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South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Report 217 / Africa

South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name

Refocusing international engagement as well as the peace negotiations is essential to stop South Sudan’s raging civil war from claiming ever more lives.

Executive Summary

On 15 December 2013 the world’s newest state descended into civil war. Continuing fighting has displaced more than 1,000,000 and killed over 10,000 while a humanitarian crisis threatens many more. Both South Sudanese and the international community were ill-prepared to prevent or halt the conflict: the nation’s closest allies did little to mediate leadership divisions within the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM and its army (SPLA) quickly split along divisions largely unaddressed from the independence war, resulting in the formation of the SPLA in Opposition. Were it not for the intervention of Uganda and allied rebel and militia groups, the SPLA would likely not have been able to hold Juba or recapture lost territory. The war risks tearing the country further apart and is pulling in regional states. Resolving the conflict requires not a quick fix but sustained domestic and international commitment. Governance, including SPLM and SPLA reform and communal relations, must be on the table. Religious and community leaders, civil society and women are critical to this process and must not be excluded.

Although the dispute within the SPLM that led to the conflict was primarily political, ethnic targeting, communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals. Dinka elements of the Presidential Guard and other security organs engaged in systematic violence against Nuer in Juba in the early days. Armed actors, including the Nuer White Army, responded by targeting Dinka and other civilians in more than a dozen locations. Other communities are being drawn into the conflict and there is an increasing possibility of more significant foreign intervention.

The regional organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), responded quickly. Three envoys, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin (Ethiopia), General Lazarus Sumbeiywo (Kenya) and General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dhabi (Sudan) shuttled between Juba, Addis Ababa, where peace talks have been held, and opposition-controlled territory and, after weeks of pressure and negotiation, obtained a cessation of hostilities. However, this was violated almost immediately, and fighting continues, as a monitoring and verification mission struggles to establish itself on the ground.

Neighbouring Uganda (also an IGAD member), as well as forces associated with Sudanese armed opposition groups, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), intervened early in support of the South Sudanese government. That in turn may yet trigger Sudan government support to the SPLA in Opposition. Announced plans for an IGAD-led force, about which there are critical mandate, composition and funding questions, raises the prospect of even greater regional involvement in the civil war.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hosting almost 70,000 civilians fleeing ethnic reprisals, but its badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias. It has already come under attack, including a fatal one in Jonglei, while protecting civilians. In at least five locations, South Sudanese seeking protection have been targeted and killed by armed actors in or around UNMISS bases. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from government officials and some opposition commanders and limitations on its freedom of movement are additional challenges. The reprioritisation of its mandated tasks has essentially divided the country in two for the beleaguered UNMISS: it remains impartial in one part, while supporting the government in another. This decision will do little to clarify its role for South Sudanese and should be reviewed before the mandate is renewed.

As peace talks stall, the civil war rages on. To prevent further catastrophe, the country’s leaders and its international partners need to consider a radical restructuring of the state. Propping up the government in Juba and polishing its legitimacy with a dose of political dialogue and a dash of power sharing will not end the conflict. New constituencies have to be admitted to a national dialogue and their perspectives respected, including armed groups and disaffected communities that go beyond the contending forces within the SPLM/A, as well as women and civil society more generally. These constituencies are critical to rebuilding the SPLM, increasing democratic space within and beyond the party, drafting a national constitution and preparing for credible national elections. If these processes are to be viable, they will not be able to proceed according to the pre-war timeline. Political commitments must match the new realities. The country needs fundamental reworking of the governance agreement between and within elites and communities if a negotiated settlement is to lead to a sustainable peace.

A girl rests on a rock above a refugee camp in DR Congo’s Kivu province, in 2008. MAGNUM/Jim Goldberg

Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention

Immediate palliative care is a vital response to the world's record numbers of refugees and internally displaced. But any sustainable solution to this global crisis must go further, buttressing international law and ending the wars that drive so many from their homes.

For those millions of people whose lives have been uprooted, whether escaping conflict, unchecked violence, or political repression, next week’s summit meetings in New York on the refugee crisis might as well be taking place in a parallel universe.

The outcome of the UN summit has already been decided, and the commitments made by the world’s governments fall far short of what’s needed to address a crisis of this magnitude. The agreed outcome document does recognise the scale of the challenge and reaffirms the rights of all refugees and migrants, which is itself significant in a time of rising xenophobia and eroding international standards. It also acknowledges that the protection of refugees is a shared global responsibility and commits to working toward a strengthened regime by which to better address this phenomenon.

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However, member states have not even been able to agree to resettle a bare minimum of 10 per cent of refugees annually, or indeed to any concrete measures to improve an untenable situation. Most importantly, the agreement lacks detail on the most vital issues of all: how states will prevent or resolve those conflicts driving mass migration, and how they will reinforce their fraying commitment to uphold international law and standards.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. There are over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, more than ever recorded. Overwhelmingly, this is a problem that affects the global south. Countries from Asia, the Middle East to Africa and Central America are both the primary sources and principal hosts of the displaced. Well over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are located in the developing world.

Worsening conflicts are mostly to blame for the rise in displacement. The Syrian war alone is responsible for driving some 12 million people from their homes since 2011. But many of the world’s displaced have been stuck in limbo for years, even decades, like most of the 5.2 million Palestinians registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency or some of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Failure to adequately cope with the influx risks further instability, whether because of immense pressures placed on host countries or because of the lost opportunities incurred by those forced to flee, millions of whom are children denied schooling.

Immediate palliative care is vital, but any sustainable solution to the crisis must go further. The outcome document for the UN summit is vague in its commitment to preventing conflict and resolving those currently in progress. Its focus, overwhelmingly, is on how to better manage the situation of people only after they become refugees.

A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future.

By many counts, the past five years have seen a rise in the frequency and intensity of deadly conflict. The increasing range of interests at play in these conflicts, both domestic and international, the weakening of the world’s security architecture, and rising geopolitical tensions have made resolving this violence much more challenging. Further, a sense of overwhelming crisis, financial pressures, domestic political constraints, and memories of recent failed interventions have, for many actors, encouraged a dangerous narrowing of foreign policy interests.

Globally, the top ten source countries for refugees account for 76 per cent of the total, and constitute in large part a list of those places where war prevails over peace; predatory state behaviour over benign. If past is prologue, this issue is not going to disappear any time soon. The overall problem of violence-triggered flight is longstanding in the cases of nearly all of those countries on the list. Indeed, it’s getting worse. Last year alone, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 12.4 million newly displaced; the last five years have seen a near 50 per cent increase in this phenomenon.

In this treacherous landscape, world leaders must address squarely the driving cause behind mass migration. And they must start by making better use of the global institutions they created and upholding the international legal framework they built. States must reassert the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law, including by unequivocally calling out transgressors and mobilising action to halt – and if need be, to prosecute – violations.

The UN system must be made more functional. A Security Council in a state of near paralysis on too many issues will not make the world safer. As its members seek consensus on a new Secretary-General, they would do well to choose for that post an individual with the skills, energy and independence required. The next leader of the UN should be prepared to harness the organisation’s formidable mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities for the better management of conflict. Even if Council members find agreement on key issues elusive, they should at least give the next Secretary-General the space to bring them together.

The failure to get to grips with the fundamentals of the refugee crisis – including in concrete follow-up to the September summit in New York – risks a damning judgment on the many states with the capacity to effect positive change. A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future. The human costs are already too high, and they are rising exponentially.