewer: “The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for. No one will be responsible for their deaths.”[1] It was almost two years later, in August 2015, that the two men in question – President Salva Kiir, and former Vice President turned rebel leader Riek Machar – did finally smile, shake hands, and put pen to paper on an agreement to end hostilities and begin a process of national reconciliation. [2]


Among the litany of horrors recorded in the interim have been indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, mass displacement, abductions and disappearances, and the forced conscription of adults and children.[3] The report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCISS) found that both Kiir’s government forces and opposition forces allied to Machar had committed serious human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.[4] The outcome for the people of South Sudan has been humanitarian crisis on a grand scale,[5] and the total number of those killed remains unknown.


Much of the formal peace process during 2014 and 2015 focused on bringing ‘the two men’ to the negotiating table. Mediation talks were held under the oversight of a regional trade body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in Addis Ababa.[6] The centrality of Kiir and Machar, present on behalf of the two sides they were thought (or hoped) to control, reflected the initial source of the unrest, as divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party led to violence between rival army factions. As a result, the path to resolution of the conflict has often been seen as a matter of finding a balance in the sharing of power – at the expense of underlying issues.[7]


The IGAD mediation process was notable for its extensive involvement of outside actors. The talks became known as the ‘IGAD-Plus’ initiative, due to the presence of states beyond the group’s East African bloc, with representatives from the so-called ‘Troika’ group (the US, the UK and Norway, responsible for financing the talks), China, the European Union and the African Union joining.[8] At the time of the signing of the final peace agreement, both parties still held reservations, but were reportedly forced to proceed under pressure from frustrated international partners.[9]


Significant regional power dynamics were also evident around the talks. In June 2015, Kenya – seen, along with the Ethiopian hosts, to be vying for control of the process – hosted a parallel meeting between Kiir, Machar and a group of former political detainees.[10] Further parallel meetings were convened in Tanzania, intended to reunify the divided factions within the SPLM.[11] Meanwhile, both Uganda and Sudan, present as IGAD member states, had individual interests in the conflict: Uganda had deployed troops into South Sudan at the request of the government, while in certain areas Sudan was alleged to be providing logistical and intelligence support to the opposition.[12]


Critically, there was a much wider group of key actors who were not present for these high-level negotiations. Among the non-violent parties ‘crowded out’ from the dialogue have been independent civil society organizations, less powerful political parties, women’s groups, youth representatives, and the representatives of traditional authorities.[13] For a deeper national reconciliation to take hold beyond the formal peace process, a more nuanced strategy is required; in the country’s fragmented institutional landscape, influence in the area of peacebuilding and reconciliation cannot necessarily be secured through the exercise of central state power alone.


Peacebuilding at the local level, rather than solely among political and military elites, will therefore be pivotal. The recent crisis is the latest in many decades of insecurity which have severely damaged inter-communal relations, subsuming what were low-level local tensions into the context of increasingly heavily armed conflicts.[14] The AUCISS report recognised this pattern, stating that: “The multiple conflicts in South[ern] Sudan’s history have negatively impacted relations at multiple levels … a peace and reconciliation agenda that proceeds from the position that a genuine national dialogue – one that past peace initiatives have been unable to guarantee – is imperative”.[15]


There has been a history of successful grassroots peace efforts, particularly those orchestrated by religious bodies.[16] The 1999 Wunlit Conference, for example, convened by the then-New Sudan Council of Churches, has been celebrated for bringing together feuding community representatives around the West Bank of the Nile to commit to peaceful relations.[17] Similarly, the Kuron Peace Village project in Eastern Equatoria State, set up by the Catholic Diocese of Torit, provides another lauded example of ‘people-to-people’ peacebuilding methods.[18] This approach can nonetheless bring its own complications: Alex de Waal has noted the potential for local peace conferences to be used to redefine larger political and military conflicts as mere inter-communal disputes.[19]


External observers of the conflict have at times relied on reductive narratives around the role of inter-communal violence.[20] In many areas, violence beginning with political and military tensions took on an ethnic dimension, with reports of attacks based on ethnicity (or perceived ethnicity) fuelling fear and consequent cycles of retaliation.[21] This built upon a bitter history of leaders using identity to mobilise support behind their own political goals.[22] Simplified understandings of this phenomenon meant that less attention was paid to other driving factors, such as the failures of post-independence governance, issues of corruption and neopatrimonialism, a high level of militarisation across society and unresolved historic grievances.[23]


It is clear that if future peace is to be ensured, sincere efforts to address these underlying issues must be demonstrated – including holding to account those responsible for past crimes. In January 2016, President Kiir issued a rare public apology, saying: “I apologise on behalf of the SPLM to the people of South Sudan for the suffering they are going through as a result of war… People will have to account for the crimes they have committed.”[24] While a Truth, Reconciliation and Healing Commission and a Compensation and Reparations Authority are due to be established,[25] Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs have called for the creation of an independent hybrid court, with international jurists and prosecutors, to try crimes committed during the conflict.[26]


