It has been a short and turbulent life for South Sudan, a nation born just five years ago. Civil war flared less than two years later, but a power-sharing agreement seemed to heal the rift. That deal collapsed weeks ago and South Sudan is again on the brink of upheaval. Even though United Nations peacekeepers have failed to keep the peace, the U.N. this month voted to boost its peacekeeping presence there, a move that Juba has challenged. The world must bring all its resources to bear to bring peace back to South Sudan.
Conflict has long dominated life among Sudanese. When Sudan was a single country, there were two north-south civil wars: The first lasted from 1955 to 1971, while the second was even longer, extending from 1983 to 2005. Peace negotiations resulted in independence for South Sudan in 2011, but the country descended again into ethnic conflict by 2013, a bloody struggle that resulted in as many as 300,000 deaths, 1 million internally displaced refugees and another 400,000 refugees who fled to neighboring states.
That fight was concluded by an international-brokered August 2015 peace agreement that installed Riek Machar, head of the Nuer, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group, as first vice president under President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka, the country’s largest ethnic group. Other provisions set aside posts and revenue for each man and his faction, as well as an electoral and constitution-writing process.
As the civil war had begun with Machar’s dismissal from that same post, odds were long that this deal would survive. Pessimism proved apt when fighting broke out again last month, and Machar fled the capital, refusing to return without international protection. Kiri’s government says Machar’s decision to leave meant that he was abandoning the peace deal; Machar countered that the president’s selection of a replacement for him effectively ended the agreement.
Nearly 300 people have been killed since fighting resumed in July. The U.N. believes that more than 35,000 others have sought protection at its base in Juba and more than 100,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries.
In response, the U.N. Security Council voted this month to extend the mandate of the existing peacekeeping mission for at least three more months, boost its current 12,000 personnel by an additional 4,000-strong “regional protection force” composed of African troops, and extend its mandate to use more force if necessary. The resolution also threatens to impose an arms embargo against the country, which in theory provides the U.N. leverage over the Kiir government.
That leverage will be needed. After the Kiir government initially opposed the U.N. decision on grounds that it could “allow our country to be taken over by the U.N.,” Kiir modified the position but still expressed its “serious concerns” over the move and said the deployment of more peacekeepers must not result in U.N. intervention in the country’s domestic affairs. Its opposition likely stems from that last provision: While both sides of the fighting have committed atrocities, government forces were responsible for the worst acts and the prospect of U.N. forces weighing in could tip the balance in the fighting — as well as expose government officials to international sanctions.
Unfortunately, the U.N. record does not inspire confidence. There are reports that U.N. peacekeepers did not respond to pleas for help last month as soldiers raped and murdered civilians outside the U.N. camp in Juba. U.N. workers have been harassed and attacked, and in some cases killed.
Japan has deployed its peacekeepers to the U.N. mission in South Sudan since 2012. Its roughly 350-strong Ground Self-Defense Force members engage in engineering missions. The government is now reportedly contemplating adding a new duty to the GSDF members to aid other troops and U.N. and NGO workers under attack — a mission made possible by the contentious security legislation enacted last year.
Deploying the additional 4,000 troops will take weeks, if not months. During that time the humanitarian crisis will worsen. The government’s funds have been depleted by the fighting and essential infrastructure crippled or neglected by war. Food production has been crippled and the price of food staples has skyrocketed; inflation is 600 percent. The U.N. believes that 4.8 million people are in urgent need of food and nutritional assistance; a quarter of a million children face severely acute malnutrition. The international community has provided more than $500 million in aid, but that is less than half the amount that is needed. The ability of the U.N. to help is severely restricted if the government no longer sees it as a neutral party — which seems to be the case as U.N. passports are seized and aid flights restricted.
Diplomacy is the only possible solution. The two sides are evenly matched and neighboring states have stakes in outcomes, which means that they will ensure their partners can fight on. One possible key actor in South Sudan is China. The two countries have close economic ties: China financed and defended the pipeline that sends oil to the world. At one time, South Sudan provided about 5 percent of China’s oil imports and the China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 percent of South Sudan’s oil fields. South Sudan has asked China for a $1.9 billion loan — almost 20 percent of the country’s GDP — to develop oil fields and infrastructure. This relationship affords Beijing considerable influence — if it cares to use it.
The greatest danger is that decades of war have left South Sudanese feeling that conflict is inseparable from life. There must be more than political reconciliation. South Sudan will only realize lasting peace when all its people regardless of ethnicity feel that they are full citizens with equal rights.
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