By Senanee Abeyawickrama
Terrorism, violence, government corruption, and economic crises have become rampant across the world. As our engrossment in one issue forces us to shy away from another, some issues tend to gain more traction in the global spotlight than others. Despite horrific human rights violations and never-ending conflict, South Sudan has hardly been a country to attract the world’s attention. This is not an attempt to assign blame, but rather a reflection on the world’s response. Given the decades of violence experienced by the greater MENA region, desensitization to its mass-scale atrocities is emerging. As callous as it may sound, this is a likely consequence of human nature. But the world has moved far beyond the days of silence, which once enabled the murder of hundreds of thousands during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. If the world is to fulfill its “Never Again” vow – policy makers and world leaders will have to continue to re-vamp its efforts in the perilous region.
In July of 2011, South Sudan was declared an independent state, making it the world’s newest country. Its decision to partition from Sudan was marked by a referendum that passed with 98% of the people’s vote. This was in the aftermath of a bloody civil war that lasted for almost 22 years. It was evident that the South Sudanese had hardly experienced life in a conflict-free society, and so its independence denoted a day of potential change. But their success and hope for prosperity was short-lived. With the liberation of the South Sudanese state came the fragmentation of a once unified 60 ethnicities. As other post-colonial and post-conflict societies have shown, racial or ethnic differences tend to become more defined during transition periods. In the case of South Sudan, the ruling political party, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, broke down amid a corrupt quest for power. The elected president, Salva Kiir, belonged to the Dinka tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in South Sudan. In a bold statement signifying unity he appointed Riek Machar, who belonged to the Nuer ethnic group, as his vice president. Yet tensions remained and the newly born country became more factionalized than ever before with Kiir and Machar turning against each other. In 2013, the South Sudanese government aborted a coup d’état that was allegedly orchestrated by Machar’s supporters. The loyalty of the people divided further as the Dinkas continued to support Kiir and the Nuers continued to support Machar. Thus, the political power struggle soon morphed in to a full-blown ethnic conflict.
The international community that warmly welcomed the birth of a new country is now faced with one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen. From a death toll nearing 300,000 to a reported 2.3 million people displaced, South Sudan is grappling with severe mass-scale atrocities. These chilling figures may soon approach that of Syria, prompting destabilization all across the region. As sectarian violence and ethnically motivated conflict is soon becoming a thematic feature of the MENA region, the global community will have to make robust decisions under the shadow of its R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine.
A natural fear of ethnic cleansing in South Sudan was resonant in the words expressed by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng – “the stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.” The 1994 Rwandan genocide, which took the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, is noted for its impact as a ‘wake-up call’ for the UN and the rest of the world. Although proactive measures have been taken to contain the crisis in South Sudan, its potential to tread the same waters as Rwanda still remains a grave concern. Currently, the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) has authorized the deployment of 17,000 troops with an approved budget of $1.08 billion. In comparison, UN presence in Rwanda involved only 2,548 military personnel with a $453.9 million budget allocation. Despite the stark improvements in deployment – immediate relief in South Sudan has proven to be insufficient. With no hope for humanitarian recovery and an inflation rate reaching a world-record high of 835%, South Sudan has secured itself a seat at the number one spot on the World Fragile States Index.
The situation in South Sudan may not be as treacherous as 1994 Rwanda, but it does seem to share similar warning-signals. The origins of conflict in both cases seem to emulate the other. In principle, the two countries were plagued by a destructive struggle for power, with ethnic consciousness acting as a strong impetus. The two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and Nuer, have categorically sided with president Kiir and former vice president Machar based on ethnic affiliation. A relentless desire for power, coupled with an influx of weapons, has given rise to an autocratic regime with no control or autonomy on violence. In 2013, Machar’s attempted coup d’état triggered the spread of violence all throughout the country as tensions became more salient. A similar landscape was witnessed in Rwanda when factions belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group attempted to oust the Hutu regime. In a reactionary expression of power, the Hutus killed opposition Tutsi members and thus set off an operation to commit genocide. Moreover, the discovery of mass graves in South Sudan is indicative of the fact that massacres have already taken place. This raises serious calls for concern that were lacking during similar pre-genocide massacres in Rwanda. Even military group ‘Interhamwe’, which swore to wipe out their Tutsi enemies, has found its South Sudanese counterpart in the militant organization that calls themselves ‘White Army.’
If tensions continue to rise in the already ignited civil conflict, South Sudan may revel in a fate similar to Rwanda. While UNMISS has been exemplary in supporting civilians on a scale never done before, it is not assured that all lessons have been learned from the 1994 genocide. Initially, the birth of South Sudan was celebrated and welcomed by the UN and US. In fact, the then United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described its independence as “the day of triumph for all who cherish the rights of people everywhere to govern themselves in liberty and law.” It was not long afterwards that violence broke-out and the presumed support of the international community began to diminish. This attracts a new spotlight on the oft-visited debate of military intervention. To what extent should the international community have overlooked the transition in South Sudan and how should it have preempted the outbreak of conflict? A brief glance over the history of South Sudan is telling of how little the country, which was previously a region, has experienced peace. The third parties that were instrumental in its liberation certainly bore at least a rudimentary level of obligation in ensuring its smooth transition to a post-conflict society. But the UN alone was likely to be powerless in the midst of rising tensions and inevitable outbreak of conflict.
The recognition of risk is possibly the most vital tool needed to circumvent conflict situations – a skill that the international community lagged behind on during the Rwandan crisis. Whether it was out of respect for sovereignty or a naive lack of precaution, the world watched silently as South Sudan entered in to a power sharing mechanism that had proven to cause problems in other parts of the MENA region. The two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer, sought political representation in the president and vice president respectively. While this may be an ideal set up, the young nation, at the time, lacked the simple checks and balances to consolidate such a system of shared power in a manner that was peaceful. Evidently, the wounds were too fresh for such an idyllic system to sustain. The bigger picture points to the UN’s role in ensuring the establishment of proper institutions, democratization, and more importantly, reconciliation – prior to enabling a power sharing system, which galvanized a contrary effect to what was intended.
Of course, there are many practical caveats that are tied to facilitating the growth of a new state – none of which offer simple solutions. But the need for cautious and timely measures by the international community is vital. Looking back at Rwanda only serves as an unsettling reminder of why the international community should be on full alert. Resemblances between the two crises that are too close for comfort, alongside the extremely volatile nature of South Sudan and its neighboring countries, demand a well-coordinated effort by the international community to deter any inclination towards ethnic cleansing.
Our actions, at this time of resilience, will determine how well the world upholds its ringing “Never Again” mantra.
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