Within 24 hours of our arrival on a visit to the South Sudan capital Juba in July, civil society representatives told us in no uncertain terms that their country is headed back to war. For a nation that has experienced generations of conflict characterized by unspeakable atrocities and group-targeted violence that has left society deeply traumatized, the prospect that the situation may yet again deteriorate is terrifying. Yet this outcome is not inevitable: the international community can and should take action to avert a future crisis and yet more lives lost.
We were there as part of a delegation from the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, part of the center’s ongoing work to promote justice and accountability and to prevent future mass atrocities in South Sudan. Within its first four years after the U.S. supported independence of South Sudan in 2013, the conflict that broke out in the aftermath had resulted in the deaths of more than 380,000 people and the displacement of 4 million, creating what remains to this day the largest refugee crisis in Africa.
Parties to the conflict have targeted civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and perceived political affiliation throughout, pitting ethnic groups and tribes against one another. In recent years, as parties to the conflict have repeatedly stalled on implementing a fragile peace agreement, hostilities have persisted in pockets throughout the country, such as Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile, Western Bahr-el-Ghazal, and the Equatorias. Government and opposition forces have actively clashed, but they have also fought proxy wars using localized militias and other armed groups. All parties have inflicted brutal, interpersonal violence against civilians — often on the basis of their ethnicity or perceived political affiliation — including women, children, and elderly persons. According to a recent report issued by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), 549 people were killed and 121 people were subject to conflict-related sexual violence in a three-month period alone in early 2022.
During our visit to Juba, President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar confirmed that they too feared an imminent resumption of conflict when they announced their intention to further delay the implementation of the peace agreement — and with it, the national elections — by two years. In an Aug. 4 public address announcing the decision, Kiir explained, “We don’t want to rush you into an election that will take us back to war,” he stated. However, it is difficult not to interpret the delay as a blatant attempt by the country’s leaders, who have never been held to account for their role in perpetrating atrocities, to prolong their time in power.
With the decision to delay implementation of the peace agreement, the next two years will be a critical period for South Sudan. According to a statement by Kiir, the government will prioritize three provisions of the peace agreement that he states are necessary preconditions of a safe election: unification of the national army; establishment of a constitution; and the administration of a national census. Kiir stated that he would “redouble” efforts on each of these initiatives to which he and other parties to the conflict committed in 2018 and for which little demonstrable progress has been made to date.
Risks of a Dangerous Path
However, accomplishing these milestones as currently outlined carries risks that could set the country down a dangerous path, as we warned in our February 2022 report. First, hasty or poorly planned unification of government and opposition forces could cause infighting within the army — with fissures forming across ethnic lines — which could spill over into full-scale civil war as it did in 2016. Second, the constitution-making process may further alienate holdouts to the peace agreement (particularly the National Salvation Front [NAS] led by Thomas Cirilo) who feel that the peace process has excluded them and their constituents. Such groups could use violence against civilians of other ethnic groups to make their voices heard — a tactic that they have used on countless occasions. Third, efforts to conduct a national census may increase pressure on South Sudanese refugees living abroad to return even though the conditions are not suitable.
Despite these risks and without any demonstrable sign that the country’s leaders will be held to account or be incentivized to change their behavior, the international community continues to press the South Sudanese government to implement the peace agreement in full. On Sept. 1, the Revitalized Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), which is the international body that is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the peace agreement, approved the government’s decision to extend the transitional period for another two years. The United States, Norway, and United Kingdom (known as “the Troika” in relation to South Sudan conflict) abstained from the vote to approve the extension, expressing their desire to see demonstrable progress on fundamental commitments under the peace agreement.
Against this backdrop, one official from a foreign government we met in Juba lamented, “We’re trying to fix the plane while it’s already in a nosedive and the engine has fallen off.” But the dire situation should not be used as an excuse for inaction — especially when the immense harm inflicted on civilians may grow even worse. There are steps that can and should be taken to avert a further deterioration of the situation.
The US Needs to Signal That it is Not Retreating
The international community should not let the South Sudanese government continue to hide behind and stall on a flawed peace process while civilians suffer. The United States has a special role to play given that it was a central player in South Sudan’s movement to gain independence from Sudan after decades of brutal civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. To this day, the United States is the largest single donor to the country. Having recently withdrawn its funding from both the ceasefire and peace agreement monitoring mechanisms, the United States needs to signal that it is not retreating.
Rather, the United States has an opportunity to strengthen engagement by articulating a new vision and reinvigorating its work with the Troika and other stakeholders. In particular, those who have committed atrocity crimes — including those in senior leadership positions — should be held to account for their actions in a court of law such as the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which the parties are required to establish under the peace agreement and which would have authority to prosecute those responsible for international crimes.
In addition, the United States should increase support to processes that address conflict-driving grievances and promote efforts to improve the quality of available information about the conflict, such as by supporting an updated study on the number of individuals who have been killed in the course of the conflict, research that was last conducted in 2018 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The world must remain committed to supporting the people of South Sudan and the civil society organizations in the country who are working hard to build a peaceful future. We should do all we can to prevent the country’s further descent into catastrophe.