Dreaming of Peace Again: South Sudan’s Search for Security and the Role of the International Community

26 April 2017

John Chua Junior Essay Entry –  1st Prize

“A day of triumph for all who cherish the rights of all people to govern themselves in liberty and law.” So extolled US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on what then seemed a dream come true, the birth of newly-independent South Sudan in 2011. This initial jubilation would prove short-lived, however, with the fledgling state descending into political infighting and civil war within two years. To date, the bloody power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar has taken as many as three hundred thousand lives and displaced three million civilians from their homes. Some four million South Sudanese continue to face severe food insecurity, with half the population lacking access to public health facilities.

International efforts to remedy this dire crisis have focussed on humanitarian aid. The 2016 UN Humanitarian Response Plan, for instance, brought together 197 partners to tackle the problems of food insecurity, poor health and lack of access to water and sanitation. Nevertheless, these efforts have been hamstrung by limited access to key areas such as central and southern Unity State. More concerning, reports of violence against aid workers grow increasingly common: July 2016, for instance, saw the gang-rape of five aid workers by government soldiers.

These challenges point to the root problem facing South Sudan: the ongoing violence along ethnic lines that continues to drive up the toll of dead or displaced. In other words, the only way to resolve the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is by first restoring peace to her lands. Yet, this seemingly straightforward conclusion continues to divide the international community. The December 2016 resolution tabling an arms embargo failed to pass muster at the UN Security Council, only securing seven of the requisite nine votes. Delegations that abstained including China and Russia highlighted President Kiir’s introduction of an “inclusive national dialogue” as a sign of the improving situation in South Sudan.

The reality is anything but: armed conflict has “[continued] unabated” in 2017, accentuating the need for the urgent reconsideration of such a proposal. An arms embargo would choke off the supply of munitions fuelling the current conflict, particularly heavy weapons such as Mi-24 attack helicopters and tanks employed in the 2016 Juba clashes. South Sudan’s lack of indigenous capability to recondition damaged hardware means that an embargo would decisively asphyxiate the inflow of weapons. Paired with further measures including an asset freeze targeted at key warlords and their networks, such a coordinated approach will greatly hamper the war-making capabilities of existing belligerents. At the very least, this will serve to bring Kiir back to the negotiating table to broker a more sustainable peace.

Similarly important is the need to restore law and order in the country. Flagrant human rights violations, notably the 2014 Bentiu massacre, have been committed with impunity. Worse, these continue unchecked even after the 2015 peace deal: the outbreak of violence in July 2016 witnessed at least 217 cases of rape by government and rebel troops. To this end, the creation and operationalisation of a Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) by the African Union would allow perpetuators of such atrocities to be brought to justice. The international element of a HCSS would confer much-needed neutrality and legitimacy to the judicial process. A HCSS would strengthen the rule of law in the land while holding even the entrenched political elite accountable, promoting peace in South Sudan.

Ultimately, the international community must break the cycle of violence in South Sudan.  At least sixteen thousand child soldiers have been recruited by militia forces, most under extreme duress. Education has been brought to a standstill: seventy percent of all schools have been shuttered, with South Sudan having the world’s lowest rate of children aged 5-16 in school. At risk is a reprise of the Second Sudanese Civil War, with a generation of 20,000 Lost Boys needlessly displaced or orphaned. It is thus imperative that efforts such as the mass release of child soldiers overseen by UNICEF in October 2016 be pursued. NGOs such as Project Education must continue the urgent task of rebuilding the devastated educational infrastructure of South Sudan.

Five years on, Rice’s hope-filled declarations on the dawn of the independence of the youngest nation in the world appear a fleeting dream long abandoned. For innumerable South Sudanese, the then-proclaimed “day of triumph” has given way instead to months of strife and years of struggle.  Yet this painful reality only underscores the critical need for the cessation of violence in the country. Nevertheless, the recent African Union, IGAD and UN joint agreement to persevere in seeking a lasting political solution demonstrates that the prospect of peace is possible. South Sudan needs to dream again: in coming together, the international community can and must restore the promised “liberty and law” to her war-torn lands.





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