Machar was recently reappointed to high office, as Kiir’s Vice President.[27] The responsibility of those once again entrusted with power is now to ensure that the reconciliation process is a genuinely inclusive one, incorporating a range of South Sudanese voices, and which makes steps to take on the difficult, sensitive issues of accountability and governance. Jok has written that such an approach is essential for sustainable peace: “A peace project that does not address the root causes of the conflict, make a commitment for institutional reforms, promise the provision of economic development and promise to increase the welfare of the citizen would simply be postponing the conflict for a while before it erupts again.”[28]


[1] Kulish, N., ‘Old rivalries reignited a fuse in South Sudan’, New York Times, 31 December 2013, available online at:

[2] Sudan Tribune, ‘S. Sudan’s Kiir signs final peace accord’, Sudan Tribune, 26 August 2015, available online at:

[3] African Union (2015) ‘Final report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan’, available online at:, para. 1127; United Nations Mission in South Sudan (2015) ‘The State of Human Rights in the Protracted Conflict in South Sudan’, available online at:, p3.

[4] Supra at note 3, paras. 1125-6, 1131, 1133.

[5] The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that there are 5.1 million people now in need of humanitarian assistance. As of August 2015, it was estimated that there were 2.2 million people displaced, including 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). See UNOCHA, ‘South Sudan: Humanitarian community appeals for $1.3 billion to assist 5.1 million people in need’, 19 January 2016, available online at:; UNOCHA (2015) ‘Under-Secretary General Stephen O’Brien: Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, New York, 25 August 2015’, available online at:

[6] International Crisis Group (2015) South Sudan: Keeping faith with the IGAD peace process, available online at:

[7] Awolich, A. (2015b) ‘The mediation pendulum and the challenges that underlie the peace implementation in South Sudan’, Juba: The Sudd Institute, available online at:, p8;

[8] Ibid., p9.

[9] Ibid., p13.

[10] Sudan Tribune, ‘South Sudanese rival leaders urged to make proposals over outstanding issues’, Sudan Tribune, 28 June 2015, available online at:; Supra at note 7, p12.

[11] Rolandsen, O. H., et al. (2015) ‘A year of South Sudan’s third civil war’, International Area Studies Review, 18(1), p97; Supra at note 7, p1, 10.

[12] Supra at note 7, p9.

[13] Supra at note 7, p7.

[14] Jok, J. M., (2015) ‘National reconciliation in South Sudan: How to translate political settlements into peace in the country’, Juba: Sudd Institute, available online at:, p13.

[15] Supra at note 3, para. 990.

[16] See, for example, the work of the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, led by religious leaders and chaired by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul: See also Sudan Tribune, ‘S. Sudan’s Council of Churches unveil peace plan’, Sudan Tribune, 18 April 2015, available online at:

[17] Supra at note 14, p5-6.

[18] Supra at note 15, p3.

[19] de Waal, A., ‘When kleptocracy becomes insolvent: Brute causes of the civil war in South Sudan’, African Affairs, 113(452), p368-9.

[20] See for example: Remy, J-P., ‘Bloodshed continues in South Sudan as warring groups remain deadlocked’, The Guardian, 11 February 2014, available online at:; van Dijken, K., ‘South Sudan ravaged by ethnic violence’, Al Jazeera, 3 February 2014, available at:

[21] A 2014 Oxfam publication, Above and beyond: Voices of hope from South Sudan, documented stories of solidarity between communities and ethnic groups, where supposed enemies had provided sanctuary and often risked their own lives to save neighbours and strangers. See Oxfam (2014) Above and beyond: Voices of hope from South Sudan, Juba: Oxfam, available online at:

[22] Awolich, A. (2015a) ‘South Sudan’s national identity challenge: The interplay between fragmented social structure and elite’s negative role’, Juba: Sudd Institute, available online at:; Supra at note 19.

[23] Rolandsen, O. (2015) ‘Another civil war in South Sudan: the failure of guerrilla government?’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 9(1), pp163-174.

[24] Sudan Tribune, ‘President Kiir apologises for the December 2013 war’, Sudan Tribune, 7 January 2016, available online at:

[25] Radio Tamazuj, ‘Explaining South Sudan’s peace deal (22): Transitional justice mechanisms’, Radio Tamazuj, 9 November 2015, available online at:

[26] Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others, ‘Joint letter to the African Union Commission Chairperson regarding South Sudan’, 23 September 2015, available online at:; Scott, K., ‘Op-Ed: Accountability in South Sudan cannot wait for peace – but could foster it’, 9 July 2015, available online at:

[27] Sudan Tribune, ‘SPLM-IO welcomes Machar’s appointment as South Sudan’s First Vice President’, Sudan Tribune, 12 February 2016, available online at:

[28] Supra at note 15, p16.

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