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Humanitarian Emergencies

Violence in South Sudan at a Savage Turning Point

A mother and children walk amongst flooded shelters at the Tomping IDP camp. Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 24 2014 (IPS) - After a week that saw a massacre inside a U.N. base and wide-scale ethnic-based slaughter in an oil-producing region, the international community is grappling with what, if any, options remain to save lives in South Sudan.

In a closed door meeting Wednesday, the Security Council was shown video from Bentiu, where between last Tuesday and Wednesday, rebels executed hundreds of civilians in a mosque and the town’s hospital.

“You have a situation where civilians are taken out of a mosque and killed and people are calling on the radio for the rape of women of certain ethnicity." -- Philippe Bolopion

In a terrible harkening to the Rwandan genocide, the U.N. reports that after capturing the town, rebels commandeered a local radio station and broadcast messages urging supporters to take revenge on Dinkas and Darfuris by raping women from those communities.

In a statement, the members of the Security Council “expressed horror and anger at the mass violence in Bentiu” and condemned the Friday attack on a U.N. camp in Bor, where at least 48 of the 5,000 mostly-Nuer residents it was sheltering were killed by a heavily armed mob that opened fire after breaking into the compound.

“The members of the Security Council strongly reiterated their demand for an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, and expressed their readiness to consider appropriate measures against those responsible,” the statement added.

The “measures” will likely entail targeted sanctions against officials linked to atrocities like those in Bentiu and Bor.  On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch publicly called on the Council to “impose sanctions on individuals in both government and opposition who are responsible for grave abuses.”

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama opened the door to travel bans and the freezing of assets of military and political leaders in South Sudan, but administration officials have yet to name individuals.

In many cases, the threat of U.S. action is enough to scare commanders, but U.N. sanctions would go farther in South Sudan, says Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“U.S. sanctions are a welcome development but a lot of the leaders involved in the current violence have bank accounts in neighbouring countries – U.S. sanctions alone would not be enough,” said Bolopion. “U.N. sanctions send a powerful message to the people on the ground that they will have to pay a price for their crimes.”

Violence in the world’s youngest country broke out in December, when gunfire erupted in capital, Juba, between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and breakaway factions of the SPLA that claim allegiance to former vice-president Riek Machar, himself sacked by Kiir during a putsch in July.

Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, Machar a Nuer, and the conflict, though it revolves in essence around unresolved questions of power, oil money and politics, has split the country along ethnic lines.

In December, the Security Council authorised 5,500 additional peacekeepers to assist the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), but bureaucratic wrangling, disputes among member states and an overstretched Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) have seen fewer than 700 arrive by April.

Should all 12,500 mandated “blue-helmets” deploy in short order, it is unclear if they’d be capable of doing much outside of bases where they’ve sheltered tens of thousands since December. But even this capability is called into question by the attack in Bor.

“This is not what the mission was designed for, this is not what the compounds were designed for,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General, told reporters.

Regional solution

The Security Council expressed support for the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry in South Sudan, though that effort has been slow to begin. This month, the commission announced it would meet with regional leaders to discuss the conflict, including Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, both under indictment by the International Criminal Court.

The commission will also meet with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose troops have been fighting alongside South Sudanese government forces – even as Ugandan representatives, as part of the regional bloc IGAD, attempt to broker peace at increasingly futile negotiations in Addis Ababa.

On Jan. 23, those talks saw the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement, only for it to be broken within hours. Between periods of convalescence, both sides have fought continuously since.

“We see that neither party is ready to, in any way, cease the hostilities,” Herve Ladsous, U.N. peacekeeping chief, told reporters after the Council session.

“The agreement on that, which was signed exactly to this day three months ago, has never been implemented. They do not give indication that they want to sincerely participate in the peace talks,” said Ladsous.

At the U.N., there was a sense that the executions and wanton murders in Bentiu had jarred delegates accustomed to a slow-burning but nonetheless deadly civil war, one that could always be addressed tomorrow, or the next week.

The Council quickly asked that the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights send human rights officers to Bentiu and launch an investigation there.

“You have a situation where civilians are taken out of a mosque and killed and people are calling on the radio for the rape of women of certain ethnicity… we have reached a turning point in the crisis where all bets are off,” Bolopion told IPS.

Despite signs of life at the Security Council, the solution in South Sudan likely will have to come from regional leaders, who until now have expressed neither neutrality nor a willingness to apply real pressure on Kiir and Machar.

IGAD has announced its intentions to replace Ugandan soldiers with a regional force, but that plan too has been slow in materialising and wouldn’t necessarily allay concerns over impartiality.

“These sanctions could help but they are not going to solve the problem,” said one high-ranking human rights official who spoke to IPS on the condition of anonymity. “I think the big players at the U.N. realise that it’s key for the regional powers to be more active and do the right thing.”

“IGAD is key and the neighbours are key, if they don’t solve it politically, it will get much worse,” the source added.

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