Q&A - Three years on, South Sudan is locked in a cycle of violence
On 9 July, South Sudan will mark three years as an independent state. But the growing pains of the world’s newest country are evident as millions are trapped in a vicious cycle of violence. Amnesty International’s Elizabeth Ashamu Deng looks at some of the problems facing South Sudan today.
What is the current human rights situation in South Sudan?
The situation is catastrophic. Both government and opposition forces engaged in the fighting have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and other grave human rights violations and abuses.
Thousands of people, many of them civilians, have died over the past six months.
Women and girls have been raped or abducted and several of South Sudan’s largest towns are now deserted after homes and other civilian property have been destroyed.
There have also been attacks on medical facilities and places where civilians have sought protection, including churches and hospitals. Humanitarian agencies trying to reach those affected by the violence have faced intimidation and have had their equipment and supplies destroyed or looted.
Civilians from South Sudan’s two largest communities, the Dinka and the Nuer, as well as other groups like the Shilluk, have also been the targets of violence due to their ethnic identity and assumed political affiliations. Members of government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, as well as army defectors and allied militias loyal to ex-Vice-President Dr Riek Machar have systematically targeted civilians based on ethnicity, resulting in a cycle of revenge killings.
More than one million people have been forced to leave their homes, becoming internally displaced within South Sudan, while nearly 400,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
What is happening in the country now? What are people saying?
I was in Juba, South Sudan, in the two weeks leading up to Independence Day. We spoke with internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are sheltered within the two United Nations (UN) bases in Juba, many of whom fled to these bases in December after the conflict erupted. We also met with IDPs who have come to Juba from other parts of the country and are living in informal settlements.
Overwhelmingly, I was struck by the sadness of South Sudanese people as the country was preparing to mark three years of independence. People I met said they had little pride in their country. Hopes and dreams have been dashed by the current conflict. Many of those living on UN bases feel trapped, too afraid to circulate freely on the streets of the capital.
In meetings with government officials, we urged them to increase efforts to investigate abuses and bring those responsible to justice. Accountability is critical to improving public confidence in members of the security sector and as a deterrent to future abuses. We also called for members of the public to be able to engage in public debate about the country’s future without fear of reprisals.
Has South Sudan’s human rights situation improved or deteriorated since independence?
Prior to the conflict the situation was mixed.
On the positive side, South Sudan gave some early indications that it would abolish the death penalty. In December 2012, it voted in favour of a moratorium on capital punishment at the UN General Assembly. Prior to the conflict there were around 200 people sentenced to death in South Sudan; abolition would be a positive step.
Nevertheless, South Sudan has suffered from pervasive human rights concerns since independence, including the harassment of human rights activists and journalists, unlawful killings of civilians by the South Sudan Armed Forces (SPLA) and arbitrary detentions.
Since December 2013, the situation has gotten much worse. In addition to the widespread attacks on civilians, the UN has said that 4.9 million people across the country are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Some 3.7 million people are at high risk of food insecurity in the coming year due to fighting preventing farmers from working during planting season. South Sudan now faces the worst risk of famine in Africa since the mid-1980s.
Why is this conflict happening?
The conflict began as a political dispute within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) between President Kiir, and Dr Machar.
In early 2013, Machar, then Vice-President, openly declared his desire to challenge Kiir for the chairmanship of the SPLM and then run for the presidency in the 2015 general elections. That April, Kiir withdrew executive powers delegated to Machar and suspended the National Reconciliation Conference, an initiative chaired by Machar. Kiir also retired senior generals, replaced two state governors and, in July 2013, dismissed almost his entire cabinet, including Machar.
Machar, joined by senior members of the SPLM, denounced these decisions, accusing Kiir of corruption, paralyzing the SPLM party, forming a personal army and of unilateral decision-making influenced by “regional and ethnic lobbies”.
The splits in the SPLM leadership were evident at an internal meeting of its Political Bureau on 14 December 2013, the day before conflict broke out. At the meeting, Machar accused Kiir of offering no room for political dialogue and declared he and others would boycott a session scheduled for the following day.
After the session on 15 December, fighting broke out between soldiers of the Presidential Guard, quickly escalating into an armed confrontation in Juba between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar.Security forces split largely along ethnic lines, with many Dinka maintaining allegiance to the government, and many Nuer defecting to join the opposition, referred to as the SPLM/A in Opposition.
Both parties appeared to use ethnicity as an indicator of political allegiance, but as the conflict spread, and reprisal killings continued, ethnicity seemed to supersede politics as the primary motivation for killing. This has resulted in a cycle of revenge killings and has created deep rifts between communities.
Who is responsible for the human rights violations and abuses in this conflict?
Every side of the conflict bears some degree of responsibility.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, as well as the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have documented crimes committed by both government and opposition forces.
During the conflict, several large towns, such as Bor, Bentiu and Malakal, have alternated between control by government and non-government forces. Human rights monitors have found evidence that while under anti-government control, Dinka civilians were killed and fled in large numbers, while the same was true of Nuer civilians when government control was restored.
Are you surprised this is happening? Did you expect independence to be a fresh start for human rights in South Sudan?
Although South Sudan’s independence was widely celebrated, the new country already faced a range of problems. The armed forces were far from being an organized, trained, professional army, and were fractured by soldiers’ allegiances to former militia leaders.
South Sudan also had a weak justice system that failed to hold to account those responsible for human rights violations and abuses. Since South Sudan gained regional autonomy from Sudan in 2005, there have been clashes between the military and militia groups, and violence between various communities, resulting in large-scale displacement and thousands of civilian deaths. However, such violations and abuses have not been adequately investigated, and perpetrators have not been held to account. This leads individuals and groups affected to believe that the only way to ensure those responsible are punished and prevent future abuses is by taking the law into their own hands and engaging in reprisal attacks.
The current conflict in part stems from such problems and now shows little sign of abating. A number of agreements were made over the past few months. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January 2014 by representatives of the government and the opposition forces, which was renewed on 5 May, and followed by a 9 May agreement by Kiir and Machar “to resolve the conflict.” However, not only were these agreements ignored by both sides, but they also did not deter forces on either side from carrying out targeted violence against civilians.
What is the way forward for South Sudan?
The immediate priority is for both sides in the conflict to stop attacks on civilians.
Leaders on both sides must ensure that combatants responsible for violations and abuses are removed from the ranks and held accountable. Humanitarian agencies must be given unhindered access to all areas of South Sudan to help those in need.
Also, authorities in South Sudan must conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations into reports of unlawful killings, torture, and other ill-treatment and survivors must be provided with adequate reparations.
In addition, the international community should support the Commission of Inquiry, set up by the African Union earlier this year to investigate human rights violations and abuses committed during the conflict.
Justice is essential for human rights to become a reality in South Sudan. There must be no amnesties or political deals that would allow those found guilty of abuses to escape justice.