There has been some recent developments on the violence in South Sudan that began December 15th of last year. A nascent ceasefire deal was signed which both sides claimed was almost immediately violated and on January 29th the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) released seven of the eleven detainees with four remaining in custody. Mixed messages from the GOSS on the fate of the remaining four detainees range from “will definitely be released” to facing trial for treason. The release of the detainees can be seen as a gesture of good faith and an adherence to the deal that was struck in Addis as a part of the ceasefire negotiations. However, the GOSS’s decision to hold onto four of the detainees and potentially charge them with treason could derail the entire peace process.
In light of these recent developments and ongoing speculations on what the future of South Sudan will look like, contributors to The Global Present (Ian, Mike, and Shayna) have gotten together for a conversation on the issues.
Ian Proctor: It certainly is hard to determine what to make of the situation in South Sudan. It seems that the adage of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” surfaces. We get a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH), residual criminal violence still plagues the collections of IDPs. A formal declaration to the end of the armed conflict is reached, the state decides that it will seek to imprison and try Machar as the coup leader while seeking to negotiate with him. Deeper still, latent social rifts among the population of South Sudan, namely the political divisions along ethnic lines, threaten to undermine the supposed negative peace sought after by the leaders on each side. I’m doubtful, as most are, that a lasting cessation to the violence will stick without some deeper societal transformations.
Mike Brand: It’s really disconcerting as Ian says. Another major piece of this puzzle is Uganda’s role. Uganda has had a number of troops in South Sudan as well as heavy air support (helicopters and planes) available for bombing during the campaigns to take back the town of Bor. Reports from the Small Arms Survey state that less than 20% of the troops that took back Bor from the rebels on the 16th of January were from the SPLA. The rest were Ugandan troops. Similarly external forces were used to push back into Malakal with support from the SPLM-N, the same group that Kiir recently pledged to cease supporting in a series of talks and deals with Bashir. One has to wonder, if Uganda eventually fully pulls out of South Sudan due to external pressure from the region and the larger international community, if Kiir’s forces can hold onto key points within South Sudan if the peace process goes sideways and the rebels decide to return to violence.
Shayna McCready: Another fundamental aspect of this protracted situation is the often complex roles managed across the international community’s leading authorities. While the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) treads the delicate diplomatic/humanitarian role in facilitating ceasefire agreements whilst fulfilling its Chapter VII mandate, it must also maintain functionality in appeasing the GOSS (in order to potentially set the seeds for future dialogue and conflict transformation). Similar to many civil conflicts erupting across the globe where millions experience increasing levels of violence and forced displacement, we’ve seemed to reach the chicken or the egg ultimatum: to primarily support social infrastructure to rebuild fractured governance or to immediately focus attention on fulfilling their moral role in alleviating humanitarian needs for civilians and noncombatants suffering amidst the strife. Severely limited by its mandate, there is obvious danger in devolving away from the need to support the government AND simultaneously positively engage without endorsing the opposition. Following last week’s ceasefire and today’s news that Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin has announced the release of the remaining detainees in time to join scheduled peace talks on Feb. 7, perhaps one can argue, at least hypothetically, that the mechanisms of Track I diplomacy are suddenly on the move. Therefore, if we want to really hone in on addressing the core issues of this conflict, it is time to meaningfully engage with civilians and combatants experiencing the pure dynamics of this conflict on the ground and in real time.
Ian Proctor: There is no denying the regional implications here Mike. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, two days ago granted asylum to seven of the leaders of Machar’s counter-movement and armed opposition. More and more, the international community embodied in the UN and its components has devolved responsibility to regional organizations like the EU, AU, and ASEAN to tend to crises within their areas of oversight. Partially, this is due to the international financial atmosphere, causing regions to turn their security sights to situations closer to their borders, an inward-looking view strategically adopted by policy experts for those organizations. Shayna raises an interesting point as well. Accompanying the Track I diplomacy should be Track II efforts to bring civil society actors into the peace-making and -building fold. My question would be: is there sufficient civil society development to absorb the responsibilities for longer-term structural change?
Shayna McCready: Interesting to note, at a recent UN special event in New York running up to April’s 20th anniversary commemorating the 1994 Rwandan genocide, attendees committed to understanding and acting on the early warning of mass atrocities. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson emphasized the fulcrum of humanitarian crisis in stating that, “the demonization […] of people of different faiths or ethnic belonging is one of the most toxic deeds of which human beings are capable. It undermines the fundamental principle that must lie at the heart of human interaction – and in fact of the United Nations – the incontrovertible truth of every human being’s equal value”. In trying times such as these, I wonder how many South Sudanese civilians interpret UN rhetoric from local action? More specifically, how do they evaluate their referenced human value within their capacity to engage in the necessary Track II approaches to conflict transformation?
Mike Brand: Wow, there are a lot of good points to weigh in on. Ian you definitely made some good points about the ethnic divisions and social rifts within South Sudanese society. And Shayna and Ian both mentioned some important points about Track I and Track II diplomacy and how the peace effort should be carried forward as well as the role that UNMISS should be playing. Looking at the way the conflict has evolved and has drifted towards divisions along not only political but also ethnic lines further reiterates the social divisions and fissures that were never addressed during the last peace negotiations through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and independence which I spoke about briefly in an earlier post. It’s definitely something that needs to be addressed if there is to be a lasting peace in South Sudan and civil society, and by this I do not mean just NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) but local community based organizations (CBOs) as well as religious groups, women’s groups, youth groups, community leaders, etc.). Many of these groups are not registered nor do they have the same sort of standing that a larger recognized NGO would but they are still hugely important to the conversation and have a lot of buy-in and influence within the population in various regions. So I would say beyond Track I and Track II efforts there should be a wider reaching multi-track effort that is pursued in the effort to create a nationwide dialogue which various experts have also called for.
Moving to Shayna’s point about UNMISS’s role; it’s definitely a big question. Some have been praising UNMISS for their quick reaction to allow for civilians to take shelter in their compounds and actually provide protection to the civilians. However, others have criticized the peacekeeping mission for not going beyond their compounds to protect civilians outside of their fences. Something that is within their Chapter VII mandate but perhaps is beyond their capabilities with limited troops, munitions, and logistical capabilities. Another point about their role that is quite interesting is that the Cessation of Hostilities (COH) that was signed by the GOSS and the rebels outlined that the Monitoring and Verification Team (MVT) who would monitor the COH’s implementation would not include UNMISS. Leaving them outside of the process for monitoring the ceasefire in the country is an interesting move and outside what many DPKO missions are tasked with doing. It remains to be seen exactly who will make up the monitoring team and how that will work but it should be interesting to see how effective they are at monitoring the COH if it is implemented. Lastly on UNMISS, Salva Kiir, and other members of his government, have recently had some very inflammatory remarks about the UN and the UNMISS mission. Some of the most antagonistic rhetoric came from South Sudan’s Information Ministry spokesman John Kelei when he said, “We are not just at war against Riek Machar’s rebels but also the U.N.”
Ian, to your point about Kenyatta and the detainees the big question now remains whether or not they will be able to play a role in the further negotiations and peace talks as well as the status of the remaining detainees still in South Sudan.
The Global Present:
The situation in South Sudan is quite bleak at the moment. However, it does not have to remain that way. There will be a lot of developments in the coming months and The Global Present will remain active in commenting on the situation as it evolves.
Thank you to the contributors who participated in this discussion forum. The Global Present will post more discussions like this periodically on important world events and issues. Have a question or comment for our contributors? Join the discussion and leave a comment below.